Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 188

Although the two principles involved–Russian President Vladimir Putin and Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee–hailed the results of last week’s long-awaited Indian-Russian summit in New Delhi, Russian newspaper commentaries have not been quite so universally glowing in their assessments of the event. Indeed, some Russian accounts have underscored their belief that the New Delhi talks, while an important success, served in many respects to highlight Moscow’s own eroding international stature and, conversely, India’s growing influence on the world stage. Some Russian commentaries also called into question the importance of the highly touted “strategic partnership” agreement signed by Putin and Vajpayee, while others cast doubt upon the finality of the raft of seemingly lucrative arms sale agreements that were signed by the two countries. These various Russian commentaries suggested that the summit might not have been quite the triumph for Russian diplomacy that many in Moscow have assumed it would be.

Commentaries of this sort appear also to reflect a parallel phenomenon–that the bloom is off the rose, so to speak, in terms of public perceptions of Vladimir Putin’s diplomatic endeavors. Prior to the sinking of the submarine Kursk in August, Putin seemingly could do no wrong in his dealings with foreign leaders. Since that tragic event, however (and beginning with the Russian-Japanese summit in Tokyo on September 4-5), Putin appears to have butted up against some of the foreign and domestic realities which constrain Moscow’s diplomatic activism and to have performed in a considerably more ordinary fashion. The Kremlin’s erratic reaction to the ouster of President Slobodan Milosevic in Yugoslavia, moreover, which began while the Russian president was in New Delhi, appeared also to embody some of his misjudgments. Moscow’s policy toward Belgrade seems unlikely in this instance to have earned the Kremlin much credit either at home or in many foreign capitals.

As had been expected, the highlights of Putin’s long-awaited (see the Monitor, September 22) visit to New Delhi were the signing of a Declaration on Strategic Partnership, as well as a host of arms sale agreements and an accord on nuclear cooperation. The two sides also formalized their intention to consult on the question of Afghanistan, and formed a “joint working group” for dealings on the matter.

But the strategic partnership agreement was the centerpiece of the summit talks. Putin suggested that Russian-Indian negotiations leading to the agreement “confirmed the coincidence of long-term national and geopolitical interests” between Moscow and New Delhi (Washington Post, October 4). An Indian commentary, meanwhile, described the agreement as a Russian-Indian effort both to “infuse a sense of purpose into their bilateral engagement, which has been adrift, and, above all, to try and build a multipolar global order.” In an apparent reflection of India’s growing confidence, however, the same commentary noted that the two countries had made clear that their partnership is “not directed against another state or group of states.” This qualification, the commentary said, reflects shifts in the post-Cold War geostrategic landscape: namely, that Moscow is no longer backing New Delhi against possible provocations from China and Pakistan and that India now sees itself as free to pursue much improved relations with the United States The Hindu, October 5).

Western and Indian news reports describing the package of arms sale agreements which Russia and India signed on October 4 were not entirely consistent in their details, but suggested that the two sides had indeed managed to finalize the most important of the deals under negotiation in the months–and years–leading up to the New Delhi talks. Most reports estimated the total value of the new Russian arms sales to India at about US$3 billion. Most important were agreements by which Russia will supply to India 310 T-90 main battle tanks–186 of them to be produced in India under Russian license–and the rights to produce, also under Russian license, 140 Su-30 multirole fighter jets. In addition, the two sides reportedly reached an agreement under which India will acquire the Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Gorshkov and–ultimately–forty-six naval MiG-29 fighters to deploy on it. According to one report, New Delhi is to get the Admiral Gorshkov for nothing, but will pay Moscow some US$650 million for refitting the vessel. It is to be delivered to India by the end of January 2003. The two countries were said also to have reached agreement on a deal whereby New Delhi will lease four Tu-22 Backfire bombers from Russia. To oversee these arms deals, and to promote contacts between Russia and India in this area more generally, the two sides also signed an agreement establishing a commission on military-technical cooperation. It will be headed by Indian Defense Minister George Fernandes and Russian Deputy Prime Minister Ilya Klebanov.

Despite the apparent deluge of agreements, however, some Russian newspapers offered strikingly cautious assessments of the summit results. A commentary in Rossiiskaya gazeta, for example, pointed to the dozens of trade agreements already signed by Russia and India and observed that few have been implemented in any meaningful sense. Trade between the two countries remains anemic and mutual investments minimal. Segodnya offered a similar view, suggesting that the grand talk of increased trade and economic cooperation connected with the strategic partnership agreement is “no more than words” (Rossiiskaya gazeta, October 4; Segodnya, October 5). Such views suggest obvious parallels between the Russian-Indian strategic partnership and the Moscow-Beijing agreement of the same name. In both cases the two sides have had difficulty backing up their political declarations with substantive trade and economic dealings. Whether Russia will be able to do so with India will go a long way toward determining the real strength of their bilateral relationship.

The Russian press also threw up some red flags relative to the arms deals signed in New Delhi. According to Kommersant, Indian negotiators played hardball during Putin’s stay in New Delhi by refusing until the last minute to sign arms deals that had presumably been prepared in advance. The newspaper said that the Indian side had continued to press for price reductions, and that it had agreed to go forward with the deals only after winning a significant political concession from Putin–very public statements of support for India in its conflict with Pakistan over Kashmir. According to Kommersant, Russian diplomats would have preferred not to do this, hoping instead to mute the issue in a fashion that might allow Moscow to deal pragmatically with Islamabad on issues related to the Taliban in Afghanistan and Russia’s own war in Chechnya. Indeed, the Putin delegation reportedly also went out of its way to clear up consternation generated in New Delhi by the Kremlin’s dispatch of an envoy–Sergei Yastrzhembsky–to Pakistan late last month. According to Kommersant, Russian weakness at the summit was also reflected in Putin’s failure to push hard for New Delhi’s accession to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and in an Indian-Russian agreement to increase cooperation in the field of nuclear energy (Kommersant, October 5-6).

The accuracy of Kommersant’s portrayal of events in New Delhi remains open to question, but the newspaper’s portrayal of what occurred during the arms negotiations may explain some of the factual inconsistencies that appear in reports about the key arms sale agreements. Other Russian newspapers, moreover, appear to back up Kommersant in this area. Izvestia, Segodnya, and Nezavisimaya gazeta, for example, suggested that the hopes of Russian defense officials had not been fulfilled in New Delhi, and that the documents signed there did not amount to final agreements (Izvestia, October 5-6; Segodnya, October 5; Nezavisimaya gazeta, October 6).

What all of this means is unclear and may not be clarified any time soon. Among the other agreements signed by the two countries was one which reportedly classifies as secret many of their dealings in the area of military-technical cooperation (Vremya novostei, October 4). Yet Russian reports suggest, at the least, that Putin’s visit may not have been quite the sparkling success that official announcements suggested and Russian officials were hoping for. Some Indian reports, likewise, noted the relative lack of enthusiasm with which Putin was greeted in New Delhi as compared to the reception accorded U.S. President Bill Clinton during his visit to India in March of this year. One Indian newspaper went so far as to say, for example, that the same Indian lawmakers who had jostled each other for the opportunity to greet Clinton had “offered a cold shoulder” to Putin. Their lack of interest reportedly forced the Indian government to downgrade the importance of Putin’s address to the Indian parliament (The Telegraph, October 4). Such trifles may mean little in the long run, but they at least suggest that India may be fitting itself into the post Cold War world order more comfortably than Russia, and that Moscow will have to work harder than it did in the 1970s to make the now reborn relationship with New Delhi a successful one.