Russia and India have reached a tentative agreement on military cooperation in Central Asia, aimed at resolving any potential conflict of interests between the two powers in the strategically important region. Russian President Vladimir Putin reached no definitive accord during his December 3-4 visit to New Delhi, but he also did much to build mutual understanding concerning the future needs of the Russian defense industry and promoting bilateral security relations. Moscow has recently noted the increased contacts between India and Tajikistan, as India is building a runway at a military airport near Dushanbe. The understanding reached during Putin’s visit indicates that both sides will try to defuse competition in providing military assistance to Central Asian countries and, wherever possible, seek cooperative measures instead (Itar-Tass, December 4).
Such political possibilities have emerged partly as a result of the strength of defense exports to India and the skilful handling of India’s strategic concerns. The Russian delegation submitted more than 350 draft contracts worth an estimated $3.5 billion for consideration. This vibrant export background has not been lost on Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, who said, “Indian-Russian cooperation is not limited to dollars alone and measured in terms of prices. Indian-Russian relations have long since gone beyond the buyer-seller framework. We are building up cooperation in joint scientific and research projects, experimental design and licensed production. We are seriously not just thinking but planning to go into third countries’ markets with a jointly produced product,” Ivanov explained on Russian TV (NTV, December 4). Clearly one potential area will be Central Asia, where possible joint ventures could reduce rivalry and provide yet another alternative to expensive contracts with Western defense companies. It also involves a quid pro quo, as Moscow will expect sensitivity to its geopolitical concerns and strategic interests in Central Asia.
A source within the Russian military delegation in New Delhi pointed out that Russia is the only major arms exporter in the world that, while dealing with India, does not sell weapons to Pakistan. This fact alone, coupled with the strong and burgeoning defense export trade from Russia to India, predisposes the Indian government towards at least lending a sympathetic ear to Moscow’s political concerns, especially when they relate to Central Asia. The supply of military spare parts from Russian companies is regarded as a crucial part of expanding business with India, trying to negate the competition that has developed with Central and East European companies seeking to sell parts at cheaper prices.
Putin is convinced that such close military-technical cooperation results from the special relationship between Russia and India. Illustrating this, Putin highlighted the Russian-Indian Brahmos joint venture, which produces an anti-ship cruise missile that has entered service with the Indian navy. He hopes that such ventures will provide the basis for developing future missile technology with applications in peaceful programs. Russia and India are in talks about setting up a joint venture to manufacture 155-mm heavy artillery units. Sergei Chemezov, head of Russian arms manufacturer Rosoboroneksport explained, “This would be a NATO-caliber gun. We are willing to start up joint production so that they can then be sold on to third countries.” Although talks remain at an early stage, the company has a solid basis for confidence in seeking to expand its access to the Indian market, since it has done business worth over $4 billion with India so far this year.
Ivanov believes that such Russian confidence in the Indian government is not misplaced. “Under Russian law there has to be a final-user certificate for any finished product,” (Itar-Tass, RIA-Novosti, December 4). This stipulation, regulating trade, will cover new agreements, though it is likely to exclude projects specified in the military-technical cooperation program until to 2010. “We have to reach the conclusion that that third country is not hostile either to India or Russia, and then assess from the financial point of view what is beneficial to us — to supply the output from Russia, or to produce it in India and sell it from there,” Ivanov elaborated.
Thus, the strength of Russian-Indian defense cooperation is not only growing, but acting as an incentive to widen further the quality and diversity of the product supplied. Russian diesel-powered submarines procured for the Indian Navy open up the military-technical and supply side of the market, which Moscow is keen to foster. Research and technology exchanges aimed at boosting this trade also contribute to an atmosphere of strategic partnership that makes it more likely that India will become inclined in the future to pay closer attention to Moscow’s concerns about its activities in Central Asia. In this sense alone, Moscow will have little against India’s hypothetical presence in Central Asia, and in the context of Moscow’s recent backtracking over the election in Ukraine and fears within the Kremlin about yet more diminution of Russia’s influence within the former Soviet Union, these moves towards an understanding with India indicate the scope and seriousness with which Russia is attempting to tighten up its military and security links with Central Asia.