Indo-Russian Relations: Perspectives

22 Nov, 2000    ·   435

Report of IPCS Seminar held on 10 November 2000 addressed by Madhavan Palat, Centre for Historical Studies, JNU

The most important issue in President Putin’s visit to India was the state of Indo-Russian relations in the post-Cold War era. Earlier, despite India ’s Non-Aligned status, the nature of Indo-Russian relations amounted to a strategic partnership. It included military support to India and support on Kashmir . This era witnessed the bifurcation of Pakistan in 1971.  After the closeness during the Cold War, Russia cooled off towards India in the early 1990’s. 



On the surface, President Putin’s visit seems to have restored the old relationship including a Russian commitment on Indian concerns regarding Kashmir , terrorism, defence ties, and nuclear cooperation, plus a strategic partnership declaration after the visit. A closer look reveals that the present relationship is far less significant than the strategic partnership that existed during the Cold War. The present cooperation is at secondary levels of defence, technology and the economy. In the changed global context, with the US as a “hyper power”, Russia is not in a position to guarantee India ’s security.  In case of such need, India would look towards the US rather than Russia . The relationship is limited for the following reasons:



·                     The US is capable of punishing Russia if a clash of interests occurs between them. Hence the Indo-Russian cooperation on nuclear energy, to which the US is opposed, remains at the level of declaration without moving into operational levels.



·                     Despite inheriting the Soviet Union ’s military and nuclear power, Russia is not looking for a global role. Rather, it seeks a regional role.





The Cold War, like the earlier World Wars was a contest on deciding who shall rule the world. The United States emerged as the unchallenged victor in this contest.  Present day Russia has two choices in defeat. Either to accept defeat, integrate with the world order being championed by the US , and look forward to post war reconstruction as Europe did under the Marshal Plan. Or assert its independence, which will bring it into direct confrontation with the US



These choices form the major political division within Russia today. The Democrats in Russia accepted the logic of post war Europe and began a program of national reconstruction under US auspices. But the Communists did not accept this position. The last ten years have been a struggle between these two parties in Russia .  Boris Yeltsin projected that defeat of the Soviet Union does not mean disaster for Russia as the Communists say, but it can lead to post war prosperity. Despite a popular swing in his favor, the Communist dominated interest groups emerged as the largest party in the Duma. The Communists had the choice of becoming Social Democrats, treating the Communist past as a glorious tradition and a source of legitimacy, but not deriving their current programs from it. Yeltsin had refurbished the entire Russian political system to effect the change from Communism to Social Democracy, which included eroding the State. On the economic side, the planning system was done away with and public sector undertakings privatised. Now the Social Democrats in Russia take a nationalist position minus the Communist past with Russia acting as the regional leader. There is increasing consensus within Russia on this position.



President Putin is reconstructing the present Russian state within this context. This is also the context in which Indo-Russian relations must be analysed. India is in a good position because we can build upon our traditional goodwill with the erstwhile Soviet Union whilst constructing a post Cold War relationship with Russia . In fact, we must look upon the loss of our Cold War ally to be a blessing in disguise because it allows us to build a closer relationship with the US without endangering our relationship with Russia






Q: What is the current state of Indo – Russian relations? Are both keen in raising the relationship to new heights?



R: It is true that the intensity of relations has reduced after the disintegration of the Soviet Union . However, both are keen on developing the relationship. Now the economic content is being emphasized unlike the strategic content during the Soviet era. Russians are aware of that India could play a major role in reviving its economy.



Q: What will happen when the rupee-debt trade comes to an end after three years?



R: That will be a positive development, because the present arrangement is acting as a damper on bilateral trade. The items of trade will expand beyond the present restricted list comprising tea and tobacco. In fact, it was suggested that India pays off the entire debt and starts afresh. But the Indian policy makers ignored this suggestion and are not making enough effort to enter the Russian market.



