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A Reaffirmation of Ties

March 15, 2010

Last week Prime Minister Vladimir Putin was on a brief visit to India. This visit by the Russian prime minister was a continuation to the visit by the Indian prime minister to Moscow last winter. Putin was in India all of 22 hours. From the brief stopover, that one can be excused to presume, the import of the visit was quite to the contrary. Putin may not be a show stealer like Bill and Hillary Clinton, or Obama, but the Russian prime minister achieved for his country more than can be said for a lot of other more elaborate state visits. One thing that again resurfaced was the fact that Russia and India are natural allies. The lull in the relationship between the two nations in the last decade which can be gauged from the fact that India was looking to Ukraine for spares of Soviet era weapons in the Indian army, especially the T72 – T90 tanks and the MiG squadrons. From a time not so long ago, when there was a frosty outlook between the two nations, to the warmth and friendship that has rekindled, both Russia and India have come a long way.

Prime Minister Putin’s visit was hardly covered by the print and the electronic media, apart from a clip that showed him getting down from his plane and being welcomed by the Indian diplomats. But there was a flurry of activity once the Russian prime minister got down to business. Most of the issues on the agenda were the same as those discussed when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visited Moscow. The Admiral Groshkov deal was finalized at $2.3 billion. This aircraft carrier will be rechristened INS Vikramaditya and should serve the Indian navy for another 25 years once it is inducted in 2014. There was a deal for the MiG 29K fighter jets for Vikramaditya as well as for other Indian naval vessels. India and Russia are closely cooperating in the development of the fifth generation fighter plane and India is going to buy 250 of these planes. Putin could have also pitched for the MiG 35 fighter jet in the mega deal that is on the anvil for more than 125 planes that India requires.

The nuclear energy field is one that is full of potential. India is energy starved and nuclear power plants seem to be the only solution for India’s growing power needs. Russia is going to build 16 power plants over the years. One that is proposed in West Bengal is facing stiff opposition from Mamta Banerjee and were she to come to power, things could be difficult. Russia has also assured continued fuel supply and access to reprocessing technology, which India requires. Here I may add that the delay in approval from American senate for nuclear trade with India has seen Russia and France take a lead in this lucrative market and both these nations have been able to ink deals worth billions of dollars, while the Americans are still sitting on the sidelines.

India and Russia are also keen on cooperating in the field of hydrocarbons. This is one field which the Indians are very keen to tap into, looking at the growing energy needs of the country. This is strategically important for India as also the Russians because they feel comfortable sharing with India what they would not do with any other country. There is unanimity of purpose here and this more than anything else is a benchmark of sorts at the close Indo-Russian ties that have bloomed again.

The regional developments were discussed. Afghanistan and terrorism were high on the agenda and both the nations denounced the ‘good Taliban- bad Taliban’ approach of the west. Iran and a possible conflagration in the Middle East must have been surely discussed but this did not make to the media. Both India and Russia have had close ties with Persia traditionally and the security and regional stability is of deep concern to both the nations. However, nuclear proliferation in the region is also a big concern for both India and Russia. A surgical strike or a regime change in Tehran may not be the ideal solution. A de-escalation of tension would be preferred by both the nation. The security of Israel and other nations of the Middle East is also a major issue that cannot be ignored. Russia and India would prefer an Iran that is not a threat to anyone in the region.

Russia and India have also forged close cooperation in the field of telecommunications, information technology and pharmaceuticals. There is a realization that opening up the markets for each other will be a win-win situation for both. India understands that emerging economies should come together for mutual benefit and such cooperation will catapult them to greater economic stability and that looking to the western markets is not the only opportunity that is available.

Vladimir Putin has also said that he would like India and Russia to have close cooperation in space exploration. The Indian moon mission, Chandryaan II that is scheduled to take place soon will be one area where Russians are keen to cooperate. Putin also said that an Indian cosmonaut will again go to space in a Russian mission. Reminds one of the times in early ‘80’s when Rakesh Sharma became the first Indian to go to space thanks to our Russian friends.

The one statement that touched Indians the most was when the Russian prime minister said that Russia did not want to forge any military ties with Pakistan because of the ‘concerns of our Indian friends’. This more than anything else mirrors the deep and abiding respect and faith that the two nations have developed once again. India may have forged close ties with the west but the Indo-Russian friendship transcends whatever relationship that the two nations develop with other states in their spheres of influence. In that, the Indo-Russian ties are independent of any regional influence.

That Russian Prime Minister visited India was also a reassertion of the clout that Vladimir Putin holds in the polity of Russia as of today. I am tempted to deduce that this was also Putin’s way of asserting his power on the Russian political landscape. In that, this visit was as much for domestic consumption as it was for international audience. Be as it may, this brief visit camouflages the enormity of import of Putin’s visit. The devil is in the detail, they say, and for this brief 22 hour visit, if one looks at it up close, a lot was achieved.

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