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Reaffirming traditional ties

Published : Jan 03, 2003 00:00 IST

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President Vladimir Putin's visit to New Delhi affords an opportunity for India and Russia to highlight their close strategic relations and discuss new areas of cooperation.

RUSSIAN President Vladimir Putin's one-day working visit to New Delhi in the first week of December highlighted the close strategic relations Moscow and New Delhi continue maintain. Putin held discussions with President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam and Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee.

Putin endorsed India's views on terrorism in the South Asian region and was on the same wavelength with New Delhi regarding important international issues. Before his arrival in New Delhi, he had expressed his fears about weapons of mass destruction (WMD) falling into the hands of "bandits and terrorists". He specifically stated in Moscow that the assurances of Pakistan President General Pervez Musharraf on the safety of his country's nuclear arsenal were not reassuring enough.

Putin said that there was a danger of "terrorists" obtaining the knowhow for making rudimentary nuclear devices. However, he praised Musharraf's efforts to root out terrorism from Pakistan and the Pakistan government's decision to pull back troops from its border with India. During his brief interaction with the media in New Delhi, Putin also said that he was in favour of a quick resumption of the dialogue process between New Delhi and Islamabad. Before his visit, Putin had expressed the hope that all outstanding issues between India and Pakistan could be resolved, provided there was "goodwill" on both sides.

The recent terrorist attacks in Russia have only reinforced Moscow's hardline stand on global terrorism. Putin seems determined to defeat the Chechen separatists militarily and be in the forefront of the fight against international terrorism. But Moscow would prefer to deal with the Chechen situation on its own while differentiating it from the Kashmir dispute, which has acquired international ramifications. United States President George W. Bush has given Putin a free hand in dealing with the Chechen separatists as a quid pro quo for Russia's unconditional support for the U.S' campaign against global terror after September 11, 2001.

President Putin also expressed his keenness for a strong trilateral relationship involving Russia, China and India. This idea was first articulated by former Russian Prime Minister Yevgeni Primakov during his visit to New Delhi in 1998. At that time, there was not much enthusiasm for the idea in the Indian and Chinese capitals. But the unchecked hegemonism of the U.S. seems to have led to a change of perception among Chinese policy-makers. However, the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government in New Delhi is suspicious of Beijing's long-term strategic goals.

Putin made it clear that Russia did not visualise a Moscow-Beijing-New Delhi axis to evolve into a political or military bloc. Russian analysts have pointed out that the agreements Putin signed in Beijing and New Delhi showed that all the three countries shared a common viewpoint on issues such as Iraq, Central Asia and Afghanistan. New Delhi, however, is keen to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, at present consisting of Russia, China and the Central Asian nations. The Russian side has said that it "positively views" India's possible entry into the organisation.

Beijing was the first port of call for the Russian President, before his visit to New Delhi. This was his first visit to China after the recent Congress of the Communist Party of China, which elected a new generation of leaders. India and China are the two countries that keep the Russian defence industry in good health. China, in fact, is threatening to outstrip India as far as defence purchases from Russia go. Russian officials said that they were on the verge of signing three important defence deals with China, which would dwarf the much-heralded "Gorshkov submarine deal" with India. However, during Putin's visit, both sides preferred to keep the focus on political issues. Senior Russian officials said that the Gorshkov deal was likely to be clinched in the near future and that the negotiations were almost over. India's Chief of Naval Staff Admiral Madhvendra Singh said in the first week of December that Gorshkov was absolutely necessary for the Indian fleet. Russian officials, however, claim that they would not lose much sleep if the deal does not materialise. "We are ready to scrap the Gorshkov, if the need arises," said a senior Russian official.

Both Indian and Russian officials said that the talks between Putin and Vajpayee were cordial and fruitful. Russian officials say that Putin looks up to Vajpayee as an elder statesman. Moscow and New Delhi have very few differences in the approach to the key issue of global terrorism. Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov said that both countries "are advocating the creation of a democratic multi-polar system of international relations that would safely ensure the interests of security and stable developments of all states". Ivanov emphasised that the recent terrorist attacks in Moscow, Bali, Mombasa and several other places had cast "a new light on the global nature of the threat".

The "Delhi Declaration" signed during Putin's visit reflects the shared concerns of the two countries. It aims at further enhancing the strategic cooperation between the two countries. Both countries also set up a joint working group on combating terrorism. In all, seven documents were initialled by the two sides, including a joint declaration on strengthening economic, scientific and cultural cooperation.

In the joint statement, Russia supported India's position on cross-border terrorism. "Both sides discussed in detail the current situation in South Asia. They stressed the importance of Islamabad implementing in full its obligations and promises to prevent the infiltration of terrorists across the Line of Control into the State of Jammu and Kashmir and at other points across the border, as well as to eliminate the terrorist infrastructure in Pakistan and Pakistan-controlled territory as the prerequisite for the renewal of dialogue between the two countries to resolve all outstanding issues in a bilateral framework as envisaged in the Shimla agreement of 1972 and the Lahore Declaration of 1998," the statement said. In the joint statement, both sides stressed that the "roots of terrorism" lay in their common neighbourhood. They agreed to take "preventive and deterrent measures to prevent and suppress terrorism". Russian officials have said many times in the recent past that the Chechen terrorists have been infiltrating through the Pankisi Gorge in Georgia into Russian territory to spread terror and mayhem. India has also blamed most of the terrorist acts on its territory on infiltrators from across its borders.

