Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 191

Amid a flurry of diplomatic maneuvering related to the U.S.-led war on terrorism and ongoing U.S. military operations in Afghanistan, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Ilya Klebanov traveled to New Delhi this week for an intensive two days of talks with top Indian government officials. Klebanov’s visit had originally been scheduled to take place earlier this month, but was postponed to allow the Russian minister, who has also overseen the Kremlin’s investigation into the loss of the nuclear submarine Kursk, to be present at the raising of the vessel, which took place last week. He concluded his talks in New Delhi yesterday, only hours before U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell arrived in the Indian capital for high-level talks of his own that are to begin officially today.

The juxtaposition of the Russian and U.S. visits reflects both the extent to which the Washington-led antiterror drive has united various countries with direct interests in Afghanistan, and the extent, simultaneously, to which countries currently participating in the antiterror coalition continue nevertheless to pursue their own national and regional interests. Relations among Russia, India and the United States are particularly interesting in this regard. India has long been one of Moscow’s most significant partners in Asia, and the two countries have in recent years constructed a “strategic partnership” anchored in burgeoning Russian arms sales to New Delhi and in a host of projects aimed at jointly developing new weapons systems.

At the same time, relations between India and the United States, which began to warm under former President Bill Clinton, have grown even warmer with the arrival of the Bush administration, and there were indications before the September 11 terrorist attacks that a shift of potentially historic proportions was taking place in New Delhi ties with both the United States and the West more generally. A weakened Russia, meanwhile, could only look on these developments with consternation, outwardly applauding improved Indian-U.S. ties but seeking nonetheless to maintain its special relationship with India–even at the cost of sliding into the position of junior partner. The emerging Indian-U.S. friendship was based especially on New Delhi’s enthusiastic but nevertheless qualified embrace of U.S. missile defense plans.

It remains to be seen whether the Bush administration’s successful harmonizing of American and Indian interests will survive the current war against terrorism, however. India’s offerings of support and assistance to Washington in the immediate aftermath of the September 11 events initially served to further strengthen ties, but some diplomatic momentum has been lost–and some new tensions introduced into the relationship–by Washington’s subsequent decision to make Pakistan a cornerstone of U.S. military operations against Taliban forces in Afghanistan.

Indeed, India and Russia now find themselves making common cause in urging that the Northern Alliance be given a prominent role in any post-Taliban government that accedes to power in Afghanistan. Pakistan, meanwhile, has taken the exact opposite position, conditioning its support for the antiterror campaign upon a U.S. pledge to ensure that Northern Alliance groups do not emerge as the dominant political force in any future Afghan peace settlement. Moreover, Indian-U.S. tensions could also sharpen over conflicting Indian and Pakistani demands on the subject of Kashmir, as well as over New Delhi’s hopes that Washington will turn its antiterror war against militant Islamic groups in that divided region once military operations in Afghanistan have been concluded. Against this background, Moscow may see some hope of detaching New Delhi at least partly from Washington and rebuilding its own special relationship with India.

Whether Klebanov’s visit to New Delhi this week was driven by any such considerations remains unclear, but it does appear to have furthered preparations for an event that could help determine the future shape of relations between and among India, Russia, the United States and Pakistan in the months to come: a scheduled four-day visit by Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee to Moscow on November 4 for talks with President Vladimir Putin. Reports out of New Delhi this week suggested that the two sides have put an ambitious agenda on the table for the November meeting, one that will include the signing of at least seven intergovernmental cooperation agreements. According to Klebanov, Putin and Vajpayee will also focus on the prospects for a political settlement in Afghanistan after the expected overthrow of the Taliban regime as well as on ways to boost already extensive defense ties between the two countries. The highlight of Vajpayee’s visit will reportedly involve the signing of a “Moscow Declaration,” a document which envisions stepped up economic and technical cooperation.

In statements made to the press following his talks this week in New Delhi, meanwhile, Klebanov appeared to go out of his way to suggest that India and Russia share “absolutely similar” views on the key issues related to the antiterror war and the current U.S. military operations in Afghanistan. In speaking of Vajpayee’s upcoming visit, for example, he said that “the positions of India and Russia are completely identical” on the subject of terrorism. He also stated that “Russia has always supported and continues to support India’s positions in all regional matters.”

In addition, Klebanov spoke of the long support that Moscow and New Delhi have been extending to the Northern Alliance and suggested–in a thinly veiled reference to their respective problems in Kashmir and Chechnya–that the Indian and Russian governments have in fact been fighting against international terrorism since well before the September 11 attacks brought the United States into the battle. That claim does indeed dovetail with Moscow’s now-standard efforts to portray its Caucasus war as part of the international battle against terrorism, and with India’s own more substantial claims to be waging a battle against Pakistani-backed militants in Kashmir. Whether the Indian government agreed with Klebanov’s claims of nearly complete Russian-Indian harmony on the matter of the antiterror war was less clear, however. Although reports out of New Delhi quoted the Russian minister extensively, there was little commentary describing the statements and reactions of his Indian counterparts.

That the Indian government did attach considerable importance to Klebanov’s visit and that it is treating the upcoming Putin-Vajpayee talks as a significant event, however, was suggested by the Russian minister’s itinerary. He met not only with India’s recently renamed defense minister, George Fernandes, but also with External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh, National Security Advisor Brajesh Mishra, and both President K.R. Narayanan and Prime Minister Vajpayee. Russian sources suggested, moreover, that arms Indian-Russian military-technical cooperation was an important item on Klebanov’s itinerary (Klebanov helps to oversee Russia’s defense industrial complex) and that it will also be one of the major themes in Vajpayee’s talks with Vladimir Putin next month. India is, along with China, already one of Russia’s two major arms clients (, October 3, 14;, October 12; Itar-Tass, AFP, AP, Interfax, October 15; The Hindu, UPI, October 16; DPA, October 15-16; Washington Post, New York Times, October 16).