India’s relations with Russia are at a point where they could soar, or plummet. Minus the celebratory pomp and circumstance likely attending on the January jaunt by US president Barack Obama, president Vladimir Putin’s seemingly perfunctory visit may actually turn out to be more consequential for this country, depending on how certain issues simmering for years get sorted out.
There’s solid geostrategic grounding for Indo-Russian relations that is valuable in the new millennium when Russia is crucial along with other Asian countries and the United States to contain China. Except India has a heftier economy, packs a bigger punch, and has brighter prospects than Russia which, in the wake of its annexation of Crimea, has been economically isolated by America and the West.
The P V Narasimha Rao government helped the Russian economy during its Boris Yeltsin years of diminishment by injecting `6,000 crore to keep the Sukhoi aircraft production plants afloat, for instance, without asking for sharing the intellectual property rights on the Su-30 MKI technologies developed with these monies—a big mistake. And, it was over-generous in working the Indian rupee debt with regard to the diving rouble. Russia is again in difficulty and in need of Indian financial support for that country’s economic bellwether energy sector.
The trouble is New Delhi seems uncertain about what it wants and how to play Putin without upsetting the Washington establishment—the external affairs ministry’s default condition. The MEA description of the strategic partnership with Russia as “special and privileged” was nice but couldn’t have tempered Moscow’s hurt feelings about India accommodating the West at its expense just when another Cold War is brewing.
Russia remains the sole source of sophisticated military technology and assistance without which India’s most critical strategic technology programmes would have floundered. Projects such as the Arihant-class SSBN (nuclear-powered ballistic missile firing submarine) and the gas-boost technology permitting a missile to be fired from a submerged submarine to break water, fire the cap, and ignite the rocket engine, would have taken far longer indigenously to develop. More aware of India’s strategic needs than New Delhi itself, Moscow offered the Tu-22 Backfire long-range bomber as far back as 1971, which the Indian Air Force, in its enormous strategic wisdom, declined. Recently, the entire production line of the latest Tu-22M3M was bought off by China. Russia always hoped its sympathetic understanding of India’s aspirations and its timely and sustained help over the years to surmount technology denial policies of the West would count for something. But it finds Western companies favoured in military deals.
So Putin, it is said, has conceived of two litmus tests: Whether New Delhi will invest, besides the Central Siberian oilfields (up to 10% in Vankov, 49% in Yurubcheno-Tokhomskoye) and the Sakhalin region (from where ExxonMobil with 40% equity could pull out), in drilling for offshore oil in the Arctic and to jointly extract oil from shale available in that area. So far, the Indian response seems keyed to the US environmental concerns which cannot be detached from the latter’s strategic objective to choke Russia economically. India desperately needs energy and more of it from anywhere, so what’s wrong with the Russian Arctic? On the other hand, Moscow sees energy contracts with India and China as revenue earners to ease its economic situation.
The other test relates to Moscow’s unease with India’s favouring Western companies for weapons systems. Thus, the Rafale combat aircraft sale is on (after French defence minister Jean-Yves Le Drian’s flying visit last week) even when it is evident that as a 1980s-vintage museum piece it cannot survive in the air warfare environment of the 2020s and beyond, but it is $30 billion worth of rich pickings for the French aviation industry—the classic game by Paris to divest a not very bright Third World nation of its resources! Equally galling to the Russians is the underway effort to convert the Project 75i conventional submarine project into a Scorpene extension—six more of these French boats but with air-independent propulsion. Then there are the delays in the Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA) programme caused at the Indian end by the quixotic insistence of the air force under Air Chief Marshal N A K Browne on a two-pilot version of this aircraft even if it hugely compromised its low observable or stealth feature. This specification has since been revoked, leading many to suspect that it was a ruse to gut the FGFA programme and shift the funds to acquiring the Rafale.
Of course, Russia is motivated by its national self-interest—when have international relations ever been charity?—and wants to remain the premier purveyor of defence goods to India. The question, however, is which country has been more forthcoming with the more advanced technology? Certainly none of the Western countries who sell dated stuff and disregard offset obligations to build the Indian technological and defence industrial base. Thus, notwithstanding the big talk about co-developing high-tech weapons systems, the US has proposed collaborations on an anti-tank missile and batteries. And the US aerospace major, Lockheed Martin, used the 50% offsets clause in the multi-billion dollar contract for the C-17 airlifters to sell IAF flight simulators and training aids.
Russia has apparently had enough of such tilts against it and wants a comprehensive energy agreement including Arctic oil and, with its advanced Amur diesel submarine design and technologies, partnership in building the 75i submarine. The additional tranche of $5-$8 billion sought by Putin for the FGFA development is nothing considering an entirely new generation of combat aircraft will take to the Indian skies by 2022. Russia, moreover, has long permitted Indian designers the use of its Inertial Confinement Fusion facility in Troitsk, outside Moscow, to rectify the flaws in the Indian thermonuclear weapons. This latter access can be regularised.
Any show of reluctance could sour the Kremlin towards India. Russian defence minister Sergei Shoygu, visiting Pakistan last month, offered a defence pact and arms, for starters the Mi-35M attack helicopter—more advanced than the version with the IAF. Whatever the Russian ambassador Alexander Kadakin may say, that was a clear signal.
The author is professor at the Centre for Policy Research and blogs at www.bharatkarnad.com