Q: What are the salient differences between Indo-Soviet Treaty of 1971 and the Indo-Russian Treaty of October 2000? Also highlight the differences between Indo-Russian Treaty and Sino-Russian Treaty.



R: In the earlier treaty, there was a provision for mutual help, but now it is limited only to mutual consultations. However, there is a new added dimension in the 2000 agreement, which has cooperation in nuclear field. As far as Sino-Russian Treaty is concerned, economics is the dominating factor, as Russia is keen on capturing the huge Chinese market. Russia and China share concerns over the developments in Central Asia . On the other hand, there is no common agreement on National Missile Defence and nuclear issues. Overall there are only limited areas of cooperation available between the two countries as compared to the possibilities available to India and Russia



Q: There is much talk about cooperation between India and Russia on combating terrorism. But, there is mention of only religious terrorism and not terrorism as a whole? There can be no solution to the Kashmir issue without defeating terrorism.



R: The urgency for combating terrorism on both sides is clear. But it depends upon how the US would play its cards. The US is focused on only one man—Osama Bin Laden, and not the total issue of terrorism. There is a divergence of approach and perception on this problem. This has to be resolved. Positive signals have to come from Washington . The US , however, prefers Russia to be the local policeman to keep order in the Eurasian region and facilitate the unhindered flow of energy from the Central Asian region. On the issue of Kashmir , Pakistan needs to be contained to contain terrorism in the area. 



Q: It is believed that the future of Indo-Russian relations is good due to the race for markets in the East and wide ranging economic cooperation. But we have not entered into very larger technological cooperation, which is a very important and a potential area for cooperation?



R: Yes. It is true that we have not developed all avenues of cooperation. But, in one of the agreements signed in October there is a provision for cooperation in Science and Technology. How far this will go is not clear. During the Soviet era, since the relations were strategic, the entire cooperation focussed on the defence sector. But now relations are moving towards a wider range.  Russia is very keen to maintain healthy relations with India , as there are no areas of conflict between the two countries.  Since Pakistan is a problem for Russia , especially Central Asia , India is well placed in this regard also.



Q: Defence cooperation is the fulcrum of strategic relations between the two countries. However, Russian equipment is not advanced, but we continue to purchase weaponry from Russia without adequate quality control. 



R:  During the declining years of the Soviet Union , there was a decay in the Russian infrastructure and lack of investments in the defence sector. But, now there is a revival of investments in this field, and consequent improvement in the quality of weapons. The Russians see themselves on par with any developed country. On the other hand, we have had bad experience with weapon systems from the west; hence there is no harm in continuing with arms purchases from Russia . However, there should be improvement in the choice of equipment and negotiations. India will also have to carefully monitor the investment in the Russian military infrastructure.



Q: The US is using terrorism to engulf Russia, India and China . It is not keen on cooperation in this field. Hence it is imperative for these three countries to develop cooperation in this field.



R: I don’t think the US is using terrorism as an instrument of manipulation to counter Russia , China and India . There are other instruments of manipulation available like IMF, WTO, and World Bank. 



Q: Is Russia looking for any strategic partners? Does India play role here?



R: In the wake of NATO expansion, Russia does see the need for strategic cooperation. However, it is uncertain about whom it can cooperate with. It has listed India and China as its strategic partners. But the triangle is a badly conceived idea. The three together cannot face the threat from the US . The three countries have very little convergence of interests.  Further, they have signed separate bilateral agreements with the West to gain some concessions. Besides, there are contentious issues between India and China which would hinder effective cooperation.



Q: We use the term ‘threat’ in different contexts. What is Russia ’s threat perception?



R: Russia ’s threat perception is inherited from the Cold War. The Democrats in Russia view US as a force threatening its territorial integrity and thus endangering democracy and the future of its political development. The Communists view NATO expansion as a major threat. They also perceive the US as hindering the Russian State from its revival to extract resources from the region. However, the current levels of threat perception do not extend to a nuclear attack.