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Why Modi's visit to Moscow is so important

By Lieutenant General Syed Ata Hasnain (retd)
Last updated on: December 25, 2015 09:00 IST
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'What should worry India is Russia's simultaneous proximity to both China and Pakistan from a strategic angle. That hasn't happened ever before,' says Lieutenant General Syed Ata Hasnain (retd).

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Russian President Vladmir Putin at the Kremlin, December 24, 2015.

IMAGE: Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Russian President Vladmir Putin at the Kremlin. Photograph: Press Information Bureau.

In 1986, the Army's Staff College at Wellington, Nilgiris, gave me my first recognition in professional writing by awarding me the Lentaigne Memorial Medal (named after the first Commandant, a legendary British officer) for best dissertational analysis on the highly competitive course of instruction.

It just happened that my subject was 'Indo Soviet Relations: Foreign Policy Challenges.' The Soviet Union then was in decline, but memories of 1971 made me conclude that even in decline India could never afford to ignore it.

The Russian Federation, inheritor of the Soviet legacy, suffered the inevitable vagaries of the political-diplomatic-economic defeat of the Cold War and found a diluted position in the emerging new world order as it struggled through the nineties.

It was the coming of Vladmir Putin around the turn of the millennium that Russia pulled itself out of the quagmire. By that time India was economically stronger, but in a quandary too about its position in the world order.

Although its proximity to the West was increasing, its mutual interests with Russia were not declining; it was just a juncture in history when clarity on the world order was more blurred than ever.

Contrary to Western thinking that India's dependence on Russian arms motivates its relationship, there is much more that drives this unique relationship which Mr Modi has gone to Moscow to revive and cement.

It may not draw the same number of eyeballs as did his visit to Washington, New York or San Francisco; incidentally even the late Rajiv Gandhi's visits to the US drew far more attention than those to Moscow in the heyday of Indo-Soviet relations. The fact that the US has a unique soft power to back its strategic interests must not be lost sight of and that plays its own role.

Apart from the discussions on strategic interests, security, economic issues and arms related deals what I perceive is that Mr Modi will probably be happy to see the very unique intellectual capital that institutions in Moscow have to offer. It is a world view far quieter than that available in Western capitals, but is solidly backed with less hyperbole and blurred opinion and more do-able.

Among the hype related to arms deals and technology transfers which is inevitable the Russians will probably draw the Indian delegation's attention to our mutual strategic interests.

The first should be the situation in the Middle East and Afghanistan on which the Moscow intellectuals have much to offer. They realise that both India and Russia have common interests in the stability of the Middle East and that there is need of much pro-activeness and cooperation in a situation where battle lines are drawn up along very narrow and fixed interests.

Recent actions of working with the West to draw up a United Nations Security Council resolution on Syria will be discussed and how India and Russia can progress this. The reality of the military situation with relation to Da'esh will also probably emerge.

Second and very important again is the situation in Afghanistan where options seem to be running out. Russia's concern extends to the ideological frontier which includes the potential entry of Da'esh into Central Asia through Afghanistan.

With TAPI just having received a fresh impetus and promises of it meeting India's 25 percent needs of natural gas India would always want Central Asia to be stable and dwell on this to finally gain direct access to the region through Pakistan.

Russia's improving relationship with Pakistan can also urge this to happen. However, India would continue to show concern about the potential arms sales by Russia to Pakistan.

Third is the China factor. With the increasing isolation of Russia after the Ukraine crisis the Russia-China equation has gained far greater importance. It is learnt that Russia has promised oil and gas worth $400 billion to China over an extended period through the eastern route and this relationship would help overcome sanctions from the West.

A strong relationship between India and Russia based on the economics of energy, arms sales and energy transfers will further help to de-isolate Russia.

The India-Russia-China triangle is worrisome for the West for the scope it promises of diluting the West's hold on the Russian economy because of sanctions. In turn, India's improving relationship with China would have greater backing from Russia.

What should worry India and which needs to be expressed is Russia's simultaneous proximity to both China and Pakistan from a strategic angle. That hasn't happened ever before. It should not isolate India in this crucial region. The West would always work towards playing up the threats to India and demanding a slowdown in relations between India and Russia.

Having assurance of Russian oil supplies in a crisis situation in the Middle East will always be one of India's compulsions in ensuring close Indo Russian relations. Even more than that, it is the defence procurements which make up a major part of India-Russian relations. Former army chief General V P Malik recently remarked, 'Technological advances need to be captured on time, else discarded or old technology gets adopted.'

His pointed reference to the DRDO's inability to give any assurance of timely adoption of technology and accountability places pressure on India's security managers to negotiate both off the shelf purchases for immediate need and transfer of technology for the manufacture of balance numbers in India. The Russian experience suited the times when it was the sole supplier. However, the experience with the aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya wasn't too good.

With Russia now needing arms sales to boost its economy and due to the plummeting prices of oil probably managed by powers inimical to Russian interests, it has little choice but to seek the Indian market. India will probably spend $250 billion on defence purchases over the next 15 years and there will be many offers for a piece of that pie.

Currently Indian imports of military hardware from Russia forms only 28 percent of total Russian arms exports, or about $4.8 billion. On the cards appear to be the $6 billion worth of state of the art 5xS-400 Triumf air defence missile systems with ranges up to 400 km and more, which are being supplied to China too.

The Ka-226T 'Kamov' helicopter deal for outright purchase and subsequent manufacture could be a strong possibility -- 200 is the number being quoted with 60 for direct purchase and 140 for subsequent manufacture in India.

Four Talwar class frigates with a displacement of 4,000 tons each and geared to be fitted with Brahmos surface to surface missile systems and Shtil anti-aircraft guns could be sought with three to be constructed at the Pipavav shipyard in India.

The emphasis on Make in India is unmistakable with the 18-member CEOs delegation comprising Anil Ambani (Reliance Defence), Baba Kalyani (Bharat Forge) and Sukaran Singh (Tata Advanced System Limited). That the Indo Russia strategic relationship will bandwagon on defence sector deals is not a secret.

If Mr Modi does finally decide to return via Kabul, this outing will probably go down among the more strategic ones in the recent past. No doubt, each visit abroad has had its strategic connotations, but resurgence of the past warmth with Russia at a time when both need it makes strategic sense.

In Kabul the prime minister will inaugurate the Parliament house building built by India at a cost of $90 million. He will also ceremonially hand over the crucial four Mi-25 attack helicopters to the Afghan National Army which is going to need more of these to break sieges like that laid by the Taliban at Kunduz three months ago.

However, much more than all this is the symbolic return of India to the New Great Game after a hiatus of over a year. Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani will obviously appreciate India's patience through the first year of his presidency when he was seeking nations other than India to resolve Afghanistan's problems.

India's decision to hand over lethal hardware is what many other nations were awaiting. It will trigger and open up more avenues and Mr Modi himself will be requested for much more to follow in the near future.

The prevailing Russian interests in Afghanistan will no doubt also form part of the brief at Kabul with the Indian side doing more of the talking.

This visit rounds off the circuit of crucial nations that the prime minister had to visit. Each had its own importance, but in terms of India's classical regional and extra regional interests the issues which the prime minister will discuss and the information that he will come away with will probably be one of the most significant.

Lieutenant General Syed Ata Hasnain (retd), an analyst at the Vivekanand International Foundation and the Delhi Policy Group, is a former General Officer Commanding of the Indian Army's Srinagar-based 15 Corps.

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