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India and Russia - How much of the past into the future?

Within three days of last October, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh shook hands in Moscow with Russian leaders and in Beijing with Chinese leaders. “A tale of two handshakes” is the shortest possible historic and strategic summary of an important moment for India and possibly for the world. The merit of condensing the event to five words goes to the Indian daily quality newspaper “The Hindu”. The paper’s editorialist recognised the fundamental difference between the two handshakes, the first, with Russia, demonstrating “the comfort of a strategic relationship”, the second the economic weight of the two Asian giants in world affairs.

The first relationship, with Russia, is being recognised as “time-tested”, the other one as “new”. There is a lot of historic truth and of illusion in this summary. Let us take a closer look at Russia in order to understand the wider context of India’s position in today’s world affairs. The reference to “time-tested” relations with Russia includes, of course, the nearly four decades of partnership with the Soviet Union, when the latter was the main arms supplier of Non-Aligned India. Outside the Cold War setting, India’s partnership with the Soviet Union was, indeed, one of the strongest friendly relationships in international affairs.

Even in 1988, three years before the factual demise of the Soviet Union started, five agreements including a Soviet credit of 53 billion Rupees were signed with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbatchev. In that year, the list of official contacts of the highest level was still marked by partners of the Non-Aligned movement; seen from the then big contenders for world domination, India was still an irrelevant strategic outsider. In 1990, the trade credit agreement with the Soviets was extended by five years, while India was still an almost irrelevant power in world affairs. The year 1991 saw dramatic events and changes in India’s domestic politics with a partial break-up of the “licence raj”. It was the beginning of the new era, of post-socialism, of economic liberalisation. In foreign affairs, disintegrating Soviet Union had already practically disappeared from the Indian Government’s sight; the USA came closer by improving trade relations, while China, for the first time in thirty years, sent its Prime Minister on an official visit to India. The following year it became clear: the Soviet Union, which had disappeared, was lost as the strongest supporter in international diplomacy and the most important source of military supplies, for which India did not have to pay in hard currency.

The concept of non-alignment had to be redefined and the network of international relations had to be reoriented. The international system had moved towards a multipolar structure with increased influence of the USA on the whole world. Russia was pushed by the USA to cancel military high-tech agreements and India had to engage with China over various bilateral conflicting topics. During the following years, relations with the USA moved more and more to the fore-front of India’s international relations and culminated in 2008, when the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group, the 45 most advanced countries in the field of nuclear technology, resumed normal relations with India allowing it to carry on its nuclear energy policies unimpeded. Over those last two decades, Russia has almost disappeared as a relevant supporter of India. It took growing difficulties of India with its dangerous neighbour Pakistan and its competitor China to rebalance its international network. Although being a victim of Pakistan-led terrorism and an amazed spectator of the US raid on Abbottabad, Pakistan, which killed Osama bin Laden, India had to swallow that the US Government deemed not necessary to rearrange its loyalties in the region. Pakistan remained  -  and remains to date -  a favourite US partner and ally. So, India continues to be exposed to immediate neighbours who have a capacity to oscillate between unfriendly and outright dangerous. It does not come as a surprise, therefore, if India, today, remembers a friendly partner of the past who used to be the perfect match in the strategic setting of four decades before 1991: Soviet Union i.e. Russia. In the eyes and recollections of India, Russia seems to be a more reliable partner than what is available to India today. India knows Russian technology, in particular military technology, and it trusts Russian partners more than others. It decided to get back to Russia for the supply of nuclear power plants, of the aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya and of a number of air fighters and helicopters vaguely reconstituting, thus, the strategic setting in force from the fifties to the eighties of the last century. That is what Prime Minister Singh meant by saying in Moscow “Russia has stood by India at moments of great international challenge when … our friends were few” and “India will never forget it”. That was a hearty handshake compared with the handshake two days later in Beijing, when he just expressed the rational aspect of India’s international relations when seeking a working relationship with China. Implementing the age-old strategic wisdom of “the foe of my foe is my friend”, India entertained during some forty years a strong alliance with the Soviet Union against (US-sponsored) adversary Pakistan and the other unfriendly neighbour China. With Russia’s return on the regional chessboard, some of that strategic pattern has now reappeared. India is not to be blamed for reviving old loyalties. Whoever feels compelled to frown at this fact should rather look at the USA.

28th November 2013 / Philippe Welti

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