Why India and Russia need to back each other

First Published here.
Despite some recent notes of dissonance in the India-Russia relationship, the two countries can’t but continue to bolster their time-tested partnership, as it’s rooted in strong national interests and a shared worldview.

When Mikhail Gorbachev last visited India in 1988 the entire country was transfixed by their Russian visitor and his massive entourage for almost a week. The media frenzy was simply unprecedented.

How times have changed. Today, a state visit by President Dmitry Medvedev would merit a one-minute clip on Indian channels. Things are scarcely different in Moscow on those equally rare occasions when Indian leaders visit Russia – it’s a big yawn.

Globally, the end of the Cold War has given rise to a ruthless form of diplomatic Darwinism that threatens to dispatch the much vaunted India-Russia friendship towards extinction. While the annual gas spats between Russia and Ukraine would be hard to beat in terms of pyrotechnics, there has been plenty of drama between Moscow and New Delhi.

All at sea
In late April 2011 the Indian Navy’s three most renowned destroyers, INS Delhi, INS Ranvir and INS Ranvijay, sailed into the eastern Russian port of Vladivostok for joint exercises with Russia’s Pacific Fleet.

There was a hitch though – the Russian ships were nowhere to be seen. According to the Russian brass, their ships were assisting the Japanese with rescue operations at the Fukushima nuclear plant. This is as big a snub as it gets. You don’t invite your friends halfway around the world and tell them to go fishing in the Pacific.

While naval HQ on both sides attempted to contain the diplomatic fallout, it was by now transparently clear that not all was well with the already strained Indo-Russian friendship.

In fact, just over a month after that unfortunate incident at sea, there was more trouble – this time on land, when the Russians called off a war game involving the armies of the two countries.

It was pretty obvious that the Russians were upset because of the elimination of their MiG-35 aircraft from the $10 billion global dogfight to sell 126 combat aircraft to the Indian Air Force.

However, if the Russians were showing their displeasure, they were also doing an excellent job of shooting themselves in the foot. The IAF deal is chump change compared with the much bigger, strategic deals India and Russia are working on.

On the Indian side too there is a lot of displeasure, especially over the Russian delay in handing over the refurbished Gorshkov aircraft carrier to India. Resentment has also been brewing over Moscow’s inability to ensure a steady supply of spares to the mostly Russian-armed Indian military.

Dangerous drift
There is a small but vocal lobby in India that wants closer ties with the West, especially the US. They point out the likely benefits that would accrue from hitching India’s wagon to the American engine. For a start, they argue, India would come under the US security umbrella and be free to prosper in the manner of South Korea, Japan and Germany.

If only things were that simple. The aforementioned countries have little or no great power/civilisational ambitions like India, which also has a long history of opposing imperialism. Indians don’t want their country to be America’s sidekick, which is perhaps the role the US has in mind for it.

On a more cautionary note, American influence peddlers represent rabidly right wing groups that don’t want US sway in India restricted to trade and diplomacy. According to British-born Malaysia-based academic Iain Buchanan, “In addition, there must be infiltration of every sector of influence in a society, from religious groups to government departments to local charities to private business.”

Many of these right wing groups were running amok in Russia after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, trying to shut down the crown jewels of Russian industry. Buchanan says these groups promote a brand of economics “which stresses individual profit, corporate obedience, the sanctity of making money”. It is precisely the kind of voodoo economics that has brought down Wall Street and turned America into the most unequal society on the planet. The World Bank and the IMF too have been trying to ram this version of capitalism down India and Russia’s throats.

Lot in common
Despite the headline-grabbing troubles that have frayed nerves in Moscow and New Delhi, both countries have an excellent shot at improving ties because of historical reasons. In the 1950’s when India’s state-owned oil explorer failed to strike oil offshore, it called in US oil experts. The Americans scanned the offshore basin and pronounced it “hydrocarbon barren”.

Thankfully, India’s oilmen didn’t believe them. In 1964, the Russians brought in their seismic exploration vessel Academic Arkhangelsky, which discovered the mighty Mumbai High Field, still the largest contributor to indigenous crude oil production.

