India's relations with the US and Russia
Amb Kanwal Sibal

During the Cold War when US and the Soviet Union were acknowledged as superpowers, with monstrous nuclear arsenals at their command, vying with each other internationally, with competing ideologies and alliances, making a comparative analysis of India’s relations with each of them had significance that went much beyond the bilateral dimension. Both the US and the Soviet Union were seeking the support and allegiance of the third world countries, in particular of those who rejected both power blocks and opted for the nonaligned movement. India, as the founder member and the largest nonaligned country, had therefore a special importance in their larger political calculus. india had a moral weight in addition to a political one, and the direction in which India leaned buttressed the diplomacy of the concerned superpower. Which is why India’s perceived leaning towards the Soviet Union was intensely resented in the US, to the point that the memory of this and persisting reflections of nonalignment in India’s foreign policy rankles many US policy makers even today.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the emergence of the US as the only global superpower, the bipolar world no longer exists, and, therefore, equations between india and, respectively, the US and Russia (the state succeeding the Soviet Union) have no longer the same international relevance. Russia, although still a major power, is a diminished one, and is aware of this. It has withdrawn from many parts of the world; it is no longer challenging the US, and even if the relationship continues to have its sharp edges and misunderstandings, the cooperative element in it is not negligible either. Russia has now to cope with strategic challenges to its political, military and economic interests with the emergence of many of the erstwhile constituent states of the Soviet Union as independent states that have carved out policy space for themselves outside Russian control. With NATO and the EU expanding into the former Soviet heartland, Russia’s periphery has narrowed, and demands on it for a successful neighbourhood policy have grown greatly, detracting from the country’s larger international role.

Russia has not been able to compensate for its reduced political status by building a modern, dynamic, rapidly growing economy of the kind China has. Its immense oil and gas resources and its huge mineral wealth provide Russia with revenue, but its growth is not taken as a striking economic success story, despite its inclusion in the BRIC quartet. Russia has slipped technologically compared to the West; its manufacturing sector has declined; it is lagging in innovation.

Militarily it has been weakened too, with long neglect of its conventional forces and absence of sufficient investments in the defence production sector, though with its massive nuclear and missile holdings it remains capable of warding off any security threat to it. The prodigious military base Russia inherited from the Soviet Union has enabled it to keep a share of the global arms market, and use military sales for foreign policy objectives. But with a greatly contracted internal market, the disappearance of the Warsaw Pact- as against the survival and expansion of NATO- and many countries spinning out of the Russian orbit, the competitive challenge to Russia is serious.

With the end of the Cold war the world moved from bi-polarity of sorts to uni-polarity under US primacy. But the US overplayed its hand, over-extended itself militarily and, in an effort to permanently shape the world according to its longer term strategic needs, got embroiled in debilitating wars. With the seeming truimph of its unrestrained capitalized ideology relying on the magic capacity of the market mechanism and individual entrpreneurship to spread prosperity globally, its financial sector moved from profits to greed, from dynamism to recklessness, from freedom from excessive regulation to license to seek disproportionate rewards from heedless risk-taking.

By pursuing self-damaging economic and financial policies, the US has not only weakened itself, it has opened space for China to grow at a whirlwind pace, inundating the US market with its cheaply produced goods, its voluminous earnings swelling China’s dollar reserves to figures unprecedented in history, which, invested in US securities, has financially fused the US and the Chinese economies, making the two countries unhealthily interdependent. The proposition of the G-2 managing global affairs is as much a reflection of the shift in global power as a product of US mismanagement of its own economy, leading to an accelerated rise of China that now threatens US power.

The space vacated by a weakened Russia has been filled increasingly by China. The superpowers of the globalized world, freed from the Cold War ideological confrontation, are not those with military might but those with an economic one. Russia is seeking to compensate for its weakness vis a vis the West by developing closer strategic ties with China. Aware no doubt that a de facto G-2 would be at Russia’s expense, Russia is building equities with China that will enable it to remain a significant player in the developing international scenario.

