Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 130

Common Russian-Indian positions and the desire to boost relations were also highlighted during a five-day visit which Indian Defense Minister George Fernandes made to Russia on June 26. Indeed, a meeting between Fernandes and Russian President Vladimir Putin was described by diplomatic sources as “unprecedentedly warm and cordial.” Putin was also remarkably effusive in describing his own feelings for India. He reportedly told Fernandes that he sees himself as “the closest, dearest and best friend of India in Russia.” One Indian source suggested that those words were especially significant in the face of Putin’s reputation as a “man of few words who does not indulge in usage of hyperbolic language” (Times of India, July 4). In fact, however, hyperbole has become one of the hallmarks of Putin’s conduct of foreign policy. He has already lavished praise on British Prime Minister Tony Blair while extolling Russian-British ties, to cite one example, and then, during a subsequent visit to Berlin, described Germany as “Russia’s leading partner in Europe and the world.”

Rhetorical flourishes aside, however, the Fernandes visit appeared to be a success in terms of giving a further boost to relations between the defense establishments of the two countries. Fernandes met with his opposite number, Russian Defense Minister Igor Sergeev, and the two men reportedly presided over the signing of a protocol aimed at expanding Russian-Indian defense ties. Few details of the agreement were made public, though Fernandes told reporters that the agreement provided for Indian-Russian “cooperation in the field of new weapons system [and] advanced military technologies,” while Sergeev said that Russia would train Indian defense personnel and technicians. Other news sources quoted officials as indicating that the two sides had agreed to set up a joint commission headed by the two defense ministers. The move was said to be significant because the coordinating body for Indian-Russian defense cooperation had previously been headed by lower level Defense Ministry officials.

Better coordination in this area is not unimportant. India is already, along with China, one of world’s two major purchasers of Russian military hardware, and arms dealings appeared to figure high on Fernandes’ agenda in Moscow. New Delhi is in the midst of a major military buildup, with defense spending set to rise this year by an unprecedented 28 percent, and Moscow hopes to reap the benefits. Reports last week suggested that the Indian and Russian delegations had made considerable progress on finalizing deals under which India would acquire Russian T-90 tanks, Su-30 fighter plans and–possibly–the decommissioned Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Gorshkov. Negotiations on all three deals will apparently continue. In the past there have been reports of Indian dissatisfaction how Russia fulfilled its defense contracts; the two sides presumably worked last week to resolve their differences in this area (The Hindu, June 27, 29; AFP, June 27; Russian agencies, June 27-29; The Economic Times, June 29).

There were also reports last week that Fernandes had sought in his talks with Russian leaders to get assurances from Moscow that sensitive Russian military technologies would not find their way from China to Pakistan. Russian defense officials reportedly gave those assurances, with one top Defense Ministry official telling reporters that “as regards supplies of Russian-made weapons and military hardware to other countries, including China, Russia is above all guided by the principle of doing no harm to existing Russian-Indian relations” (The Hindu, June 27, 30).

Discussions in this area suggested just a hint of tension between Russia and India over Moscow’s now well-established “strategic partnership” with China–India’s main regional rival and a close ally of Pakistan. Indeed, it was perhaps noteworthy that there was no talk over the past two weeks of any nascent Chinese-Indian-Russian strategic “triangle.” That concept–seen as a possible tool to build a Russian-led international counterweight to the United States and NATO–was first articulated several years ago by then Russian Foreign Minister and later Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov. That the idea went nowhere and seems now to have faded from Moscow’s agenda suggests that the Kremlin could yet face some difficulty in managing a situation in which its two key Asian allies–and two major purchasers of weaponry–are themselves longstanding regional rivals.