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Russia: Putin Emphasizes 'Strategic' Importance Of India Ties

  • Jeremy Bransten

Russian President Vladimir Putin left India today after a three-day visit during which he oversaw the signing of a memorandum of understanding on fighting terrorism, as well as seven other agreements. Putin emphasized Moscow's desire to strengthen what he called its "strategic relationship" with New Delhi.

Prague, 5 December 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Russian President Vladimir Putin left India today at the end of a three-day state visit that resulted in the signing of a bilateral declaration on cementing long-term "strategic" ties between the two states.

Putin and Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihary Vajpayee signed the joint declaration in addition to seven other protocol agreements on strengthening trade, economic, scientific, and technical cooperation.

Close Russian-Indian relations go back several decades, to Soviet times, and Putin stressed the uniqueness of bilateral ties during his visit to New Delhi. But the summit's results were seen as modest, at least by Indian observers. And analysts say "strategic" may not be the best word to qualify the two countries' relationship.

Nicholas Redman of the Economist Intelligence Unit in London told RFE/RL that in many respects, Moscow's relations with New Delhi are easier to manage and more comfortable than those with Beijing, which Putin visited earlier in the week. Russia and India have fought no conflicts in modern times, Moscow does not face a threat from Indian economic competition or migrant workers, and both countries continue to view Pakistan with suspicion. None of these apply to Russia's ties with China. "Certainly, the relationship with India doesn't have half the problems and ambiguities that the Russian relationship with China has. It's fairly straightforward. There is a commonality of interests there and obviously India is a very important arms market for Russia to tap," Redman said.

P.R. Chari, director of the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies in New Delhi, confirmed that defense procurement continues to be the main area of cooperation between the two countries. There are some 300 military contracts pending between Russia and India, but it appears no deals were finalized on this visit. "That is one area which has always been an area of great cooperation between India and the erstwhile Soviet Union and with Russia. And I can't imagine that this would not have been discussed. But for various reasons, both sides decided in advance that they would not sign agreements on this occasion. It is possible that India's defense minister may go to Moscow to sign them, or it is possible that the defense minister from Russia might come to Delhi to sign them. But this was not the occasion," Chari said.

Today's edition of "Izvestiya" cites sources in the Russian delegation as saying disagreement over the price of one key item Moscow wants to sell to New Delhi, the aircraft carrier "Admiral Gorshkov," is proving a major stumbling block. At present, India pays for most of its Russian arms in so-called "clearing rupees." This nonconvertible currency can only be exchanged for Indian goods, while Moscow would rather receive cash.

Another important component of the Russian-Indian relationship is cooperation on the peaceful use of nuclear energy. In 1998, Russia signed a contract to build a power station with two nuclear reactors at Koodankulam, in the state of Tamil Nadu. After several delays, construction began earlier this year. Putin, during his visit to New Delhi this week, said Moscow wanted to make additional deals. But here, too, there are obstacles.

Chari said: "Moscow has indicated that it may be able to provide more by way of civilian nuclear reactors apart from what it is already supplying: two VEER 1,000-megawatt reactors. Now, I'm not very certain whether this will be able to be done because Russia is also a member of the Nuclear Suppliers' Group. And India has not signed any kind of an agreement to accept full-scope safeguards, which really means putting its entire nuclear program under safeguard. So how this will be done, I'm not really sure."

The Nuclear Suppliers' Group seeks to control exports of nuclear materials, equipment, and technology. As one of the 30 signatories, Russia is obliged not to sell nuclear technology to any state that does not have safeguards approved by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on all of its nuclear facilities, as required by the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). As a nonsignatory of the NPT, India does not meet that standard. The United States has already objected to the original reactor deal between Moscow and New Delhi, casting doubt on the viability of future agreements.

And India, like Russia, keeps a close eye these days on what the United States has to say. "India believes that you have to face current realities," Chari said. "And the current reality is that the Cold War is no longer on. And the current reality also is that there is only one superpower in the world. So, whether it is Russia or it happens to be China or it happens to be India, they have to take into account the fact that there is only one superpower left in the world. And all three of these countries have to have some kind of good relationships with the United States -- that includes Russia."

As a consequence, Chari said, leaders in New Delhi value their ties with Russia, but few see relations in strategic terms. "There is, to my mind, no question of having a 'strategic' relationship with Russia. I don't really think that anyone in India is thinking along those terms," Chari said.

The terms India's leaders are thinking along are Russian weapons, Russian nuclear reactors, and possible intelligence sharing, when it comes to combating Islamic extremists.

As Prime Minister Vajpayee put it yesterday: "We have agreed to intensify and widen our cooperation against terrorism bilaterally and in multilateral fora. We exchanged views on the terrorist activities which threaten the stability of our region."

An increase in commercial trade would be welcome by both sides, but at current levels of less than $1.5 billion a year, it will take a lot to boost volume into the sphere of strategic importance.