Both Russia and China have an interest in reducing US global primacy and promoting multipolarity. Both oppose the aggressive world-wide propagation of US/Western values described as universal, as well as military intervention by the West to change unfriendly regimes that seek to limit its political and economic penetration into their territory. Both are subject to military and other pressures because of the active US presence in their immediate neighbourhood. Both question the status of the dollar as the world’s reserve currency. It is not clear whether the decline of US power will necessarily play to Russia’s advantage vis a vis China in the longer term, as the Russia-China relationship has undercurrents of suspicion linked to Russian vulnerabilities in Siberia, the disproportionate demographic balance between the two countries and the inevitable erosion of Russia’s Asian profile with China’s continuing rise.

It is in this broad background that India has to conduct its policy towards the US and Russia. The end of ideological confrontation between the US and Russia after the Soviet collapse means that if India leans in favour or against either of the two countries it is no longer in the context of communism versus democracy or state control versus free enterprise in the economic field. India has much more room for manoeuvre in its relations with the two countries because US and Russia, no longer out and out adversaries, have a constructive relationship in many areas, even if the democratic and market economy promise of Russia post the Soviet collapse has not lived up to US expectations. If the US and Russia are constantly trying to place their relationship on a more productive footing, despite difficulties, India has every reason to arrange its relations with both countries in accordance with its own needs and the potential of the individual relationship.

India itself has vastly changed in the last two decades. India’s economic rise, stemming from its economic liberalization policies initiated in 1991, coincides with the Soviet Union’s collapse. The political and economic equations between India and Russia have changed radically since then. Politically, on issue like J&K, India is no longer as dependent on Russia’s goodwill in the UN security Council as in the past as, with improvement of its ties with the US and Pakistan’s image as a terrorism spawning state, Pakistan’s capacity to mobilize the US/West against India has got eroded. Pakistan is now being looked at as a potentially failing state, a problem state, whereas India is being seen as a rising global power. The negative hyphenation with Pakistan has been replaced by a positive hyphenation with China.

India’s candidature for a permanent membership of the Security Council has now received a carefuly formulated US endorsement, neutralizing in the process the ground gained by Russia in being the first P-5 country to do so. In the civilian nuclear field, with the Indo-US nuclear deal and the lead taken by the US in obtaining an exception from the Nuclear Suppliers Group for civilian nuclear cooperation with India without it adhering to the NPT, Russia’s lost its exceptional status as the only country actually engaged in civilian nuclear cooperation with India.

In the security field, post-Soviet Russia under President Yeltsin’s westward lurch revised the 1971 Indo-Soviet Treaty, removing its vital defence clause. This ended the special security relationship between the two countries. President Putin, on coming to power, and realizing, including in the face of US pressure, the value of a strong relationship with an independent minded country like India, tried to recast the “special” relationship into a new “strategic partnership”, including in its ambit the assured transfer of advanced Russian defence equipment and select sensitive technologies. This served also to secure orders for the out of work Russian defence industry, preventing its rapid decline and preserving the Indian market for Russian defense equipment. India, hugely dependent on Russia for its defence needs, had its own serious anxieties about maintaining the level of preparedness of its defence forces in the face of a real prospect of disruption of supplies from a collapsed Soviet Union.

An off-shoot of the post-Soviet scenario for India-Russia defence cooperation has been friction over inadequate product support for Russian equipment procured by India. Commercial pricing without commercial level servicing, erratic pricing by Russian suppliers aggravated by privatization of sections of the Russian defence industry, delay in supplies of spare parts because of procedural problems on both sides, documentation and training shortfalls, non-adherence to delivery schedules etc have been the underside of an otherwise valued and reliable partnership. The problems associated with the aircraft carrier Admiral Gorshkov are symptomatic of this.

