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Opinion » Comment

Posted at: Nov 13, 2017, 12:29 AM; last updated: Nov 13, 2017, 12:29 AM (IST)

Farewell to Russian arms!

Can the visit of US personnel to a Russia-built Indian aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya turn out to be the last nail that killed the warmth in Indo-Russia defence ties?
Farewell to Russian arms!

Sandeep Dikshit

For the last 15 years, India and Russia have been locked in a defence relationship that seems unnatural as political ties were drifting. If the product was a problem, both sides sorted out their differences in high-voltage shouting matches, but always behind closed doors. The flow of arms from Russia continued. There was an element of comfort because both sides looked at the regional geopolitics from the same lens even though their political outlook of their ruling elites was diverging.

But the wedges that have increased in frequency are indicative of an imminent reset. During PM Modi's tenure, it began with acute Indian discomfort over Russia's transfer of military hardware to Pakistan. Russian President Vladimir Putin's once did shoot back with, "who gave you that idea?' when asked if India-Russia ties were being taken to the cleaners.

India-Russia rift

Putin rarely holds back his views but he held himself back because Moscow was on the verge of some major successes in non-defence areas where the Indo-Russian ties have traditionally floundered. Once Russia had bagged contracts for nuclear plants as well as entered the Indian petrochemical sector with the buyout of a debt-ridden Indian oil company, it engaged Pakistan in military exercises. 

This discord has gone up by a notch with two reports of Russian protestations over violation of confidentiality in the military field. Photographs back the Russian assertion that American security officials spent an inordinate time on the INS Vikramaditya, called Admiral Gorshkov when it was in Russian hands. The second claim is as unsubstantiated but far more serious — that US officials secretly toured a Russian nuclear submarine on lease with the Indian Navy.

In the world of armed forces, confidentiality is the key to healthy manufacturer-user ties. India can rightly say that Russians are misplaced in pointing fingers as the aircraft carrier is fully-owned and paid for by the Indian Navy. The same cannot be said about the visit to the nuclear submarine, if it ever took place, but the Russian discomfort is evident.

Past case

This was not the case some years ago when Israelis boarded Russian-made warships to install radars and missile systems. There was a protest, but seemingly, more for the record. A few years earlier, the Russians went in for a partnership with the Israelis for the AWACS (Airborne early Warning and Control Systems) after realising that their technology fell short of Indian needs.

New scenario

What changed in the last few years? Moscow is clearly factoring in the politics of repeated embraces and warm words between PM Modi and US President Donald Trump; the bills in the US Houses for making India a non-NATO ally, and India's preoccupation in partnering with Japan, the US and Australia in South China Sea to ring-fence China, currently Russia's closest ally.   

Russia can hardly fault India for exploring its alliance options, especially when it has a weak footprint in the region. Hardly a Russian warship finds it geopolitically advantageous to dawdle in the Indian Ocean. More so, the Indian-Russian defence ties have undergone too many vicissitudes to turn the page over without a serious conversation between the principals of both countries. There was much acrimony over the crippling shortage of spares throughout the 1990s but the understanding diplomacy placed the blame on the chaos following the disintegration of the Soviet Union.

Despite a right wing Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led government whose natural inclination was to look towards the West, the Russian defence industry got a breath of life. By then, it was clear the gifted but ageing scientists in Russia's famed defence design labs were unable to keep up with the new trends. However, trust was missing in the US-India relationship because of US' post-Pokhran sanctions of 1998 and there was desperation for new products because of Narasimha Rao-Manmohan Singh's preoccupation with restoring the economy.  

It is a different scenario now. There is no advanced weapon that the US, Israel or France will not like to transfer. The transfer of technology will certainly remain a headache but the Russians, like their defence manufacturing peers in any part of the globe, are also equally unwilling transferers. The only advantage in keeping faith with the Russians was that their defence products did not come with political strings attached. They still don't, but that perception is steadily eroding. 



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