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India, Russia defence talks make sense

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Russia's President Vladimir Putin (R) greets Prime Minister Narenda Modi during a meeting in Ufa on Wednesday ahead of the start of a summit of the BRICS emerging economies. AFPRussia's President Vladimir Putin (R) shakes hands with Indian Prime Minister Narenda Modi during a meeting in Ufa on July 8, 2015 ahead of the start of a summit of the BRICS emerging economies. AFP PHOTO / POOL / IVAN SEKRETAREV

It did not make much difference but to keep the Indian rulers in good humour, the Obama administration made a departure from its past practice and modified the military logistics agreement, Logistics Support Agreement (LSA) to Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA). The USA has a standard draft text of military logistics agreement to be signed by the countries. Since the Obama administration badly needed on their side and was also aware of the criticism Narendra Modi and his government will have to face for allying with the US, the standard draft was replaced by a new summary text.

Obviously India preferring to ignore its new friend and rearing to sign a defence deal worth millions of dollars with Russia during the summit level meeting between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Russian President Vladimir Putin scheduled to take place in October in Goa is significant. The deals that are to be signed include purchase of S-400 air defense missile system, IL-78 multi-role tanker transport by India and the joint upgrading of the SU30MKI and Kamov 28. Naturally the question of what made India look towards Russia arises.

Nevertheless an insight into the recent developments will make it explicit that four factors prevailed upon the Modi government to look for alternate. First, while US was  unwilling to offer help to India in nuclear propulsion for the proposed construction of its largest-ever warship, the 65,000-tonne aircraft carrier INS Vishal, last week, a Russian delegation visiting New Delhi offered the Indian Navy Russia’s latest supercarrier design, dubbed Project 23000E or Shtorm (Storm). A Russian diplomat based in India confirmed that an offer has been made. This 65,000-ton supercarrier, the second ship of the Vikrant-class, will feature “significant design changes from the lead vessel, the INS Vikrant, including possible nuclear propulsion and Catapult Assisted Take-Off But Arrested Recovery (CATOBAR) and Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch Systems (EMALS).


India already operates a nuclear-powered Akula-II submarine christened INS Chakra, which was acquired on a 10-year lease from Russia in April 2012 under a $900 million deal inked earlier. Major defence deals with Russia, ranging from the Rs 39,000 crore acquisition of five S-400 Triumf advanced air defence missile systems to the $1.5 billion lease of a second nuclear-powered submarine, are also in the offing.

Secondly, the Modi government is not sure of the approach and attitude of the new US President towards India. Though Obama maintained a friendly relation with Modi, he did not persuade the American Senate to recognise India as a “global strategic and defence partner” of the US. It is not yet clear whether Obama really intended to confer this privilege on India.

A day after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s address to a joint session of Congress, top Republican senator John McCain had moved an amendment to the National Defence Authorisation Act (NDAA-17) which if passed would have recognised India as a global strategic and defence partner. But it could not get through.  McCain had expressed disappointment. What USA did was to acknowledge India as a “major defence partner” through a joint statement issued after Modi held talks with Obama which supported defence-related trade and technology. In fact Modi had expressed surprise as to why the US Senate failed to recognise India as a “global strategic and defence partner”.

Yet another factor that appears to have prevailed upon the Modi government to make a tactical shift in its policy towards USA has been the increasing say of Russia in the global affair. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump only a week back vowed to seek better relations with China and Russia if elected. He also announced that he would make U.S. allies bear more of the financial burden for their defense. Trump, a bitter critic of Barack Obama’s foreign policy, accuses him of letting China take advantage of the USA. He pledged to “shake the rust off America’s foreign policy.” For Trump “an easing of tensions with Russia from a position of strength” is possible.

Meanwhile Russia has been trying to recover its friendship with China. Its joint military exercises in the East China Sea are a clear show of strength against USA and Japan. The US sanctions have in fact upgraded China’s importance to Russia. Closer ties between Moscow and Beijing have been expected long before the Ukraine crisis. A new foreign policy concept published by the Russian government in 2013 noted the importance of friendly relations with China and India, and Russia and China have often joined together to oppose the western members of the United Nations Security Council.

With a loosening grip over the Western market, Russia is slowly picking up its own pivot towards the East, drawing closer than ever to China and finding new friends like Pakistan. Recently Moscow closed a landmark military deal with Islamabad – the first in many decades – while its relationship with Beijing continues to develop.

Back home, the peoples’ perception towards USA might have played a major role in making the Modi government look towards Russia. A vast section of the Indians feel that USA has been treating properly. The Modi government has been simply acting on the advice and suggestions of the Obama administration, which mostly are against Indian interests.

Though US military company has agreed to produce aircraft F 16 under make in India programme, the fact remains that Russia is the first country to have agreed to take the initiative under the “Make in India” umbrella in two key strategic sectors — nuclear and defence. This move underlines that Russia has confidence in India’s economy.

On September 13, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin will be visiting India to hold the intergovernmental committee on technical and economic cooperation. This will also pave the way for the bilateral meeting between both leaders. Modi and Putin will be holding their bilateral meeting on October 15 in Goa on the sidelines of the BRICS Summit. India and Russia are also expected to discuss the expansion of the civil nuclear cooperation between them. Russia kept its promise and on August 10, Modi and Putin inaugurated, through video conference, the Kudankulam Unit 1, which is a 1,000 MWt power plant.

Both sides are also expected to sign an agreement on the fifth generation fighter aircraft (FGFA) project or the Perspective Multirole Fighter (PMF). The talks for the project were revived earlier this year. It took a back seat when India opted for the French Rafale fighter jets. The final R&D contract for the FGFA was on hold till now despite the two countries having first inked an inter-governmental agreement in 2007.

Russian-Indian cooperation in the defence sector is not just of “seller-buyer” but works on complex joint development projects with participation of Indian public and private companies, and licensed production in India. It is also encouraging that India and Russia agreed to strengthen the defense partnership in line with the “Make in India” programme.

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