5 January 2015

A fine sense of drama - Putin's recent proposals have thrown a challenge to India

Krishnan Srinivasan & Hari Vasudevan

Vladimir Putin in New Delhi, December 11, 2014

In an international scene unfolding not necessarily to India's advantage, a traditional constant is welcome and India's all-weather relationship with Russia is doubly appreciated when it is substantive rather than ceremonial. The Russian president, Vladimir Putin, has always possessed a fine sense of drama, and during his recent visit to India, he used this to project his country as a potential key factor in India's energy security, thereby adding a new dimension to his version of the erstwhile German Ostpolitik or Eastern Policy, as a supplement to Russia's existing Chinese linkages based on commerce and military cooperation. Putin's initiative was deftly steered and without fanfare. The president's use of the media has its effect in Russia, especially as seen in the course of the year-long Ukraine crisis, and his previous visits to India were not lacking in this touch, involving large media interaction and teleconferencing with audiences from different cities. On this occasion, however, such packaging was left out.

The absence of any advance build-up should not have blunted the Indian anticipation of some unusual initiative, because India has always held a special place in Putin's world view. India has been the president's particular interest and he has carried the bilateral relationship on his own shoulders, picking at times the appropriate government agency and official to assist him. In Putin's opinion, India has been a trusted friend with whom Russia can have few problems, and the bilateral relationship lacks the current animosities with other countries that are brought about by common borders or contentious history.

The Russian and Indian near abroads overlap in Central Asia, but India is the only country not to have played any role in the parking of funds or in the spoliation of Russian human resources in the dark years of the 1990s, and has been a firm adherent to the spirit and letter of past agreements on loans and interest payments. In addition, India's presence on the world stage - commanding a degree of attention in international affairs by virtue of population numbers, civilization and erratic talent - has never been used in causes against Russia. In the president's entourage in Russia, there has been an Indian group in his advisory council, and there is even an Indian member of parliament in the Duma representing the president's United Russia party.

Given this background, the down-played orchestration of Putin's latest visit to India was noticeable, and, in fact, seemed to be of a piece with the frankly lacklustre record of late in the bilateral relationship. The heights that the Russian inventory had attained in Indian defence platforms suffered an obvious decline, as the purchase of Rafale aircraft from Dassault Aviation confirmed, this time with full transfer of technology from France that hitherto only the Russian MiG and Sukhoi series had supplied, and additionally with the powerful private corporate backing to France by the Reliance group. The Indo-Russian commercial relationship, burdened with problems of logistics, also displayed few signs of vitality. And finally, the latest Russian decision to supply some military helicopters to Pakistan attracted considerable concern in India.

It is true that elements of geopolitical convergence were clear in the Russian/Chinese sponsorship of India for membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. In addition, the Narendra Modi government in New Delhi did not deviate from the United Progressive Alliance's Ukraine policy and refused to take a position on the re-integration of Crimea within Russia. But at a time when Russia, because of its Ukraine policy, is subjected to a sanctions regime imposed by the Nato members without the benefit of the United Nations' approval, and was challenged by Indian sceptics to demonstrate the variety of its 'look east policy' beyond a strongly developing relationship with China, the backdrop to the visit promised little. A short stop in New Delhi, a cancelled address to Parliament, a few public statements about improving diamond off-take from Russia's monopoly producer, Alrosa, and miscellaneous scattered agreements on nuclear energy and oil investment: these elements constituted the projected agenda. In interviews both in Moscow and New Delhi on the eve of the visit there were no hints of anything more impressive. The Indian press projected agreements on diamonds, while the Russian media quoted authoritative sources about a 'privileged strategic partnership'.

In retrospect, this was a fine strategy, which prevented an anti-Putin and anti-Russian campaign in an Indian media either wholly self-obsessed or dominated by transparent American interests. The press in India, whether of the left or right-wing persuasion, has remarkably chosen to ignore the reversals that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization has suffered in its Ukraine policy over the past months, in the same way that it only projects Western outrage at the events taking place in Ukraine. Moscow-based sources have disappeared from our media and the perspectives of Russia and China, the two permanent members of the United Nations security council, are consciously understated or ignored.

Therefore, when Putin played his trump card in New Delhi, there was no advance preparation, and there was some drama when Russian newspapers drew pointed attention to $100 billion worth of contracts signed in less than 24 hours. The Russian group that arrived in India was itself a geopolitical statement; Putin's aircraft brought with it the Crimean premier, Sergey Aksyonov, a name on the Nato sanctions list. The status of the premier, ostensibly in India on a private visit, may have been in doubt, but his presence, predictably denounced in Washington and Kiev, has been projected by the Russian media as evidence that India is not Nato-influenced territory.

The scale of energy cooperation envisaged by the two countries was the high point of the Putin visit, and the Russian press has portrayed it as a bid for the whole of the nuclear energy production capacity that India has in mind over the near-term, namely of over 20 nuclear reactors. The Modi government has agreed to 10 reactors to start with, over the next 20 years. This is the most substantial part of an energy vision statement that includes supply of liquefied natural gas to India, export of 10 million tonnes of oil a year to India, a $1 billion joint venture for hydro-electric projects and additional Indian investments in Russian oil fields. This last sector will involve not only the Gas Authority of India Limited and the Oil and Natural Gas Corporation, but also the Indian private sector - a significant departure from past practice because the Russian government has never before partnered Indian private enterprises. In the area of military equipment production, Moscow's proposals for the medium Mi-17 and light Ka-226 helicopter manufacture and export from India have been accepted, and 60 per cent of defence weapons and platforms will still be of Russian origin. All aspects of the Putin visit considered, these changes in Russian policy may introduce a sharp adjustment in the way in which private and public activity is integrated by the Russians in future approaches to India. Furthermore, this is very much part of the principles that guide the Russian-inspired Eurasian Union with which India hopes to collaborate in future.

In the numerous commercial agreements concluded, the Putin visit placed stress on Russia's strengths in special technologies and energy, and underlined the West's weaknesses in engaging India in precisely these areas. This is well understood in Washington, which has been circumspect in its reactions. The eventual implications, though, must remain uncertain. Will the enhanced engagement with Russian nuclear energy generate rancour among the Indian public of the kind already seen at the reactor at Kudankulam? Will Russia's Indian private sector partners lead it into unpleasant complications, such as the entanglement of the Russian firm, Sistema, in the 2G scam? Will new pressures be brought to bear on New Delhi by its Nato-oriented partners such as the European Union and Japan in the context of their tensions with Russia centred on Ukraine and the significance of the Eurasian Union?

What the answers to these questions will be, and whether the Putin visit will later be seen as a milestone towards a new type of Indian non-alignment in an evolving global architecture is something that can only become clear in the future. But what is immediately obvious is that Putin's proposals have thrown a challenge to Indian policy-makers, and the ball is squarely in India's court to shape the consequences.

K. Srinivasan is a former foreign secretary.
H. Vasudevan is a specialist in Russian and European history at Calcutta University

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