by Ajai Shukla
Business Standard: 14th December 2007
Cracks in the India-Russia relationship are becoming increasingly difficult to paper over. In October, India faced a snub when foreign minister, Pranab Mukherjee, on a visit to Russia, could not secure a meeting with his Russian counterpart. On 3rd December, India’s navy chief, Admiral Sureesh Mehta, publicly questioned Russia’s new priorities, suggesting frankly that new oil wealth could be generating a world-view in Moscow that was different from when New Delhi largely funded Russia’s defence R&D.
It remains unclear whether the admiral had the government’s okay to pronounce on foreign policy, but he only stated a fact. After the Soviet meltdown, Russia’s military spending plummeted to one-thirtieth of what it was in 1989, when 2.03% of the Soviet Union’s GDP was being spent on R&D. Russian analysts estimate that by 2000, India may have been funding 50% of all Russia’s military R&D. This was done by ordering a range of weaponry --- T-90 tanks, Talwar class warships, Sukhoi-30 fighters, MiG-21 upgrades, and a range of missiles --- and letting Russia develop those products using Indian money.
Things, however, have changed dramatically. From 2007-2012, a resurrected Russian State Armaments Programme will spend US $50 million on military R&D. As Russia’s military places long-postponed orders for weaponry, that country’s scaled-down defence facilities are unable to fulfil foreign contracts. Senior Indian diplomats point out that Russia’s military modernisation programme meant that the Gorshkov over-runs were inevitable.
The problem is not just India’s. China, too, must deal with a commercially resurgent Russia. Beijing had signed, in 2005, a $1 billion order for 34 giant IL-78 transport planes and 4 IL-78 refuelling aircraft. Now Russia has realised that it cannot meet its own as well as Beijing’s requirements. That contract is being renegotiated at a higher price.
India, says a senior official with extensive experience in the Ministry of Defence (MoD), has no choice but to deal with the new Russia. Declaring that the navy chief should not have criticised Russia, the official observes that, “The services may feel frustrated by occasional irritants in an extensive defence relationship. But when the navy needs help in designing a nuclear submarine, or wants to lease one to train crewmen, which country other than Russia is willing to help?”
The changing military relationship also reflects larger geo-strategic changes. A top diplomatic source points out, “The Soviet-India relationship can never be recreated, since that rested on a shared threat from China. Today, Russia has a benign relationship with China; in fact China buys more Russian arms than any other country in the world.”
And even that is changing. In 2006 and 2007 a host of small countries that buy big have supplanted China. Algeria was Moscow’s biggest customer last year, signing a $7.5 billion order for a basket of weaponry. Venezuela spent $3 billion on Russian arms; Malaysia, Indonesia and Vietnam each bought up a billion dollars worth of Russian arms.
Despite that, there are important Indian interests, says the senior diplomat, which can never be achieved without Russian cooperation. He points out that, “India wants to expand its footprint in the energy-rich Central Asian region. It cannot do so without Russian blessings. If India is a player in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, it is thanks to Russia’s help. India’s long-term energy interests are closely linked with Russia.”
New Delhi’s struggle to generate warmth in an old marriage is not made easier by a new suitor, Washington. Despite those blandishments, key decision-makers in South Block still believe that the India-Russia relationship must be defined by political common ground --- e.g. Russian backing for India as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, and its support in the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group --- rather than on disagreements in an arms supply relationship that must eventually be anchored on commercial logic, not political patronage.