Alexander Kadakin, the Russian Ambassador to India, was more specific. In a recent article in the Russian newspaper Nezavisimaya, Kadakin wrote: "Both countries voice a common position with regard to preserving South Asian peace and stability. The pre-crisis state of India-Pakistani relations this past summer showed only too clearly that terrorism could be detrimental to inter-state relations and global stability, if someone was tempted to portray international banditry as some kind of liberation struggle or to use such banditry for attaining foreign policy goals."

It is noteworthy that the Russian government holds Pakistan responsible for the mounting tension in South Asia. Putin criticised Pakistan twice during his visit: he said that he was worried that Pakistan's nuclear weapons could land in the hands of terrorists and asked Pakistan to destroy the terrorist infrastructure and put an end to infiltration. Among the seven documents signed during the visit, Indian officials seem most happy with the Memorandum of Cooperation to combat terrorism, which includes a protocol to set up a joint working group on anti-terrorism. It provides for the joint training of anti-terrorist units.

The joint declaration on economic cooperation focussed on the energy sector. Both sides expressed their keenness to expand cooperation further in this sector, which is already playing an important role in bilateral relations. India's Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (Videsh), in partnership with Exxon-Mobil, a U.S. company, runs a profitable off-shore project in Sakhalin. The public sector company, in one of the biggest oil deals signed in Russia, purchased a 20 per cent share in the Sakhalin 1 project. Oil production is due to start there from 2005. According to the terms of the contract, 40 per cent of the production will belong to the ONGC for the first five to six years. The Sakhalin venture will tap gas that will then be piped into northern Japan. The Sakhalin group of islands lie just north of Japan.

India and Russia have also decided to cooperate in the Caspian Sea basin and have identified a few other areas for exploration. There are an estimated 340 million tonnes of oil and 420 billion cubic metres of gas in the Sakhalin oilfield. Senior officials connected with India's oil sector have said that tough negotiations preceded the ONGC's successful entry into the potentially lucrative but highly competitive Russian energy sector. When negotiations appeared deadlocked two years ago, Vajpayee had to personally put in a word to the Russian President. A Russian consortium is interested in bringing Iranian gas into India but this would entail laying pipelines through Pakistani territory. Given the current mindset of the Indian leadership, this plan has naturally not found too many takers.

On Iraq too, the two countries hold similar positions. Both Moscow and New Delhi remain strongly opposed to the use of unilateral force or the threat of use of force by any single power, describing it as a violation of the United Nations Charter. The joint declaration said: "It was stressed that a comprehensive settlement of the situation around Iraq is possible only through political and diplomatic efforts in strict conformity with the rules of international law and only under the aegis of the United Nations.

There have been reports that during the recent meeting between Presidents Putin and Bush in St. Petersburg, an assurance was sought from the Americans that Russia's economic and strategic interests will be protected in case a change of regime takes place in Baghdad. India's External Affairs Ministry, taking its cue from its Russian counterpart, is also seeking a similar assurance from the Bush administration.

India has been keen on further expanding cooperation with Russia in the field of nuclear energy. Foreign Secretary Kanwar Sibal told the media before Putin's visit that there was the potential for the two countries to move ahead in this area. Sibal said that given India's huge energy requirements, it had no option other than enlarging its nuclear generation capacity. With the work on the Koodankulam nuclear power plant to be completed soon, New Delhi is on the lookout for more such projects. Putin said in New Delhi that Russia was willing to help India increase its capacity in nuclear power generation but stressed that Russia was a signatory to various international treaties relating to nuclear proliferation. The question of how to deal with the nuclear waste that will be produced in Koodankulam has not been resolved.

During the Putin visit, both sides agreed that there was an urgent need to boost bilateral trade, which could reach only $1.4 billion last year. Russia is unhappy that India is still paying in rupees for the weapons it has been purchasing. India owes around $10 billion as debt to the erstwhile Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. The repayment is being done in goods and converted rupees. According to Putin, Russia accounts for only 1.2 per cent of India's entire trade turnover, receiving 1 per cent of all Indian imports.

Meanwhile, Russian-Indian military-technical cooperation is expanding. Russia's annual weapons sales to India are estimated to be $1 billion to $1.2 billion. India produces T-72 and T-90 main battle tanks and Sukhoi Su-30 MKI multi-role warplanes under licence from Russia. Both countries are jointly developing and producing state-of-the-art weapons and equipment. The joint development of the supersonic cruise missile BrahMos is a case in point. Contracts for the delivery of Ka-31 helicopters were signed in the last financial year. Other contracts include the modernisation of the Ilyushin-38 aircraft and the upgradation of Mk877-EKM submarines.

Russian officials believe that by enhancing India's security they are strengthening their own country's security. However, the Russians are wary about the growing competition from countries such as France, Israel and the U.S. for India's arms market. They are particularly upset that spares for their fighter planes such as MiG-21s are being sourced from third countries.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Jan 03, 2003.)

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