Stronger ties

Published : Apr 09, 2010 00:00 IST

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and his Indian counterpart Manmohan Singh at a press conference in New Delhi on March 12.-RAMESH SHARMA

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and his Indian counterpart Manmohan Singh at a press conference in New Delhi on March 12.-RAMESH SHARMA

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin was on a short but eventful visit to New Delhi on March 11-12. In order to strengthen their strategic partnership further, India and Russia finalised during the visit some important agreements, worth more than $10 billion and pertaining mainly to defence and nuclear power projects. Relations between the two countries are back on a solid track, said Alexander M. Kadakin, the Russian Ambassador to India. Indian officials said the range of agreements reflected the diversified nature of the bilateral relations. Officials from both sides spent hours hammering out the deals and narrowing down the differences.

After a tough round of negotiations on costs and technical issues, a final price of $2.3 billion was agreed upon for the reconstructed aircraft carrier Admiral Gorshkov. Russia was demanding $2.9 billion for the refitting work. In 2004, the two sides initially agreed on a price tag of $974 million. Inflation, cost overruns and other factors called for fresh negotiations on the price.

Refurbishing Gorshkov was like putting a new heart in a middle-aged man, said Kadakin. This is a significant development given the fact that at one point of time the Indian side had even threatened to walk out of the deal. The Indian Navy, with its blue water ambitions, is desperately in need of a second aircraft carrier. Moscow has committed itself to delivering Gorshkov to the Navy by 2012.

Putin announced that Russia would provide 29 MiG-29K carrier-based fighter aircraft to the Indian Navy. Already 16 fighters have been inducted into the naval fleet. The price of the additional fighter jets is estimated to be around $1.5 billion. The planes will start arriving in 2012 and will be used on the indigenous aircraft carrier being built at the Cochin Shipyard.

At the commercial level, the highlight of the Putin visit was the agreements relating to nuclear power projects. Agreements were signed to build two more nuclear reactors at Kudankulam (in Tamil Nadu) and one at Haripur (in West Bengal) within the next 10 years. The Indian government has indicated that more Russian nuclear power plants are in the pipeline.

Pointing out that Russia was the first country to cooperate with India in the civilian nuclear energy sector, Russian officials said they were prepared to construct 10-12 nuclear power plants at short notice. With Indias energy needs set to rise 20-fold in the next two decades, Russia is optimistic of generating more business.

Sergei Kiriyenko, head of Russias state-owned nuclear corporation Rosatom, who was part of the official delegation, said in New Delhi that six nuclear reactors would be built between 2012 and 2017. Russian Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov said the reactor agreement between the two sides included the construction of up to 16 nuclear energy units at three Indian locations. But such an agreement, given its scale, will take years and many more prime ministerial and presidential visits to fructify.

The supplementary agreements signed relate to hydrocarbon and mining sectors. Indian oil companies have been relatively inactive in Russia after the landmark Sakhalin-1 project. Most of the recent big contracts for oil and gas explorations have gone to Chinese and European companies. This has been a cause of heartburning in New Delhi.

Things may be about to change. Indian oil companies are holding talks with their counterparts for more blocks in north Russia. The Russian side wants reciprocal access to the downstream oil and gas business in India. Bilateral trade between the two countries is lagging at $7.5 billion. They have pledged to raise it to $20 billion by 2015. The energy and mineral sector could provide the basis for a surge in bilateral trade.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh described the Putin visit as rich and very substantive. He said the two sides had finalised several important and long-pending defence cooperation projects, which will deepen our long-standing cooperation in this vital sector. This is an assurance of sorts to Moscow, which was no doubt a little worried as India signed big ticket defence deals in recent years with the United States, Israel and France. Putin, while stressing Russias long-standing role as Indias leading weapons supplier, reiterated that Moscow, keeping in mind the concerns of our Indian friends, would not enter into defence deals and military cooperation agreements with Pakistan.

