Ties between the close allies are fraying as Russia looks to Pakistan
by Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 11th Dec 14
For most of the past half-century, New Delhi and Moscow have been the closest of geostrategic partners. During India's deep tensions with China in the 1960s, its 1971 war with Pakistan, during Russia's ill-fated occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s, through India's military struggle against Pakistan-backed insurrections and in their joint support to the Northern Alliance against the Taliban, New Delhi and Moscow have been able to truthfully declare that there was not the slightest conflict of interest between the two countries. Russia's strategic interests in South Asia were fully met through backing India; while New Delhi's differences with Western capitals during the Cold War, especially Washington D C, kept it onside with Moscow in every important way. Even without a significant trade relationship or people-to-people exchanges, Russia-India cooperation in the strategic defence, space and nuclear power sectors allowed Prime Minister Narendra Modi to tell Russia's President Vladimir Putin during the BRICS summit in July that every child in India knows that Russia is its best friend.
Mr Putin comes to Delhi at a time when this close relationship has begun to fray. Irked perhaps by India's growing relationship with the United States, which recently supplanted Russia as India's top weapons supplier, Moscow has transgressed a major Indian red line with a new arms-supply relationship with Pakistan. In mid-November, Sergei Shoigu became the first Russian defence minister to visit Pakistan since the collapse of the Soviet Union. In Islamabad, he signed a military cooperation agreement with Pakistan, declaring that the world “wants to do business with Pakistan now”. There is talk of a sale of Russian military helicopters to Pakistan. Moscow and Islamabad agreed to increase port calls by their respective naval warships, fight terrorism together and, perhaps most galling for New Delhi, work together to stabilise Afghanistan.
Even more worrying for New Delhi is Russia's deepening embrace of China, accelerated by Russia's isolation after its Crimean adventure. Although Moscow is painfully aware of its strategic and economic vulnerability vis-à-vis China, economic need has induced Russia to step up energy supplies to China, and supply arms and sensitive defence technologies that it knows China will quickly absorb, reproduce and even export. Russian technology and equipment previously supplied to China - such as the RD-93 jet engine - were diverted to Pakistan; the RD-93 engine now powers the Pakistan Air Force's JF-17 Thunder fighter.
As Narendra Modi and Vladimir Putin sit down together for the 15th Annual India-Russia Summit, they would do well to reflect on ways of resuscitating the “special and privileged strategic partnership”. There are still many common interests that can be built upon. Even as India diversifies its purchase of tactical weapon systems, it looks mainly to Russia for strategic projects like the design and leasing of nuclear submarines; and the co-development and manufacture of a fifth-generation fighter aircraft. India remains dependent on Russia for maintaining its huge Russian-supplied arsenal. Even as Moscow signs and negotiates gigantic hydrocarbon supply arrangements with China, it would want to retain a hedge by enhancing supply agreements with India. New Delhi has already pointed out that it refused to endorse western sanctions after Russia's annexation of the Crimea, and declined to apportion blame. New Delhi has announced that the two countries would spell out a joint road map for the next decade.