India savors Russian friendship
By M K Bhadrakumar
The morning after can be as significant as the day before. What strikes the eye
are two developments, in Moscow and Delhi, the morning after Russian Prime
Minister Vladimir Putin left the Indian capital on Friday after an eventful
There is no country outside Russia where Putin is widely admired as a statesman
as in India. He strikes chords in the Indian psyche that are difficult to
explain except in the totality of what has come to be known as "Putinism" and
his historic role in Russia's resurgence.
During Putin's visit, Russia stitched up multi-billion dollar contracts in the
military and civil nuclear sectors. The list of
contracts and agreements is truly impressive:
$1.5 billion deal for the supply of 29 additional MiG-29 Fulcrum D-based
An agreement to sign a contract on the joint development of a new
A revised deal of $2.3 billion on the upgraded Admiral Gorshkov aircraft
carrier with a displacement capacity of 45,000 tons, a maximum speed of 32
knots (59 kilometers per hour) and a range of 13,500 nautical miles (25,000
kilometers) at a cruising speed of 18 knots.
Deals to establish a joint venture to produce navigation equipment for GPS
(global positioning system) and its Russian equivalent Glonass, and the use of
Glonass signal for military use by India.
An array of agreements for the construction of up to 16 nuclear power plants in
India worth tens of billions of dollars at the very least.
Priority lies with US ties
However, life moves on. No sooner than Putin returned to Moscow, than the
Kremlin announced that US President Barack Obama had phoned his Russian
counterpart Dmitry Medvedev to discuss the "final stages of preparation" of the
new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty and they agreed that "it is now possible to
talk about specific dates" for initialing the agreement.
The Kremlin is eager to start the "reset" of Russia-US ties and may well drop
its demand that any new arms reduction deal should be linked to the US's
missile plans in Central Europe.
In Delhi, too, the government has mooted a new legislation on Monday whose
unstated purpose - some say, sole purpose - is to enable the US nuclear
industry to secure multi-billion dollars worth business in the Indian market.
The US-Russia-India triangle offers a great study of paradoxes. Russia and
India are advocates of a democratized international system, which they hope to
influence. Neither is a satiated power, while both see a window of opportunity
in the emerging polycentric world order.
Yet both estimate that the US's pre-eminence as the sole superpower is not
under any serious challenge, and neither has any doubt that its equations with
Washington shall remain its foreign policy priority.
Putin's successful visit to Delhi needs to be seen in perspective. India and
Russia drifted apart in the 1990s and both went through transformative periods
that saw the birth of new elites and economic models and societal changes.
Delhi, Moscow and AfPak
Indian opinion today is supportive of the rising curve of the country's
post-Cold War strategic partnership with the US. Russia has a constituency of
cold warriors, but it is a dwindling tribe and meanwhile, Moscow's aspiration
too is to retain its privileged status as Washington's interlocutor on issues
of global strategic balance.
Therefore, when the Indian leadership expresses its desire to Putin for an
intensification of consultations with the Kremlin regarding the Afghan problem,
Delhi's intentions are quite pragmatic. Delhi does not seek strategic defiance
of the US in Afghanistan and it knows that for Russia, Afghanistan is not only
about al-Qaeda and Taliban but is also related to its search for a new era of
An al-Qaeda problem may or may not appear in North Caucasus and Russia would be
worried if Afghanistan once again becomes a revolving door for international
terrorism. But India's concerns are tangible, very specific and are primarily
related to its adversarial relationship with Pakistan.
Moscow can help by alleviating Delhi's near-total diplomatic isolation over the
Afghan problem and putting the brakes on a Taliban takeover in Kabul that is
fine-tuned by Pakistan. By virtue of its role as a permanent member of the UN
Security Council, Russia has a say in any Afghan settlement.
Putin suggested while in Delhi that Indians' view of Pakistan as a state
sponsoring terrorism needs to be mellowed. From the Russian perspective,
Pakistan is a key player in the great game in Central Asia. Moscow (and
Beijing) will remain wary of driving Pakistan into isolation as a client state
of the US.
