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It is a historic day in India – for the first time, a Russian head of state is visiting New Delhi and will be greeting by booing crowds rather than by the usual, choreographed cheers and waves. Vladimir Putin’s visit comes at a time when Russo-Indian relations are at their lowest ebb (except for perhaps in the mid-1960s when the Soviets threatened to sell tanks to Pakistan) and he will have some hard talking to do in his 18 hours in India. India’s grievances against the Russians are many – the anti-nuclear brigade, PMANE, is unhappy over Moscow’s role in Kudankulam and has accused the Russian Ambassador to India of interfering in the internal affairs of the country; the business community is upset with Russia for making access to Russian markets difficult for Indian goods; the military is frustrated with their old patron for the increasing costs of weapons systems and repeated delays in the delivery of equipment; and lastly, even the cultural Right is outraged at Russia for the 2004 demolition of an ISKCON temple and recent threats to remove it from even the makeshift premises that had been promised it. Furthermore, the recent petition to ban the Bhagavad Gita in a Russian town has not made the world’s largest country any dearer to many Indians.

Russia has its difficulties with India too, in large part the slow shift of the latter towards the West. Not only has India embraced the Western market ideology more fully than Russia, it has also started to drift closer to the Western orbit on several critical issues for the Kremlin such as ballistic missile defence. India’s increased joint military exercises with the United States and its coy response to the US pivot to Asia, its unassuming development of relations with Israel, along with its strengthening ties with Australia has left the oligarchs in Russia wondering about India’s true intentions. Delhi has also looked westwards for a few of its big-ticket defence purchases recently, and the Kremlin is not happy at the prospect of having to share a growing market. Nonetheless, Moscow accounts for about 70% of the military hardware that India buys and is still Delhi’s largest arms supplier.

The staleness in the Indo-Russian relationship is the direct result of the end of the Cold War. The collapse of the Soviet Union coincided with the downfall of India’s Nehruvian fantasy; for a while, both states were too busy with internal issues to pay attention to a rising US hyperpower and China, the new power on the block. Things stabilised by the late 1990s, but neither country had a clear understanding of the new world order or where they fit in it; and while Russia knew it wanted to remain at the table of great powers, India repeated its trite mantra of non-alignment even in a post-Cold War world. The expansion of NATO and of the European Union into Eastern Europe put Russia on its back foot with regard to the West in general, while the computer revolution and an opening economy pushed India closer to the West. These tectonic shifts were bound to cause difficulties sooner or later.

No amount of cosmetics can disguise the ill-health of the Indo-Russian relationship. Russia and India share no ideological or cultural background, and their loose alliance has been based on pure self-interest – Delhi needed a superpower who could veto irritants in the United Nations, sell it weapons, and serve as an unspoken bulwark against China. It helped that the USSR was willing to conduct trade in rupees rather than hard currency and that they would offer India lines of credit (not as generous as is commonly believed). For the Soviets, India was a voice in the Third World, a balance against China, and a market for its goods. However, both countries have two important questions in the post-Cold War era which will define their future relations, ironically the same questions that they needed to find answers to during the Cold War as well: where do they stand with respect to the United States, and how do they view the rise of China?

From the Russian perspective, the aggressive pursuit of BMD by Foggy Bottom even into former Soviet provinces is a worrying development. US inroads into Iraq, however unsuccessful, has turned a former Soviet client into a neutral country at best. US presence in Afghanistan and its quest for bases in Kazakhstan and other Central Asian countries reminds the Kremlin of old-fashioned Cold War containment. The US role in Libya, and now its tactics against Iran and Syria, keep the Kremlin deeply apprehensive. China, on the other hand, may have cost Russian billions by reverse engineering its weapons technology, particularly its Sukhoi-27 a few years ago, but Beijing’s gaze is to the east and southeast. Russia’s evaluation of its southern neighbour highlights the internal problems of China and paranoia about a Chinese rise has not yet set in. Moreover, a stronger China is the Kremlin’s best bet against US adventurism in far-flung corners of the globe while Russia rebuilds its capabilities. In this context, India’s blue shift raises eyebrows in Russia.

New Delhi, however, sees the world differently. Admittedly, its defeat in the 1962 Sino-Indian War has affected it psychologically more than the eventual military results, but that does not mean Race Course Road has nothing to worry about. China continues to arm and support Pakistan – even with prohibited nuclear and missile technology – and encircles India with military assets. China is yet to make any real overtures towards solving the border dispute, and its actions along the Brahmaputra have caused some concern in Delhi. The US, however, has taken giant strides in trying to accommodate India by bringing it into the nuclear club, opening its sensitive technology market to South Block, and cooperating on intelligence gathering and other operations. India can also rely on the US to balance against China for its own interests, unlike Russia, allowing RCR to take the quieter option of not committing to alliances and chest thumping.

Of course, no relationship is without its aches – the United States and India are divided on Washington’s mollycoddling of Pakistan and Delhi’s soft touch on Iran. India also worries about what will happen in Afghanistan after the US exit in 2014. Similarly, Russia cannot but be aware of Chinese attempts to encroach into Russia’s sphere of influence through the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and bilateral agreements with Central Asian republics, particularly in the energy sector. Nor can Russia be sanguine about weapons sales to China anymore. However, Russia is equally wary of India’s presence in Central Asia, as was evidence by its objection to India’s use of the Ayni Air Base in Tajikistan (not to be confused with the Farkhor Air Base). Like in human relationships, which bonds are worth the heartache is entirely a matter of how you see your future.

Putin went home this evening after signing deals in excess of $3 billion with India in the defence, high-tech, and nuclear sectors, and this is the carrot Moscow has to dangle before Delhi. Despite warming relations with the United States, Indo-US collaboration in defence technology is non-existent, while Russia has jointly developed the Brahmos missile with India, and a Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft programme is underway. Furthermore, Russia seems more willing to transfer technology in these areas (even though there have been some hiccoughs with the T-90), whereas the US has been reluctant to sell India top of the shelf toys like the Javelin anti-tank guided missile. Indians may like to interpret joint production to mean an equal distribution of input, but the sorry state of India’s own projects such as the Light Combat Aircraft Tejas, the Arjun main battle tank, its nuclear programme, supercomputers, and its missile programme amply illustrates how much India relies on Russian aid in these areas.

However, these are medium-term solutions. As India develops its own technical prowess – whether by buying or developing skills – its need for Russia will reduce. The US is a more useful partner for India right now, as its views on issues critical to India – China – match. Even on Pakistan, though the US has shown great unwillingness to abandon the failed state, it has taken a much more serious position on Islamabad than it did previously. Russia, in its own security calculus, cannot offer the insurance India seeks against China and has little influence over Pakistan. yet given India’s aversion to clear policies, none of these issues will appear pronounced or exacerbated. Growing economic relations between all four powers will further serve to soften the hard edges in policy.

As two of Asia’s largest states size each other up again, it is important that they look beyond the more immediate squabbles over the Admiral Gorshkov, the stealth frigates, or the T-90S to the changed framework within which they now operate. Henry Kissinger once said that strategy is an unnatural act for democracies – they do it after they have exhausted all other options. India’s Russia strategy and Russia’s India strategy – called that only by the grace of semantic generosity – have for  over a decade been in the doldrums. If genuinely firm relations are to be cemented, both sides must acknowledge their different starting positions and do some frank talking.

This post was published at Niti Central on December 26, 2012.