Guest Column - Force Magazine
Not Same As Before
Defence continues to be the centrepiece of India-Russia relations
Kanwal SibalBy Kanwal Sibal
India’s ties have remained stable with Russia during the decade. The annual summits between the leaders of the two countries have been held without a break, providing a platform to monitor the relationship and resolve issues as they arise. The tone of exchanges has remained unchanged whether the president has been Putin or Medvedev. Since power in Russia has remained within the same political circle, change in personalities at the top is less relevant than in situations where power is transferred from ruling to opposition parties with different priorities and agendas.

Speculation that the relationship was losing its closeness and warmth began to surface after the India-US nuclear deal, with an impression in Russia that the government was inclining too much towards the US. In a rising India, Russia was considered less relevant to its needs for investment, markets and technology. The US rhetoric about bolstering India into becoming a global power, the successes of our entrepreneurial class and the expansion of the middle class with its aspirations strengthened this kind of thinking.

Lack of sufficient people-to-people contact also meant that the focus of the media and the society at large has not been on the Russia relationship in the years of India’s economic rise and the hype about its global status in the making. Although Indian leaders have tried to convey the message that relations with Russia as a tested and trusted friend remain a priority for India, and that its other relationships will not be at the cost of ties with Russia, the reality of changing Indian external equations cannot be denied. This does not mean that India does not value its relations with Russia, it does; it is that other relationships, such as those with the US which have been transformed, have captured the public imagination.

Defence has remained the centre-piece of India-Russia relations, which no doubt provides strength to the relationship in the strategic sense, but also weakens as it limits the range and depth of the relationship, making it lop-sided. If over-dependence on Russia in defence supplies has been viewed as a problem, then the decade has not seen any significant reduction despite the Israelis, the French and the Americans making headway in the defence sector in India.

Russia being a trusted partner of India since decades, it is wise on India’s part to maintain a strong defence relationship with it, even as it enters into defence relations with new partners like the US and Israel and keeps the European pillar alive by continuing to forge ties with countries like France in particular.

In the last decade, India has placed a follow-up order for 31 Mig 29k aircraft, additional 42 Sukhois, 347 T90 tanks and three frigates, 80 Mi 17 medium lift helicopters and 12 Mi 17 v5 helicopters. In terms of co-development and production, India signed for participation in the Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA) project for which Indian design engineers are already in Russia in significant numbers, as well as jointly developing the Multi-Role Transport Aircraft (MRTA). In 2011, India extended its military-technical cooperation agreement with Russia for another 10 years. All this means long-term defence linkages with Russia.

During these 10 years India re-negotiated the contract for the aircraft carrier Vikramaditya, with an agreement to pay USD 2.3 billion as against the originally contracted price of USD 974 million. The carrier will be handed over by November this year after a delay of five years. Russia’s technical cooperation with us to build our indigenous nuclear submarine the Arihant was made public by the platform’s symbolic launch in 2009. A Russian nuclear submarine INS Chakra also joined the Indian fleet on lease in 2012.

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