Even if the product support problems with Russia have eased, the changes in the international situation favour a diversification of India’s defence acquisitions. the most notable change being the transformation of overall ties with the US. The Indo-US nuclear deal, with all its restrictions and political caveats, represents a change in US strategic thinking towards india. If the underlying purpose was to put the India-US relationship on a new footing, remove mutual distrust of the Cold War period, lift the obstacles to India’s greater integration with the international system, recognize the value of the long term relationship with the next big Asian power to rise, exploit the market opportunities in a growing India, tie up India within evolving global structures superintended by the West, create a better strategic balance in Asia in the face of China’s threatening rise, make India part of a hedging strategy against China etc, new breakthroughs in the India-US defence relationship had to be part of the equation.

The India-US defence relationship has progressed slowly in view of the weight of the past marred by sanctions, technology denials, targetting of India’s strategic programmes, arming of Pakistan etc. Fitful efforts have been made since the mid-90’s to establish defence cooperation. The Indian Navy has been ahead of the political establishment in organizing regular exercises with the US Navy, extended later to the Airforce and the Army. These exercises did not create any mutual dependency, did not tie down India in any long term engagement, and therefore had low political cost, even as they had the advantage of signalling an opening towards the US. Even here the political reticence has not disappeared when it comes to durable engagement, which is why the Logistics Supply Agreement has not been signed as yet.

Significant progress has been made in sourcing defence procurement from the US, mainly in those areas where comparable Russian equipment is either not available or is inferior. In the last couple of years the US has bagged major multi-billion dollar contracts such as the supply of 6 C-130J transport aircraft, 8 P-8 maritime reconnaissance aircraft and a number of VVIP planes equipped with advanced EW suites. Negotiations for acquiring 10 C-17 heavy lift transport aircraft are likely to be concluded soon. The US should also bag the sizable order for supply of attack helicopters and of light howitzers as well.

India is steadily overcoming its inhibitions in acquiring US equipment because of fears of interruption of supplies in case of a conflict in the region or emergence of strategic differences. These are not irrational fears as India has had experience of sanctions in the past. Even the Indo-US nuclear deal envisages sanctions if India tests again. Sanctions are are integral part of US law and practice. Whatever assurances against interruption of supplies are given at a particular point of time are in the nature of political comfort; so long as US laws exist the potential for sanctions remains. In this light India is displaying unprecedented confidence in its developing defence relationship with the US.

Concerns about the relationship, however, remain at political and practical levels. It is easier for India to describe itself as a “natural ally” of the US on the basis of shared values of democracy, pluralism, human freedoms etc, but this natural alliance does not extend to the strategic domain because there India wants to distance itself from any impression that it is getting politically aligned to the US, or entering into any binding defence arrangements with it. India and the US differ on several security issues in our own region, be it US policy towards Pakistan or Iran, or the China-Pakistan relationship. India is resisting signing some basic framework agreements with the US which the latter considers essential for raising the level of defence cooperation in terms of access to advanced US defence technologies, such as CISMOA, the interoperability agreement, and BASIC, the agreement on heightened technology protection. India signed the End-Use Monitoring Agreement with some resistance because of elements in it that encroached on the country’s sovereignty.

The exclusion of US aircraft-the F-16 and the F-18 from the 126 combat aircraft mega-deal has caused severe disappointment in the US government and aircraft industry, as they expected to secure the deal as a “reward’ for the Indo-US nuclear deal and for imparting concrete substance to the strategic partnership between the two countries. After the initial public expression of dismay the US side has adopted a more mature position, declaring that the relationship with India does not hinge on the results of a single deal and that US defence companies will continue to actively seek to expand their presence in the Indian market etc. In any case, some big defence contracts are in the offing for the US under the FMS route, without international competition and the kind of price negotiation that goes on with other suppliers. The FMS route gives the US a distinct advantage over procurements from other countries as it insulates the acquistions from the corruption scandals that have plagued purchases from other countries.

Concerns about reliability of supplies and imposition of sanctions are absent from the defence relationship with Russia. That relationship is time tested and based on trust built up over the years. The technical assistance Russia has provided for India’s indigenous nuclear powered submarine, or the leasing of a Russian nuclear powered submarine to India to enable it to acquire experience of handling such platforms, is a vital contribution Russia has made to the development of India’s strategic programmes. The agreement on joint designing and production of fifth generation fighter aircraft should give India access to design technologies, an area in which India lacks experience. The agreement to give access to military signals from Glonass, the Russian version of GPS, is significant. The Brahmos missile is another example of Russia beefing up India’s missile know-how and capability.

