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A Friend Indeed

December 9, 2009

There was no clinking of glasses, no high profile state banquets, no hype and hoopla, no international headlines and no major photo ops – and yet it was a meeting of minds. The cold Russian winter with its first snowfall saw the Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh arrive in Moscow. The thaw was perceptible, right from the beginning. Old ties that had been put on the back burner for some time now, were back to the fore. In three days, Manmohan Singh and his team achieved a lot for the country. Russians have been traditional friends of us Indians for decades. These traditional ties were renewed and reinforced. Some say it was because of the change of leadership in Washington, others say that it was because of Moscow’s disillusionment with Beijing. It could be a mix of both or perhaps none of these. Many of the agreements reached during Singh’s visit to Russia were being worked on by diplomats from both sides for long.

The piece de resistance was surely the nuclear deal on the lines of the 123 Agreement between the US and India. The difference in this deal is that India has been assured continued supply of uranium by the Russians even in the event that India conducts a nuclear test. The Americans, as per their law will stop all nuclear trade and take back their equipment if India were to conduct a nuclear test. Of course, that will also be after a protracted procedure is followed, but India and Russia have inked a deal where India has been assured continued supply of uranium even if the nuclear ties are snapped. This is a major reprieve as India may feel the need to test sometime in future. Russia will also build two more nuclear plants, one in West Bengal and another in Maharashtra apart from the two they are already building in Tamil Nadu. For Russia, this is big business for a faltering economy. For India, it is getting a timely enhancement of capability for its growing power needs.

The other area of cooperation between Russia and India is in the field of defense. There has been an agreement for the maintainece and availability of spare parts for the Russian defense equipment that India has purchased over the decades. The long pending deal on the aircraft carrier Admiral Groshkov has also been sorted out and this should be delivered to India by 2012. There has also been an agreement on joint development of a fifth generation fighter aircraft on the lines of the American F-22 Raptor with advanced stealth capability. This comes after the huge success of the 480 km Bramhos missile jointly developed by Russia and India. While the Americans may still get the 126 fighter aircraft deal from the Indian Air Force (as an offset from the nuclear deal), it is also true that India is already buying 280 Su30 MKI fighter aircrafts from Russia. Most of them will be assembled here in India at the HAL facilities.

India and Russia have also committed to increase trade to 20 billion dollars from the 8 billion dollars currently by 2015. Indian pharmaceutical companies will be encouraged to cater to the Russian market and this will give Russia better access to cheaper drugs. There has also been an increasing interest in Indian manufacturing and machine tools industry from the Russians. Trade between the two countries is likely to increase manifold in the years to come.

The other major area of cooperation is in the field of oil and gas. OVL (overseas arm of ONGC) and M/s Sistema of Russia have signed an MOU for joint exploration of gas in the Sakhalin III gas fields. OVL had earlier entered the Russian hydrocarbon sector in 2001 with the acquisition of participating interest in Sakhalin-1 project. It acquired Imperial Energy in Tomsk Region, Western Siberia early this year. The Company has strong relationship with the Rosneft and Gazprom. The Russians are upbeat about the prospects of gas in the eastern Siberian gas fields and it is estimated that the Sakhalin peninsula has a projected yield of 48 trillion units as against Quatar’s 12.5 trillion units. The quantum in question can well be imagined. The question will be as to how to transport the gas from Siberia to Indian ports. But that can wait. The oil and gas market of Russia is perhaps the biggest in the world and India has done well to claw back into this strategically important field.

Both the nations also had an open discussion about the various developments around the globe including Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Russians were very clear that there can be no expansion of the nuclear club, obviously referring to Iranian attempts to developing fissile material for dual use. Here it must also be mentioned that the Iranians are alleging that the Americans have kidnapped one of their nuclear scientists in Saudi Arabia when he went for the Hajj. This interesting piece of news was reported in sections of the media thus:

Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki on Tuesday accused the United States of abducting its nuclear scientist Shahram Amiri who went missing in Saudi Arabia earlier this year. Based on existing pieces of evidence that we have at our disposal the Americans had a role in Mr Amiri’s abduction, Mottaki said at a press conference in Farsi which was translated into English by Press TV channel. The Americans did abduct him. Therefore we expect the American government to return him.

India and Russia agreed that the international community must do everything in their command to stop any proliferation. The question of safety of Pakistan nuclear weapons falling into the wrong hands was also discussed and the Russian President Dmitri Medvedev reiterated that nuclear weapons cannot be a hostage to terror. Prime Minsiter Singh also met his Russian counterpart Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and had extended talks with him. On Afghanistan both the countries agreed that there are no ‘good Taliban’ and Bad Taliban’ – obviously a reference to the American attempts at trying to make a deal with a section of the Taliban that they believe are ‘moderate’. Suffice to say that a whole range of issues were on the table between the two countries and this clearly showed that there was a meeting of minds. Prime Minister Singh also had a meeting with the intellectuals of Russia on the last day of his three day tour.

It is good that India realizes the importance of its ties with Russia – a country that has been a traditional friend of the people of India. This is not hedging ones bets but to be open to nations that have stood by India at all times. This will also help Russia balance its diplomatic initiatives in Asia as also to gain economically and strategically. This is a win-win situation for both. India needs friends across the world and Russia and India can grow together to forge closer ties that will be mutually beneficial. Feeling stifled by the ever expanding NATO, Russia is on the lookout for friends that can give it strategic depth. With a more open economic system, Russia can be a potential market for Indian products and services. One of the top Indian diplomats rightly said that India’s ties with Russia were mutually exclusive vis-à-vis our ties with other nations. That is the right way of looking at things and a source of encouragement for both the nations that will need each other more than ever.

Update 12.01.2010: After the alleged ‘kidnapping’ of an Iranian scientist there are reports that another nuclear scientist was ‘assassinated’. Iran is pointing a finger at the US and Israel for this incident too. CNN has reported this as follows:

The Iranian Foreign Ministry said the nuclear scientist killed in a bombing Tuesday was assassinated and the act “revealed signs of the involvement of the Zionist regime, the U.S. and their allies in Iran,” state media reported.

Strongly condemning the killing of Mahmoud Mohammadi, ministry spokesman Ramin Mehman-Parast said the participation of Israeli and American agents “runs counter to international regulations,” Press TV reported.

Mehman-Parast said such actions would not affect Iran’s nuclear program, emphasizing such “terrorist moves and apparent omission of Iranian nuclear scientists will definitely cause no obstacle in the way of the country’s scientific and technological development. Rather they will speed up it.”

It is true that any proliferation in the Middle East is a dangerous development, however, it is also true that it will be impossible for the world to avoid proliferation for long especially when nuclear energy is being taken up so assiduously by so many nations around the world and the west also is encouraging the use of ‘clean’ nuclear option.

Update 12.01.2010: Indo-Russian friendship having a strategic dimension can be gauged from the fact that Russia is going to lease a nuclear powered submarine to India (a spanking new one) for ten years. The submarine will be delivered in the second half of this year. This will give India time to build its own nuclear powered submarine on the lines of Arihant that has already been deployed.

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