October 3, 2000


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Changing contours of Indo-Russian ties Ramesh Menon

As 48 year-old Russian President Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin visits India, many eyes are on the changing contours of Indo-Russian ties. New Delhi is watching with interest as Russia now sees India and China as major countervailing forces in a uni-polar world.

Shortly before he flew in, Putin, a former KGB spy, said in Moscow that India played a major role in world politics now and Russia would play a complementary role. There may be a fruitful economic relationship flowering if the right moves are made.

It is actually the scent of money, honey.

Russia today sees tremendous economic opportunities in India. It badly needs money. India has the market to provide it.

India needs military equipment. It needs technology to run nuclear power plants. It needs a better fleet of aircraft. It needs an aircraft carrier to call itself a blue water navy. It needs help to combat Islamic and narco-terrorism.

A judo expert, Putin, whose determination is as strong as his biceps, shouts out to India that he can deliver this.

Russia has always been a dependable ally.

Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, fresh from a visit to the United States that gave him a lot of mileage at home, is keen to build inroads to Russia. If Putin has Chechnya, Vajpayee has Kashmir. They can talk the same language.

Russia may not be as strong as before it got dismembered. But it is still a super power. It still has a seat in the United Nations Security Council. It also has a solid foundation in science and technology.

Madhavan K Palat, a keen Russia watcher from the Centre for Historical Studies at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, points out: "After the cold war, the United States and Russia are no more enemies and a relationship with one will not endanger the other. India can actually develop a new kind of relationship that is not one dimensional."

Putin is also strongly backing India's candidature for permanent membership to the Security Council.

After Chechnya, Russia realises the importance of Islamic terrorism. And the danger of it spreading. Russia therefore understands what India is facing in Kashmir. It has consistently maintained said that the issue has to be solved bilaterally and not on the battlefield.

Palat says that India should hold hands with Russia and the United States to contain Pakistan's role in militancy and narco-terrorism. This has been an area Putin is gravely concerned about.

The affable Russian Ambassador to India, Alaxander Kadakin, says that Russia will support Indian initiatives in fighting international terrorism.

For India, this should sound good.

It is silly to dismiss Russia as just another Third World country with a collapsed economy. Russia is still a super power. It has capabilities that India does not have.

Russia now stands to gain from friendship with India, but India can too gain if it plays its cards carefully. Russia has been a very dependable ally and there is no reason why that cannot continue.

The government has taken Putin's visit seriously. A ministry of external affairs official labelled it as an opportunity to revamp and consolidate Indo-Russian relations.

Political commentator C P Bhambri told "India must use this opportunity to get substantial benefits in terms of trade and regional strategy. It must not allow the visit to degenerate into an exercise in symbolism, just to show the world that we are not sitting in the lap of the United States."

After the disintegration of the Soviet Union, ties between India and Russia almost died. Russia was busy wooing the West, which it thought would bail it out as it has embraced democracy, said goodbye to communism and was ready to hug economic reforms.

Nothing of the sort happened. The West was busy celebrating the end of the Soviet Union.

By 1993, there was a realisation in Russia that so-called benefits of a relationship with the West were not accruing. They felt the West was instead trying to hit at Russian interests. There was a revision in Russian foreign policy thinking, emphasising on traditional partners like India.

Yelstin then tried to develop an Asian counter-force to help his battered country. It stretched out to China and even Pakistan. And now India.

Russia learnt to put its money where its mouth was.

Foreign secretary Lalit Mansingh points out that bilateral relations are going to improve between the two countries as it would now go into areas of defence, space research, science and technology.

Says Palat: "Institutionally, Russia is better organised in information technology. They have used it for years in their security areas and have a huge bank of software experts. It is one area where India can benefit."

The strategic partnership deal attempts to put the framework around the special relationship that India and Russia will share.

What is interesting will be whether Putin would be able to forge a partnership on common interests between India, China and Russia.

There are cynics who say that India need not bend backwards for Russia anymore. They see it as a Third World country, with a collapsing economy. And where the mafia rules. It is a fact that Russia registered a minus growth rate since 1989 but lately they have shown that they have the ability of recovering. Once the economy picks up, Russia's ability to lift goods from India will also increase.