Russians have always stood by India, supporting New Delhi with numerous vetoes at the UN. India has reciprocated and despite intense international pressure refused to condemn, for instance, the Soviet Union’s invasions of Hungary and Afghanistan. It didn’t make India very popular in the Beltway, but then, Washington wasn’t paying India’s rent.

Russia has had a profound influence on Indian thinking. For instance, it was only in 1955 when Nikita Khrushchev and Nikolai Bulganin visited India – eight full years after the Indians kicked out the British --- that New Delhi street names with an imperial flavour were renamed; such as Queensway which became Janpath, and Kingsway which was changed to Rajpath.

Both countries have a multiplicity of interests. There are plenty of excellent reasons why they should develop their strategic partnership further.

What’s in it for India?
•Weapons: Russia’s reliability as a quality weapons supplier has never been doubted. Even as the Americans peddle their outdated F-18 and seventies vintage F-16 fighters, Russia has given India the strategic submarine Akula (a major scare word among Western navies), the latest tanks, advanced rockets; plus they will supply the T-50 fifth generation fighter.
•Fuel: India’s nuclear reactors were denied fuel by the West but the Russians pitched in with Kazakhstan’s uranium stockpile. Also, with the world’s largest oil reserves Russia can be India’s strategic supplier if there is a serious crisis in West Asia.
•Jostling for space: The next space race is likely to see more competitors. China, Japan, Russia, the US, India and Korea are all ready for liftoff, but India can be the number one space faring nation if it acquires Russian technology.
•Time-tested ally: The plain vanilla sounding Indo-Soviet Treat of Peace, Friendship and Cooperation signed in 1970 had a secret clause which made it mandatory for Russia to intervene on India’s side if it was attacked. In the 1971 India-Pakistan war when the Chinese were threatening to open up a second front against India, information about this clause was leaked to China; an alarmed Beijing backed off. Indeed, it was the 1970 treaty which saved India from encirclement by the US and China.

What’s in it for Russia?
•Russia needs hundreds of billions of dollars worth of investment. India’s corporate houses are flush with cash. You do the maths.
•As part of BRICS, India and Russia carry more weight than separately. For Moscow, having India as an ally translates into more tangible benefits than keeping Europe or the US happy.
•Russia excels in hardware, India’s strength is software. Indian companies can develop programs for Russia, bypassing any US-led embargo.

As of now Russia is not an aspirational focus for Indians in a way that America – or even Germany and Japan – is. The same can be said about the perceptions of Russian youth about India. But as the world’s economic landscape shifts in favour of India, China and Russia, so will perceptions.

About the author: Rakesh Krishnan Simha is a New Zealand-based writer and a columnist for Russia Behind the Headlines. He has previously worked with Businessworld, India Today and Hindustan Times, and was news editor with the Financial Express.

This article was first published at http://www.indrus.in

Due to a colonial hangover Indians are obsessed with the West particularly the U.S. and England. With both these countries in dire economic straits it is possible that the Indians might stop looking up to these countries. It is a good time for the Russians to step in and enhance people to people contact. For example they could give a subsidy of say Rs 50,000/ or USD 1000/ for every Indian tourist to Russia. Once the average Indians travels to Russia he is bound to talk and write about that country.

The Russians need to see the big picture and remove minor irritants like handing over the refurbished Gorshkov aircraft carrier to India and regular supply of spares. Probably the Russians are aggrieved with the UPA’s obsession with the U.S. but there are other ways of expressing anger without failing to meet earlier commitments. The 126 combat aircraft deal is not yet closed.

The Indians need to realize or be made to remember how the Russians have helped India at various points of time. A friendly and supportive Russia is one more way for India to contain an ever aggressive China. Remember Russia and China share a long border. China must know that an attack on India might result in a simultaneous attack by Russia on China. No country wants to fight two wars at the same time.

The Sukhoi T-50 fifth generation fighter is more advanced than the equivalent US F-22 aircraft and will have some Indian input as well.

The Russian military wants strong relations with India as both nations face similar strategic challenges.

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