Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 207

Amid shifts in the global political landscape that began with the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States, Russia and India this week appeared to solidify a “strategic partnership” that has been strengthened by the war in Afghanistan even as it has been tested by improving ties between New Delhi and Washington. Russian-Indian relations got their boost from a four-day visit to Russia by Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, whose schedule included a stop in St. Petersburg and then talks in Moscow with both President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov. The visit was a follow-up to one Putin paid last year to New Delhi. At that time the two men signed a “strategic partnership” agreement that included a provision for the Russian and Indian heads of state to hold annual summit meetings. Vajpayee’s November 3-6 stay in Russia was planned before the events of September 11 and was reported to have focused mostly on bilateral Russian-Indian issues. That changed with the start of the U.S.-led antiterrorism campaign, however. Vajpayee’s talks were dominated by the terrorism issue, and particularly the war in Afghanistan. Russia and India hold very close views on Afghanistan, and this was reflected both in the summit’s results and in proclamations by both sides that bilateral relations are trending upwards.

The most important document of the Vajpayee-Putin meeting was a declaration on the battle against international terrorism. Among other things, it committed the two countries to struggle against terrorism and to support establishing a government in post-Taliban Afghanistan that excludes the Taliban as an organization but otherwise represents all political and ethnic views. More interesting perhaps, given that Moscow and New Delhi have frequently made clear their opposition to any future governmental role for the Taliban, was a passage in the declaration stating that in “multi-ethnic and democratic countries such as India and the Russian Federation, violent actions being perpetrated under the slogan of self determination in reality represent acts of terrorism that in most cases have strong international links.” As The Times of India suggested on November 7, this was an explicit reference to Russia’s ongoing problems in Chechnya and India’s own difficulties in Kashmir. The statement clearly intended to label Chechen rebels and Pakistani-backed insurgents in Kashmir as terrorists, and to link Russian and Indian efforts to resolve those respective conflicts to the U.S.-led battle against international terrorism. Indeed, in what may have been a cloaked warning to Washington that a failure to follow this sort of logic could endanger Russian support for the antiterror campaign, Putin was quoted following his talks with Vajpayee as saying that a “policy of double standards could result in a split of the common international position.”

In another significant development related to the war in Afghanistan, Putin also went some way during his talks with Vajpayee toward supporting Indian demands for a greater role in the official diplomatic process by which a settlement in Afghanistan is expected to be negotiated. A UN-approved arrangement is currently in place called the “6+2” mechanism by which negotiations on an Afghan settlement are to be conducted among the six countries bordering Afghanistan–Pakistan, China, Iran, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan–plus Russia and the United States. India is pressing hard for an active role in this process, however, and Vajpayee had apparently arrived in Moscow having some hope that Russia might agree to support New Delhi’s official inclusion in the 6+2 process. That does not appear to have happened. But Putin did express Russia’s support for an enhanced Indian role in the official negotiations and, if Vajpayee is to be believed, not only expressed his own dissatisfaction with the 6+2 process but said that he would raise the issue in talks with other governments.

Another significant outcome of the talks was the signing of a joint declaration on strategic questions that reportedly expressed the commonality of views held by the two countries on what were described by Interfax as strategic stability issues and on other urgent problems of international life. Initial reports indicated that this document included a declaration by the two countries of their support for maintaining existing arms control agreements, including the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. Russian and Indian government officials have made similar declarations in the past, but it would perhaps not have been a surprise if they had chosen a different formulation this time, given reports that Russia and the United States are on the verge of a missile defense deal and the fact that India has generally supported the Bush administration’s missile defense plans (see the Monitor, May 8, June 7).

A third important document signed on November 6 was a preliminary agreement on a project valued at over US$2.5 billion, by which Russia is to construct the Kudunkulam nuclear power plant in India’s southern Tamil Nadu state. According to Deputy Prime Minister Ilya Klebanov, the deal to build the plant–which will be equipped with two 1,000-megawatt reactors–could be finalized before the end of this year. America has previously expressed some opposition to Indian-Russian nuclear cooperation, but, given Washington’s improving ties with both countries and their important places in the antiterror coalition, it is unclear whether it will do so at present.

Official statements following this week’s Russian-Indian talks had little to say about military-technical cooperation, though Moscow’s lucrative arms trade with New Delhi–India and China are the world’s largest purchasers of Russian weaponry–has long been one of the linchpins of their bilateral relations. No new arms deals were announced this week, but Klebanov (who oversees Russia’s defense industrial sector) did suggest that the two countries might soon finalize a long-negotiated deal by which India would acquire the Admiral Gorshkov aircraft carrier and two squadrons of carrier-based MiG-29 fighter jets. Vajpayee, moreover, reiterated earlier Indian assertions that New Delhi is transforming itself from a simple purchaser of Russian weaponry to a full-fledged partner with Moscow in the development and, ultimately, production of new weapons systems (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, November 3; UPI, VOA, November 4; Hindustan Times, November 5; Reuters, AP, Interfax, The Hindu, November 6; Times of India, November 5-7; Strana.ru, November 6).

If Vajpayee’s visit to Russia this week provided a clear boost to Indian-Russian ties, as at least some Indian newspapers suggested, it is nevertheless true that the Moscow talks may be overshadowed by those scheduled to take place in Washington today between the Indian prime minister and U.S. President George W. Bush. Indeed, news sources suggest that tensions that had arisen between Washington and New Delhi over the Bush administration’s embrace of Pakistan in the wake of September 11 have now been eased, and that the two countries are again poised to launch a rapid improvement in bilateral ties. To what extent this will affect India’s relations with Russia is unclear. The Indian and U.S. sides are now talking about improving bilateral military ties, and there have been suggestions that military-technical cooperation could even be on the agenda. Those developments would not necessarily undermine Indian-Russian ties, but they could create some consternation among Russia’s arms dealers, who have operated virtually uncontested in India and who are counting on continuing arms sales to New Delhi to make up for a continuing dearth of domestic procurement spending (New York Times, Washington Post, November 6; Times of India, November 7).