President Putin much-heralded visit to India has now drawn to a close. Though it has injected a badly needed boost to a flagging bilateral relationship between India and Russia, the bubble of bonhomie and friendship that has been generated by the visit may not last too long.
Just over a month later, President Obama is due to visit India on the occasion of the Indian Republic Day celebrations, which will overshadow whatever the Putin visit may have accomplished, and could relegate the revived relationship again to the back-burner, where it has been for the past several years. This is not to say that there have not been any worthwhile results in regard to Indo-Russia bilateral cooperation, but the larger picture of the state of the relationship has not improved qualitatively.
At issue is the question: how relevant is Russia to India now? The growing stand-off between the west (read: America) and Russia has pitted India into an unenviable and awkward dilemma. Traditionally India has been non-aligned with leanings towards the erstwhile east (read: Russia), but its strategic entente with the west in recent years, starting with its wide-ranging cooperation with the United States that began in 2005, when the Indo-US nuclear deal was initiated, to this year Modi visit to Washington, has developed apace.
The US has already overtaken Russia in defence weaponry sales to India. Though India may not wish to take sides in this polarised situation, its stakes with the west are now greater than those with Russia. Secondly, Moscow closeness with China, manifest in the huge $4.5 billion gas deal between the two, has made New Delhi wary of Russia. Third, Moscow decision to sign the first ever defence cooperation agreement with Pakistan, during the Russian defence minister visit to Islamabad in November has caused great anguish in India.
The 22-hour Putin visit to India did result in some major agreements in the fields of nuclear power, oil and defence. According to press reports, the Russian state enterprise Rosatom will build a total of 12 nuclear power reactors in India, the Russian state oil company Rosneft signed a 10-year agreement with Esso Oil India for crude supply and an agreement was signed between the two sides for India to assemble 400 Russian multi-role helicopters a year. On defence, India and Russia agreed to revive many dormant projects, particularly one to develop a fifth generation fighter jet and a multi-role transport aircraft, besides the helicopters. Russia also agreed to export crude diamonds to India for processing.
However, both delivery and performance on all these deals are yet to be tested. In the past India has found problems in such agreements due to Russian failure to meet delivery schedules, sudden revision of rates and prices and its reluctance to transfer technology and even spare parts. Recently, the late delivery of INS Vikramaditya caused much unhappiness in India. Though agreement was reached in this visit to move forward on the stealth Fifth Generation Fighter jets (FGFA) and the multi-role helicopters, these are two projects that have remained stalled for years. It needs to be seen whether they will get off the ground now.
In another vital area, the two-way trade has hovered around a paltry $10 billion for many years. In the Putin visit an ambitious jump to $20 billion by 2015 has been envisaged, but the problems hindering bilateral trade have not been addressed nor are they likely to go away by merely setting a big target. The reasons impeding enhanced trade are many and varied: language barrier, connectivity issues, stiff travel regulations and lack of information about trade on each side.
Seen in the background of the broader geo-political context, alluded to in the beginning, the tangible results of the visit may well not materialise. As an Indian commentator noted just before the visit: The two countries have substantially moved away from each other, as can be seen from the divergent courses of their foreign and defence policies. Even the buyer-seller defence relationship is being threatened by global competitiveness.
A major development in this regard is the new Russian overture towards Pakistan. Putin was quoted by an Indian newspaper as saying that Russia growing ties with Pakistan are good for India. Putin said: (Regarding) Pakistan, we have held talks on Russia possible assistance aimed at improving the counter-terrorism and anti-drug operations. In my view, this kind of cooperation serves the long-term interests of all countries of the region, including India. Putin then down-played the defence cooperation agreement with Pakistan as being limited in scope.
The interesting aspect of the Putin visit to India is that this is a time of geo-political re-alignments in the region, but not in the traditional mould. The Russians are averse to let India drift away from their sphere of influence, but are also opening up options with Pakistan and even China. The Indians are attempting to keep their old alliance relationship with Russia, while enhancing ties with China and moving surely and inexorably towards consolidating ties with the west. Everyone is avoiding a zero-sum game.
The writer is a former ambassador.