India is expected to spend around $80 billion in the next 10 years to modernise its military. Russia is keen to retain its dominant position in the Indian defence bazaar. Its track record as the only country that has provided India with high-tech equipment, such as nuclear-powered submarines, cannot be forgotten despite the end of the bonhomie that characterised bilateral relations during the Soviet era. India is the only country with which Russia has a military-technical cooperation agreement.

Russia has offered to produce its version of the fifth-generation stealth fighter, code-named T-50, in a joint venture with India. Mikhail Pogosoyan, the director of Sukhoi, which will be manufacturing the planes, said in New Delhi that he was optimistic about India going in for joint production of 200 T-50s. He said that apart from the U.S., Russia was the only country involved in the production of fifth-generation stealth aircraft. The Indian side expressed its interest in the venture, but tough negotiations over pricing appear to be going on behind the scenes.

A notable success in military joint venture between the two countries is the production of the cruise missile BrahMos. The two sides were involved in the project right from its design stage to marketing. The BrahMos is rated as one of the most potent cruise missiles in its class.

Russian officials have conceded that the problems relating to the availability of spare parts have not been sorted out. Ambassador Kadakin said that even the Russian Army was dependent on other former Soviet republics for spare parts for its armed forces. Moscow has suggested that the production of spare parts for planes, tanks and other important military equipment for the Indian armed forces be shifted to India.

Manmohan Singh also announced that the two sides had signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) for bilateral cooperation in satellite navigation. Both sides are studying the possibility of using Indian launch vehicles to put the Russian Global Navigation Satellite System (GLONASS) in orbit. GLONASS, with its access to military signals, will be a great addition to Indias defence capabilities.

The two sides have been cooperating in space programmes since the mid-1970s. The Aryabhatta satellite was launched from the Soviet Union in 1975. The Indian Space Research Organisations Chandrayan II, scheduled to be launched in 2013, will carry a lander/rover built in Russia. The Indian spacecraft scheduled to be launched in 2016 is said to be modelled on Soyuz. Built with Russian expertise, it will carry two Indian astronauts.

Manmohan Singh emphasised that the two sides had identified information technology and telecommunications as focus areas for future economic cooperation. Joint ventures in pharmaceutical production are in the pipeline. The Russian side has given an assurance that visa procedures will be simplified in order to make business-related travel between the two countries less complicated.

This was the fifth official visit of Putin to India and his first as Prime Minister. During his first visit in 2000, after taking over as President, he emphasised the need for the two countries to chart a new but ambitious course in bilateral relations. It was during that visit that the Declaration of Strategic Relationship was announced. Indo-Russian relations had suffered a setback following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and during the wasted decade under Boris Yeltsin as both Moscow and New Delhi had redrawn their foreign policy priorities.

Manmohan Singh praised Putin as the architect of the close strategic ties between the two countries. He even told Putin that Russia was a key pillar of our foreign policy and we regard Russia as a trusted and reliable strategic partner.

India and Russia, along with China and Brazil, are part of BRIC, the quadrilateral economic grouping whose goal is to promote a multipolar world economy. China and India are predicted to emerge as the worlds largest suppliers of manufactured goods, while Russia and Brazil would become the leading suppliers of raw materials. BRIC is poised to play an important role in global fora and challenge the dominance of the U.S.

Then there is the strategic trilateral grouping consisting of Russia, India and China (RIC), which meets at regular intervals. The Foreign Ministers of the three countries met in Bangalore in October 2009 and pledged to fight terrorism jointly and work for expansion in trilateral cooperation.

Russia and India have other shared concerns too in the region, including the situation in Afghanistan. Both countries dread the re-emergence of the Taliban. Putin said the security situation in Afghanistan had an impact on Russia and India. Moscow is suspicious about Washingtons global agenda. It is particularly upset about its plans to build a missile shield on Russias borders.

As Putin concluded his visit to New Delhi, there were reports in the Western media questioning the reliability of Russia as a high-tech weapons supplier, along with the news that the Russian Navy was planning to import four Mistral-class amphibious assault ships from France. This is the first time after the Second World War that Moscow will be buying defence weaponry from the West.

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