Waiting to Bloom

India-Russia relations have remained under-nourished

Pravin Sawhney and Ghazala Wahab

When Russian President Vladimir Putin arrived in India on a three-day state visit in the first week of December, he certainly made the headlines but no media frenzy marked his stay in India. Despite a joint declaration underlining cooperation on wide-ranging issues, what most people remembered of the visit was a translation gaffe: President Putin standing next to Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh making a statement which basically meant that Russia supported India’s candidature for the permanent membership of the United Nations Security Council but without veto power. Sure enough, edits followed on the Great Russian betrayal and the Indian leadership expressed its distress. The following day, however, President Putin did away with the interpreter and spoke in fluent English. He said that he meant permanent membership with veto power. In the midst of all this, not many bothered about the real essence of the fifth summit meeting between Russia and India since October 2000, when President Putin became the first Russian leader to visit India after a gap of eight years.

Such has been the nature of this friendship which has survived many ups and downs and has endured for nearly five decades. Probably, because it runs so deep, India over the years had begun to take Russia, the successor state of Soviet Union, for granted. Following its break-up, Russia was too busy to hold itself together that relations with India were no longer a priority. Moreover, with the break-up leaving huge debts on either side, there were many recriminations and accusations. But with his ascendancy, President Putin made it clear that relationship with India needed to be infused with fresh inputs. Because even as the geo-political and geo-economic realities of the world may change, India and Russia cannot change their geography, and geographical reasons alone demand closer ties. Today, the cooperation which started in the early Fifties and involved a buyer-seller relationship encompasses joint ventures in Military-Technology, space, oil and gas and information technology. To emphasise this new-emerging cooperation, President Putin was accompanied by oil and IT professionals from Russia.

Though India professed to be non-aligned, it always tried to forge a closer relationship with Russia, then Soviet Union. While the first Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru visited USSR in June 1955, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev reciprocated by coming to India a few months later. The Khrushchev years saw the relationship strengthening, so much so that in early Sixties it agreed to transfer technology to co-produce the MiG-21 jet fighter in India, which it had earlier denied to China. In 1971, before the India Pakistan war, India signed a treaty of friendship and cooperation with the Soviet Union, primarily to ensure the Soviet veto at the United Nations in war. Since then, despite change of regimes on both sides, the relationship has lumbered on without any spectacular highs or depressing lows. With the emergence of the United States as the only super power in the world and the break-up of the Soviet Union, there have been a number of commentators in India who have been advocating that India should focus more on the Western bloc led by the US, implying by default a down-gradation of relations with Russia.

What these analysts don’t appreciate is the changing nature of India-Russia relationship. Today, it is a partnership of equals, borne out of similar concerns and probably beliefs. It is clear that President Putin is increasingly becoming a challenge for the Western nations and the US. It is also clear that even as the West expresses its displeasure or wrings their collective hands in despair, President Putin is determined to increase Russia’s sphere of influence. It has historically straddled Europe and Asia and looks determined to continue to do so. And it appears poised to counter US’ unilateralism with multi-laterism in which it seeks not only India’s partnership, but also a trilateral India-Russia-China relationship. While the latter is a bit far-fetched, the bilateral relationship has a great potential as it unfolds in the following articles.


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