On the ground, Indo-Russian relations have been far more substantive that India's relations with the United States or any other country.

A few days before Putin visited India, Russia, in a diplomatic faux pas, sent a senior Kremlin aide to Islamabad. India expected Russia to cold-shoulder Pakistan. But even though Indian officials were upset at Putin's recent confirmation of his visit to Pakistan, there is hardly cause for concern.

Putin has to talk to Pakistan.

The Russians are very worried about increasing Talibanisation in central Asia. Russia wants to see how far it can persuade Pakistan to use its good offices to stop cross-border terrorism and support to Taliban. And also not give its territory for training. The Russians are so paranoid about the growing spectre of Taliban that they now want to engage Pakistan.

Russia's new interest in India is also to strengthen various forces against Islamic terrorism unleashed by Afganistan and Pakistan. Said Raminder Singh Jassal, joint secretary, ministry of external affairs, "Russia wants to reinforce its traditional partnership with India, overcome nagging problems in south Asia and strengthen stability in the region."

Putin's visit to Pakistan will not harm Indian interests, as the Russian leader knows that he stands to gain from India, not Pakistan. India is a better ally and a better business partner.

Seeking to allay Indian apprehensions, Gen Valery Manilov, first deputy chief of Russia's general staff, said that Putin's Pakistan visit will take into consideration the "strategic partnership with India and also peace and security in the region."

Russia's new foreign policy, orchestrated by Ivanov, states that it wants to further international co-operation in the military-technical sphere, especially with India. Russia has good reason to. India is going to be a major shopper of military equipment.

Points out Jassal, "A crucial direction of Russian foreign policy in Asia is developing friendly relations with leading Asian states like India."

The Russians have always stood by India. No other country bailed out India whenever it needed. During the Chinese war, the Soviets did not side with China. It was not easy for one communist state not to support the other.

In 1966, the USSR tried to broker peace between India and Pakistan. During the Bangladesh war, the USSR kept an eye on the United States Seventh Fleet and gave India moral support.

Russia has supported India's stand on Kashmir. It has said that India would do well to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, but has not put exerted pressure.

In mid-93, under Yeltsin, Russia under western pressure cancelled a deal to supply rocket technology to India. US pressure started building up since 1992. Russia finally succumbed. But that year, Russia had already secretly transferred 90 per cent of the technology. Officials of the ministry of defence are naturally excited about the new thrust in the relationship between the two countries.

India and Russia acknowledge that there is a potential for business ties to flourish. Both are huge economies. Indo-Russian trade in 1999-2000 was only $1.7 million. Before 1991, it was around $5 billion. During the nineties, Russia's share of India's foreign trade shrunk from nine to 1.7 per cent.

A joint document on development of trade signed in 1998 had noted that there was potential to double trade by 2000 and quadruple it by 2005. Till now, this has not happened.

Seventy-five per cent Indian trade in Russia is still part of the payment of Indian debt to Russia. This will end only in 2005. But by then, India has to graduate into looking beyond debt repayment and emerge as a strong business partner.

This visit may accelerate poor trade relations. Both countries are looking at trading in tea, coffee, rice, metals, textiles, diamonds, leather and consumer goods. Indian traders now have to look at the bigger picture.

Arun Bharat Ram, president of the Confederation of Indian Industry, just back from a visit to Russia, told that Putin's visit would impart greater dynamism and also facilitate greater economic and commercial ties.

The CII is developing an action plan within two months to identify core sectors for co-operation between business entities. Indian and Russian industry leaders have suggested core areas like information technology, pharmaceuticals, chemicals, automobiles, auto components and civil aviation.

The French are already buying Russian shares in their military industry. Russia has also asked India to buy shares, saying that they will feel India also has a stake. India has not reacted.

Putin is young and has dreams of resurrecting Russia. He is trying hard. He has reined in the mafia, is forcing tax-evaders to pay up and is trying to keep alive the hope of a highly literate Russian population alive, of making Russia stand on its feet again and not be seen as a third rate mafia-controlled power.

The Putin visit: The full coverage

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