Publication: Fortnight in Review Volume: 6 Issue: 19

For Russia’s diplomats, the past fortnight has been dominated by separate developments in two very different parts of the world–South Asia and the Balkans–each of which has presented Moscow with opportunities to strengthen its standing on the world stage. Neither, however, appears as yet to have been converted into a decisive success for Russian diplomacy. That is particularly true of Yugoslavia, where Moscow’s role in the political endgame that appears now to be unfolding is uncertain. With regard to Indian-Russian summit talks in New Delhi, however, President Vladimir Putin did manage to finalize a package of long-negotiated bilateral accords that included a strategic partnership agreement and a host of lucrative arms deals. But the celebratory mood that accompanied Putin’s visit to New Delhi could not fully obscure what may be some continuing tensions between the two Asian giants.

Outwardly at least, President Vladimir Putin’s October 2-5 visit to New Delhi was a success in every respect. The visit was the first by a Russian president in some seven years, and was aimed at strengthening relations with the former Soviet ally. Those relations had first lapsed following the dissolution of the USSR, and then had weakened again in the waning years of Boris Yeltsin’s erratic and increasingly ineffectual presidency. While in New Delhi Putin and Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee oversaw the signing of a raft of agreements that in some cases had been in preparation over a period of several years. In political terms the most important of these was a “Declaration of Strategic Partnership between India and Russia.” It deepened a treaty of friendship and cooperation signed in 1993 and, in the opinion of some, moved the two countries closer to the diplomatic intimacy they had enjoyed in the 1970s and 1980s. The partnership accord formalizes the two countries’ commitment to promoting development of a “multipolar” world order–i.e., one in which the global dominance of the United States is blunted by the coalescence of regional power groupings–and is aimed at boosting bilateral trade and political relations on a broad front.

In more concrete terms, Moscow was particularly cheered by the finalization of a host arms sales agreements that reports said were worth approximately US$3 billion. The most important and most lucrative of these were a deal by which Moscow is to supply India with 310 T-90 tanks–124 to be purchased outright and another 186 to be assembled in India under a Russian license–and another under which India is to produce 140 Su-30 MKI multirole fighter-bombers under Russian license. The two countries reportedly also signed an agreement–albeit one with details still to be worked out–under which India is to receive Russia’s Admiral Gorshkov aircraft carrier and, ultimately, 46 naval MiG-29s to deploy upon it. In addition, India and Russia reportedly signed an accord under which Moscow will lease four Tu-22 Backfire Bombers. Other deals are said also to be under consideration, and, to aid in this process and further boost defense ties between the two countries, an agreement establishing a Russian-Indian intergovernmental commission on military-technical cooperation was signed during Putin’s stay in New Delhi.

Despite these obvious successes for the Kremlin, the modalities that underlay finalization of the agreements may have been more complicated than Moscow had expected. Russian newspapers, at least, suggested that bargaining over the weapons agreements had been intense and that disagreements had threatened to torpedo the deals even as Putin conducted his talks in the Indian capital. The Kommersant newspaper reported, moreover, that New Delhi agreed to finalize the weapons deals only after Moscow had made a series of political concessions intended to satisfy Indian concerns over Pakistan’s role in the Kashmir conflict. Putin’s actions on this score, the newspaper suggested, could ultimately complicate Moscow’s own recent moves to win cooperation from Islamabad on issues related to limiting the influence the Taliban in Afghanistan. A nuclear cooperation agreement signed by Moscow and New Delhi, moreover, seemed likely to subject the Kremlin to international criticism for violating Russia’s obligations to control the transfer of nuclear technologies.

As various Russian commentators suggested, the ambiguities in these latest Indian-Russian agreements reflect some fundamental shifts in the geostrategic landscape of the post-Cold War world. These shifts include Russia’s relative impoverishment and decline as a world power and India’s concomitant emergence as an influential player on the world stage. New Delhi, in other words, is no longer content to play the role of “little brother” to Moscow, as it did during the Cold War. These same shifts have also been reflected in India’s improved relations with the United States–some commentaries noted that U.S. President Bill Clinton was greeted more enthusiastically in New Delhi than was Putin–and in the insistence of Moscow and New Delhi that their “strategic partnership” is not part of a broader military-political alliance and that it is in no way “directed against any other state or group of states.” For all of that, the Indian-Russian summit clearly produced a formal framework for broader cooperation between the two countries on a number of fronts, and could in that regard help to usher in a new period of increased political and economic interaction.