Even if the decades old defence relationship with Russia has not adequately contributed to the development of India’s indigenous defence industry, with actual transfers of technologies less than what should have been the case, the general thinking is that the US will be even less forthcoming than Russia in transferring technologies. The US conditions for such transfers are much more stringent, with its complex and restrictive export control processes. In the fulfilment of off-set obligations, a comparative evaluation of Russian and US performance cannot be substantially made for the present, as such programmes have not been implemented on the ground yet, but the US companies, with greater commercial flair and more enterprise, have shown greater dynamism in tying up with the Indian private sector than the Russian ones.

US arms transfers to Pakistan increase the threat to India’s security. The US minimizes the problem, claiming that India is much stronger militarily and that such supplies do not change the military balance in the sub-continent. Our Defence Minister occasionally refers critically to these supplies, but in general the government plays down the problem. Buying big ticket US defence equipment even when the US arms our adversary gives arguments to those lobbies in Russia that want arms to be sold to Pakistan undeterred by Indian sensitivities. They see no reason to shun the Pakistani market when the US can sell arms both to India and Pakistan, without much Indian protest. It can be argued that Russia too has helped arm both our adversaries- China and Pakistan. For some years Russia was China’s biggest arms supplier, and it is the Russian RD-93 engine that powers the jointly developed Sino-Pakistan JF-10 fighter. Despite our demarches, the Russian government cleared the supply to China notwithstanding the diversion of these engines to Pakistan. India cannot take objection to Russian arms transfers to China as, unlike US arms supplies to Pakistan, the purpose and intention of the recipient country is not to build up capacity against India specifically. By its arms transfers Russia strengthens the Chinese capacity against the US, Taiwan, Japan etc, and incidentally India too. The case of the RD-93 engines is more ambiguous, linked to the Russia-China relationship, with negative consequences for us.

To conclude, India’s defence relationship with Russia is a developed one whereas with the US it is a developing one. The Indo-Russian relationship is marked by trust, the one with US is still overlaid with mistrust, our historical experiences with the two countries being different. India’s dependence on Russia for defence supplies is overwhelming, whereas with the US such dependence is minimum at present. If the US had won the MMRCA contract, the US footprint in our defence sector would have become much heavier, but that will not happen, though with new acquisitions in the offing the US profile will become higher, opening India to pressures in the future linked to US’s regional policies or differences that may emerge over strategic issues.

Russia is more willing to transfer sensitive technologies to India without onerous conditions like end-use monitoring that are sovereignty infringing. Russia, less involved in our region, does not have the same concern about a strategic balance in South Asia as the US has. After the Indo-US nuclear deal and removal of some Indian space and defence research organizations from its Entities List, the US has become more tolerant of India’s strategic programmes, whereas Russia selectively assists us in improving them technically. Russia too lost out on the MMRCA contract, but it has obtained other major contracts, as for example, for the multi-role transport aircraft and the fifth generation fighter aircraft.

Oddly, while the defence procurement relationship with the US is weak, the military to military relationship is strong. In the case of Russia the opposite holds. We have had over 50 military exercises with the US in the last 7 years but only three with Russia. This is bound to wiegh on the two relationships in the long run, especially as India-US relationship, which is much more broad-based, becomes deeper in different domains.

With India’s expanding defence budgets and security needs, the Russian share of our defence acquisitions is bound to decrease relatively, and that of the US, with which a forward relationship is being built, should increase. But the Russian weight in our defence acquisitions will endure for a few decades because of the high levels of existing dependence. This calls for a realistic appreciation of the solidity and reliability of our relations with Russia even as we diversify. If strategic wisdom dictates the preservation of out defence ties with Russia, it also dictates buiding new partnerships, including with the US, the foremost military power in the world.

Published in Force Magazine Dated: June, 2011

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