A defining moment

Published : Oct 14, 2000 00:00 IST

The Putin visit opens a new era of strategic partnership, which is logical and necessary in an increasingly multi-polar world.

STRATEGIC ties, a score of agreements, defence deals and common understanding marked Russian-Indian relations during President Vladimir Putin's India visit, which were clearly reminiscent of times past. Are India- Russia relations back on track? Is a new pole emerging in an increasingly multi-polar world? The key Declaration of Strategic Partnership signed by President Putin and Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee as the defining vision of Indo-Russian relations for the next decade, emphasises the conti nuity of bilateral relations, touching on the earlier 1971 and 1993 treaties of friendship and cooperation that had marked the past era of Indo-Soviet ties, and its aftermath. It opens a new era of strategic relations that can help both countries in the changing international context.

The importance of the Declaration of Strategic Partnership document lies in the fact that both countries include political, economic, cultural and scientific cooperation simultaneously with defence and geo-strategy as part of their understanding of a sec urity partnership. This broadens the concept of security itself and balances the earlier relations that privileged defence-related security.

The proposal to convene annual summit-level meetings and hold regular bilateral consultations on issues of mutual concern and cooperation in the United Nations and inform each other of planned foreign policy initiatives, institutionalises foreign policy linkages on a higher plane than before. The document proposes cooperation in the fight against international terrorism and separatism, an issue that deeply concerns both countries. The Strategic Partnership document clearly pointed to the turmoil in Afgh anistan and the Taliban menace in the form of international jehad that plagues both Kashmir and Chechnya; issues that Putin took up in his address to Parliament.

The Joint Communique that explicitly states that bilateral talks between India and Pakistan could resume only after cross-border terrorism ended and that the talks should be based on the Shimla Agreement. This is a clear indication that Russia is bending over backwards to consolidate past friendship and make strategic partnership a reality.

The Declaration of Strategic Partnership provides that India and Russia would share information, hold political consultations, mount international pressure and also make some joint decisions on international terrorism. Russia is likely to propose a speci al meeting of the U.N. Security Council on terrorism and separatism, which will be in India's interest. This issue is important to Russia because the Taliban is up against the Russian supported Northern Alliance of Ahmed Shah Masood in Afghanistan and th ere is much pressure on the Russian Army on the Tajikistan border. In Chechnya, foreign mercenaries have furthered the cause of Chechen separatism, creating a situation of virtual civil war. The West has been critical of human rights abuses in Chechnya; and an isolated Russia could do with Indian support on this issue. The decision to set up a joint working group on Afghanistan shows the extent of seriousness of the two countries on collaborating on this front.

It is not only foreign policy relations that have been institutionalised. An inter-governmental commission on defence and technical cooperation will structure long term defence linkages. Two defence deals and a deal on civilian nuclear energy worth $3 bi llion have been signed. India will receive new equipment, including T-90 tanks, the latest Sukhoi aircraft and a refurbished aircraft carrier. Russia will license the production of Su-30 MKI jet fighters in India. The defence deal comes in the backgroun d of a long record of Indian dependence on the Russian arms industry, and the fact the Russia and the former Soviet Union, did not make it obligatory for India. Further, at times of crisis as during the Kargil conflict, the Russians have stripped their o wn Army of spares to meet Indian demands. In turn these sales will boost the sagging Russian military industrial complexes, like those in St. Petersburg and Irkutsk, which are dependent on Indian orders.

Defence has long been a dominant component of Indo-Russian relations, but had declined after Soviet disintegration. Between 1992 and 1996, India imported Russian weapons worth $3.5 billion. After 1996, Russian arms sales saw an increase. An agreement on the sale of highly advanced air defence systems, clinched in 1998, was viewed as important for Indian security, especially in the context of the economic and military sanctions imposed by the United States. The Indo-Russian defence deals have contributed in the past and will now contribute to the new arms race that has been set off in the sub-continent following the Indian nuclear tests and the Pakistani response in May 1998.

THE Russian decision to support further civil nuclear energy plants in India - the commissioning of the Koodankulam nuclear plant and the proposed cooperation in the field of atomic energy - is bound to draw Western criticism. The U.S. had tried to impos e sanctions on the Russian firm Glavkosmos when it wanted to sell cryogenic rockets to India. Russian nuclear supplies to India will contradict rules set out by the Nuclear Suppliers Group of advanced nations, who are bound to question these agreements. However, despite U.S. pressure to stop military cooperation with India (which was part of U.S. President Bill Clinton's talks with Russian President Boris Yeltsin in September 1998), the Russians would like to emerge as independent partners and prioritis e relations with India.

