December 18,


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Admiral (retired) J G Nadkarni

Assessing old bonds

President Vladimir Putin's recent visit to India underlines the fact that the strategic alliance between India and Russia has endured well over 40 years. Although both sides continue to make the usual declarations and pledges of eternal friendship, the nature of that friendship has undergone considerable change during the past decade.

The strong links between the two countries was forged in the early 1960s as a fallout of the Cold War. India had spurned American overtures to join a military alliance, preferring to opt for, what was then a newly coined word, nonalignment.

India's honeymoon with China had ended in defeat and disillusionment 1962. The Soviet Union's relations with China had soured and Moscow was looking for a counterbalance to China in the south.

India fitted into the slot nicely. Although nonalignment required maintaining an equidistance from both Washington and Moscow, it was apparent that New Delhi was a little closer to the latter.

The bonds really became strong in 1965 when the West, taking a somewhat myopic view, refused India's genuine requirement for sophisticated weapons and arms. The Soviet Union was more than willing to fill the gap. The initial Indian hesitation to go in for Soviet arms slowly vanished when it was discovered that the Soviets had, in some areas, better equipment than was expected.

What came as a pleasant surprise was that both the price quoted by the Soviets and the terms offered would make the purchases really attractive. Over the next 40 years India's armed forces became the largest recipients of Soviet arms. Even today more than 70 per cent of the equipment in the Indian Army, Navy and the Air Force is of Soviet origin.

The Indian Navy was the largest benefactor of Soviet largesse. The Navy received Soviet submarines, missile boats, patrol vessels, destroyers and mine sweepers. Soviet long range maritime aircraft formed the backbone of the Navy's maritime recce squadrons. With Soviet assistance the Navy turned the sleepy naval base at Vishakhapatnam into a modern naval dockyard and berthing facility.

While all this was going on the Navy also kept its window open to the West, sometimes to Moscow's annoyance. The Navy purchased the British Harrier VTOL aircraft for its two carriers and went to Germany for the purchase of submarines. It also began indigenous construction of Leander frigates at Mazagon Docks, Mumbai, with initial collaboration from British shipyards.

The Indo-Soviet friendship really flowered in 1971 when India confronted Pakistani excesses in the erstwhile East Bengal. The Soviets jumped in when the West rejected Indira Gandhi's pleas for help. The resulting 20-year peace and friendship treaty was the acme of Indo-Soviet friendship. Soviet arms, some of them delivered by express means, contributed considerably to India's victory in 1971.

Of course, it was not all one sided. The Soviet Union too gained considerably from having India as its southern ally. Soviet suppression of uprisings in Hungary and Czechoslovakia drew only muted responses from New Delhi and Afghanistan found a ready friend in India during the Soviet military occupation of that country.

The Soviets had a strong fleet in the Indian Ocean to counter the US presence. Although India refused base and docking facilities to the Soviet ships, there were numerous visits to Indian ports. As against this not a single US warship visited India from 1971 to 1983.

The alliance had other fallouts. With nearly 20 years of interaction between them, both countries developed strong emotional attachment to each other. This was especially true of Soviet military leaders. Top military officials like Admiral Gorshkov, Marshal Ustinov and Marshal Akremeyov were extremely fond of India and the Indian armed forces. It was indeed during their times that most of the military agreements between the two counties were forged.

The emotions spilled out on to the streets. Indians were treated as honoured guests in the Soviet Union. Those were the days of long queues in Moscow and it was not uncommon to find the local people asking Indians to go to the head of a long queue.

The equation began to change gradually in the late eighties. When Mikhail Gorbachev introduced perestroika, Indians, for the first time, found that equipment was no longer available at the easy prices of the 1970s. Not only did the Soviets want international prices but they were reluctant to give any long term credit on easy terms. Supply of equipment continued but at a much slower rate.

The end of the Cold War and the breakup of the Soviet Union was the beginning of the end to the cozy relationship between the two countries. Russia gave up its claims to become a superpower. The Soviet fleet terminated its presence in the Indian Ocean. Today the only Russian ships to touch Indian shores are those purchased by the ship breakers at Alang.

Side by side the roller coaster relationship between India and the United States is on the upswing again. India was the first to enroll in the fight against terrorism after 9/11. The contentious issues between the two countries have been put on the back burner. In fact, India has achieved the status of a US strategic partner in the Indian Ocean. The armed forces of the two countries carry out frequent and prolonged joint exercises, something which was unthinkable just 10 years ago.

Pakistan still remains a thorny issue between the two countries but it does not cause the acrimony it did a few years ago. In fact, India today looks to the US to use its influence in taming Pakistan and eradicating cross border terrorism.

India has also improved its relations with China and there is much interaction and trade between the two countries. No one in the world today looks at India as a bastion against Chinese expansion in the Indian Ocean.

On the other hand Indo-Russian relations have become pure business. Russia now looks to India to keep its defence industry afloat. Russia still has many friends in India but any arms deal between the two countries is beginning to draw flak. Recent reports that a frigate ordered from a Russian yard is overdue by more than a year because the missile system failed repeatedly cast doubts whether the Russians are still leaders in sophisticated military equipment that they were just 10 years ago.

Unfortunately, by putting most of their eggs in the Russian basket for the past 30 years, the Indian military is still largely dependent on that country for upkeep and support in spare parts. The prices have increased considerably, but there is little choice.

The Soviets supplied considerable military equipment to India but they did not help in the process of indigenisation. Except for the manufacture of MiG aircraft there are no other manufacturing facilities in India. India is certain to pay a heavy price for this neglect in coming years.

Admiral (retired) J G Nadkarni

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