Russia is Open for Nuclear Business in Asia

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 72

Although other issues have taken center stage recently, it is possible to discern in Moscow’s policies across Asia a renewed emphasis on the sale of nuclear reactors to interested Asian partners. This emphasis, of course, is not new. During 2007-2008 Moscow offered nuclear reactors to 13 Arab states that were obviously concerned (and clearly remain so) about Iran’s nuclear program. The more recent sales combine both old clients, such as India, and new customers like Pakistan and Vietnam in interesting ways that reflect some of the driving forces in Russian foreign policy.

First, it is clear that a robust foreign demand exists for nuclear reactors in general, as seen from South Korean, French, and US sales abroad. This leads foreign governments to seek to buy nuclear reactors and associated know-how and technology quite openly. For example, Vietnam’s government has recently confirmed that it is asking Russia to build its first nuclear reactor with the help of Russian specialists (Interfax, March 17). Similarly, Pakistan’s military attaché in Moscow, Brigadier-General Tahir Siddiq, openly invited extensive Russian arms sales (military-technical cooperation) to Pakistan (Zavtra, October 7, 2009). In return, the Russian Consul General in Karachi, Andrei Demidov, said that Russia can help Pakistan in various ways, especially in nuclear energy, but Pakistan must devise a program outlining how it will benefit from Russian technology and economic potential. Demidov clearly made his remarks in the context of exploring ways through which both states’ businessmen could expand bilateral trade (Islamabad,, March 15).

In other cases Russia is building upon preexisting contacts or sales as in the cases of Jordan and India. In March 2010, Jordan’s, King Abdullah, visited Russia and the bilateral discussions he conducted focused on outstanding issues in the Middle East, like the peace process. Also, and quite typically, these talks concentrated on arms sales to Jordan and Moscow’s interest in investing in key strategic projects at a regional level (not only in Jordan), such as nuclear energy, railways, and water desalinization (Amman, Petra-JNA, March 16). Similarly, during Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin’s, trip to India he signed numerous agreements with the Indian government relating to arms sales, energy cooperation, and nuclear energy. Typically, India wants to expand its previous level of nuclear cooperation with Russia by importing more uranium and eliciting Russian cooperation to help it build at least five new nuclear plants, while continuing its assistance for existing plants like the one in Kundukulam. Indeed, according to Russian officials, India may seek to build up to 20 nuclear reactors and produce over 20 gigawatts of nuclear energy by 2020, and consequently, Russian assistance to India might not stop at just five reactors (The Moscow Times, March 17; Asia Times, March 15; Radio Free Europe, March 12).

Moscow’s renewed emphasis on such sales is not surprising. Recently, the Deputy Prime Minister, Sergei Ivanov, who bears responsibility for overseeing the defense industrial sector, including atomic energy, boasted about the expanding geography of Russian dual-use exports and admitted that the top priority fields for such exports include, among others, nuclear power exports (Interfax, March 16). Moreover, Ivanov’s remarks indicate the increasingly visible links among Russian customers for nuclear power whereby they also are buying substantial amounts of Russian arms as well as oil and gas. Putin’s deals with India involved allowing it to participate in Russian energy projects and energy sales. Vietnam was its largest single buyer of weapons in 2009, and King Abdullah’s visit was clearly devoted in part to discussions concerning future Russian weapons sales. Thus, Moscow has begun to emulate the Chinese pattern of linking arms sales abroad and energy deals with the significant difference that China has to import energy in return for its arms sales. Nonetheless, the effort to link the two fields, and now nuclear energy together, is suggestive of new innovations in Russian foreign policy.

The nuclear proliferation dimension of this new trend also merits some attention. Pakistan clearly needs energy, but it also evidently has the autonomous capability to produce nuclear energy. Indeed, Russian analysts, until now, were virtually unanimous in stating that they and the government believe that Pakistan is the principal nuclear proliferation threat. While opinions may be shifting to Iran in the current climate as the candidate for this dubious honor, they are all very mindful of the threats connected with Pakistan’s past record of nuclear proliferation and future potential for repeating those actions. Indeed, Alexei Arbatov has publicly stated that he cannot imagine Russia turning to Pakistan like the US did with regard to its nuclear deal with India (, April 11, 2009). Moscow also recognizes that any contribution it makes to Pakistan’s military capability will undermine its relationship with India. Yet, there are signs that such a relationship is beginning to emerge.

Therefore, the interest in selling it nuclear reactors makes sense only according to Moscow’s belief that its interest in acquiring a new market, and leverage (or so it might believe) on Pakistan outweighs its concerns about proliferation and further Pakistani nuclearization. Yet, these straws in the wind signal some interesting implications for future Russian policy, as it is unclear as to why Vietnam, and Jordan need reactors, but it is clear that they both fear nuclear neighbors or partners, Iran, and China. Finally, in the context of President, Barack Obama’s, international conference on nuclear nonproliferation, Moscow’s eagerness to sell nuclear power, while technically legal under existing treaties, suggests more than a little skepticism and resistance to his ideas about nonproliferation, global zero, and the new “reset” policy.