Ideally speaking, Delhi should gain from Russian or Chinese efforts to moderate
Pakistan's adversarial mindset, but Delhi depends almost entirely today on the
US. Curiously, India's dependency on the US is only helping to strengthen
Pakistan's geopolitical positioning.
Islamabad estimates that the US regional strategies in Afghanistan can work
only with its cooperation and it expects in return that Washington accommodate
its aspirations as a regional power.
The Obama administration on one hand needs to get Pakistan on board as a key
regional ally, since without Islamabad, plans for the stabilization of
Afghanistan and the enlargement of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization
(NATO) will get nowhere. But on the other, Washington still needs to string
So far, the US has heavily counted on the fact that Delhi has not explored
other options than going along with it, given India's disputes with China and
its atrophied ties with Russia. But if a fine comb is run through Putin's visit
to Delhi, a sense of frustration is discernible in the Indian mind about the
US's regional policies.
Delhi feels let down
Afghanistan is a thorn in the flesh. The Indian elites feel let down. Arguably,
even the boisterous American lobby in the Indian elites would feel embarrassed
as their prognosis of the US and India living happily ever after comes unstuck
in the face of icy cold geopolitical realities.
The Indian government cooperated with the US to an astonishing degree by
dovetailing their Afghan policy with the US's AfPak objectives; by "breaking
down walls and bureaucratic obstacles between the two countries' intelligence
and investigating agencies" - to quote American expert Lisa Curtis of Heritage
Foundation in a recent US Congressional testimony and supporting a US/NATO
military presence in the region. India also scrupulously avoided any sort of
coordination with other regional countries such as Russia, Iran or China lest
that might irritate Washington.
Nonetheless, the Obama administration is gearing up to engage the Taliban in
league with the Pakistani military. That was not the impression the Indian
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh got during his "state visit" to Washington last
November. The US officials may explain that the Indians have a fixation about
the Taliban and Pakistani military. But the Indians simply do not see any
significant shift in the Pakistani military's mindset towards jihadi groups
operating in the region.
Nor does Delhi believe that the Taliban are capable of power-sharing or
independent of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence. In the Indian
perception, Taliban and the Pakistan-based terrorist groups such as
Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) are birds of the same feather and they will flock
Washington has viewed LeT primarily through an India-Pakistan lens and
calculated that the group did not pose a direct threat to US interests. To
quote Curtis, "The US officials have shied away from pressuring Pakistan on the
LeT in the interest of garnering Pakistani cooperation against targets the US
believed were more critical to immediate US objectives."
Over and above, Obama shows no sign of a rethink on the US's embargo on the
transfer of "dual-use technology" to India. While India no longer takes to Cold
War-era rhetoric to air its differences with the US, there is disquiet in Delhi
about the US's military assistance to Pakistan.
Against this backdrop, Delhi's move to revive ties with Moscow stands out.
Delhi cannot hope to source from anywhere else the advanced military technology
that the Russians willingly offer - the global navigation satellite system,
aircraft carrier, nuclear-powered attack submarine, state-of-the-art missiles
and fighter aircraft.
Ironically, the nuclear deal India signed with the US in 2008 lies
unimplemented due to Obama's reluctance to transfer "dual-use technology" to
India, but it provided just the international non-proliferation framework
Moscow needed to boost cooperation with Delhi on a range of sensitive areas
such as reprocessing technology, joint thorium fuel cycle nuclear power
projects and fast-neutron reactors.
In short, the Indian leadership has returned to a precept that it ignored;
namely, that with a world power like Russia, it is not possible to cooperate
except on the basis of special relations. However, the realization is yet to
dawn on the elites in Delhi that an optimal foreign policy vis-a-vis the US
will still continue to elude India in the absence of a profound dialogue with
China on regional security.
Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign
Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka,
Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.