Similarly, agreements to strengthen trade and economy within the framework of the Indo-Russian Inter-Governmental Commission on Trade, Economic, Scientific and Cultural Cooperation were reached during the Putin visit. Since the rupee-rouble agreements an d the matter of the steady repayment of Russian debt were sorted out in the 1993 and 1997-98 agreements, the path for furthering economic ties has been cleared. While trade and investment between the two countries are likely to go into private hands, the government has simplified customs and other procedures to facilitate these.

Furthering scientific, academic and cultural collaboration, factors that had been part of the 1971 Indo-Soviet treaty but that had declined after the Soviet disintegration, have been revived in this agreement. These aspects need to be given greater prior ity because it is such cooperation that seeps into civil society and encourages better understanding between two peoples and cultures. Indo-Russian relations, which were fluctuating after the Soviet disintegration, were revived to some extent during Pres ident Yeltsin's visit to India in 1993. With the current agreements, Indo-Russian relations will receive an impetus, though much more needs to be done to revive bilateral economic relations.

During the 1990s, India and Russia made paradigmatic shifts in their foreign policies and worldviews. Russia, charting its course as a new nation in transition to capitalism, made a systemic break with its past, rejected theories of imperialism, shunned contradictions with the West and shed beliefs on a natural alliance with the Third World. The new and pragmatic foreign policy regime decided to accept realism as its creed and locate itself as a normal state within the European Union.

Simultaneously, India felt trapped in a fast globalising world. The South bloc perceived that its allies among the non-aligned nations were either sinking into a debt trap or were forging ahead as local tigers with their own set of regional alliances. In dia was bereft of an ally in the Soviet Union. The old problems of its borders remained unsolved. The choice before the Indian Foreign Office was then to shed the tried and trusted foreign policy ideals, push for integration with the globalisation phenom enon and engage with the U.S.

It was with Yeltsin's visit, followed by meetings in 1994 and 1997, that India and Russia once again felt that a strategic partnership could be worked out. The reality of globalisation and the revival of a trend towards a multipolar world pushed the two countries into a strategic and economic alliance. In Russia, the neo-liberal economic policies, which advocated a complete destruction of Soviet-type institutions and market-led growth, led to a complete collapse of the financial and economic system. Lev els of foreign aid and investment were far below expectations and were completely tied to the import of Western goods. The trade balance between Russia and the West was skewed against Russian goods. The secure COMECON (Council for Mutual Economic Assista nce) trading bloc was over.

In these circumstances Russia once again had to seek its old allies, in India, West Asia and South East Asia. Russia then made a second shift in its strategic thinking. While ideological proximity and alliance with the West was to be given emphasis (not necessarily priority), Russian foreign policy aims were to be realised in the CIS (Commonwealth of Independent States) near abroad and with old allies in West Asia and Asia. The appointment of Yevgeny Primakov as Foreign Minister in 1996 concretised this shift.

A strategic partnership between India and Russia seems logical and necessary in an increasingly multi-polar world. Ever since the establishment of an independent Russia, its interests in Europe, West Asia and in Asia have clashed with those of the U.S. T he Russians were opposed to East Europe's inclusion in the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO); Russia opposed U.S. policy in the former Yugoslavia and they backed Serb interests through the Bosnian crisis. On the question of Kosovo, the Russians o pposed NATO military positions. The Russians continue to support the governments of Iran and Iraq as far as possible. In South Asia, Russia continues to support India on the Kashmir issue, is opposed to the internationalisation of the Kashmir issue, and in opposition to the U.S. pressure, continued to supply defence equipment and nuclear power technology to India. They have faced criticism on their military policy in Chechnya.

Of course, Russian opposition to the U.S. on all these issues does not have the severe contradiction and the military or ideological opposition of the Soviet times. The rhetoric is missing, but the opposition continues. This opposition is based on Russia n national interests and traditional alliance structures with these states that the Russians would like to continue with. While the form of Russian strategic policy has radically changed, its content has much continuity.

On the question of Afghanistan, Russian opposition to the Taliban is based on its fear of the conflict and fundamentalist ideology spreading into Central Asia, especially the bordering Tajikistan, which is guarded by Russian troops. Russian press and for eign policy literature have squarely blamed the U.S.-Pakistan nexus for reinforcing the Taliban. India has made efforts to build ties with the Central Asian States but has had to compete with Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, China and the West. Indian and Russian interests coincide in the Central Asian States. It would give India a clear geo-strategic advantage to link up with Russia in this region. Though Russia along with the rest of the international community was critical of the Pokhran-II nuclear tests, it reiterated its position that India sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and become a party to nuclear non-proliferation treaties. Russia opposed the economic sanctions imposed by the U.S., and refused to impose sanctions itself.

In these circumstances, the Russian-Indian strategic link seems inevitable and mutually advantageous, providing the scope for a further expansion of ties.

Anuradha M. Chenoy teaches at the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment