India, Russia and the U.S.: Three's a Crowd?


Tihar Jail
Oct 2, 2009
NEW DELHI -- The short-but-fruitful visit by Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to India last month has resulted in a rich economic and diplomatic haul for the two countries. Moscow and New Delhi signed a raft of deals -- predominantly in defense (to the tune of $4 billion) and civil nuclear cooperation -- in hopes of boosting annual bilateral trade from the current $7.5 billion to $20 billion by 2015.

The agreements will facilitate the construction of 16 Russian-designed nuclear reactors in India, and lead to greater cooperation in the fields of gas, oil and hydrocarbons. India will also work with Russia to develop and manufacture fifth-generation fighter aircraft, augmenting India's aircraft-building capacity. A Russian-built nuclear attack submarine is also in the works.

Apart from the obvious commercial gains accruing to both parties from this bilateral engagement, Putin's visit -- his fifth since 2000 -- is also being seen as an attempt to resuscitate an old friendship. The relationship had drifted in the 90s, as both Moscow and New Delhi recalibrated their policies to changing geopolitical equations in the post-Cold War global order.

However, India's increased geopolitical heft makes it an attractive partner for Russia, which harbors ambitions to engage in South Asian politics. For its part, India gets to capitalize on Russia's enormous oil and energy resources, while also seeking Moscow's help in upgrading its own military, technological and chemical know-how.

However, Russia and India's rediscovery of their historic friendship also has something to do with the two countries' growing disquiet with America. For New Delhi, continued American financial and military support to Pakistan to fight the Taliban -- despite Islamabad having misdirected much of that aid toward military capabilities targeting India -- has been a sore point. There's also growing disenchantment in India about America's efforts to persuade Pakistan to bring the perpetrators of the Mumbai attack to justice.

Meanwhile, Moscow is miffed by Washington's continued commitment to Eastern Europe as well as its efforts to penetrate Central Asia, areas where Russia would like to restore and maintain its influence, respectively.

Moreover, American interests in Asia and the subcontinent -- vis-à-vis China and Afghanistan, for example -- do not necessarily converge with India's. By comparison, Russia harbors no hopes of building up India as a bulwark against China and seems just as disconcerted as New Delhi regarding the U.S.-Pakistani approach to Afghanistan. As a result, Moscow's posture is not fundamentally at odds with India in these areas.

It was partly this convergence of interest and a desire to contain America's growing influence in Asia that led India and Russia -- along with Brazil and China -- to launch BRIC, a club of major developing economies.

India's vigorous engagement with Russia on the nuclear front is regarded domestically as a far more positive development than the now-comatose U.S.-India civil nuclear deal, whose signing in 2008 risked the stability of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's coalition government. The deal has still not been completely implemented due to various bottlenecks, including U.S. reluctance to transfer dual-use technology to India. (The two countries did recently resolve one major outstanding issue regarding fuel reprocessing activities.)

Insiders say that Moscow has deftly exploited this gap to bolster cooperation with New Delhi in sensitive areas such as reprocessing technology, as well as joint projects on the thorium-based fuel cycle and fast neutron reactors.

Moreover, unlike the 123 Agreement with the U.S., the Russian deal will allow enrichment and reprocessing rights to remain with India and provides for uninterrupted uranium fuel supplies from Russia even in the event of unforeseen termination of bilateral ties in this field. The U.S., on the other hand, can not only terminate its fuel supply, but can also take back the entire stock of delivered fuel. The Russian pact also has provisions for transfer of enrichment and nuclear technology, neither of which are not included in the U.S. agreement.

Putin's visit has further strengthened India's view of Russia as a reliable partner on the nuclear energy and defense fronts. Russia's agreement to supply India with attractively priced advanced equipment without too many strings attached further underlines the fundamental differences in the way Moscow and Washington conduct their nuclear commerce. In Russia, India will deal with state-owned nuclear suppliers, while in the U.S., it is up against vendors who, as private firms, are governed by rules determined and overseen by Congress.

Nevertheless, neither Moscow nor New Delhi has an interest in developing their bilateral ties at the expense of relations with the U.S. Significantly, Putin returned to Moscow in time to finalize the preparation of the new U.S.-Russia follow-up Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. New Delhi, too, continues to work toward making it easier for U.S. nuclear energy companies to conduct business in the Indian market, including by pushing an unpopular bill limiting liability through parliament. These developments highlight that even as they keep close watch on each others' engagements, all three countries are eager to build stronger commercial ties wherever possible.

There is no doubt that India needs both Moscow and Washington in order to advance its strategic interests. The U.S. holds the key to an international legal architecture that enables India's pursuit of high technology programs, while Russia is a valued partner for strategic transfers. As a result, India is likely to continue pursuing a policy of vigorous engagement with America, even as it adds ballast to its old ties with Russia.

Neeta Lal is a New Delhi-based journalist, formerly with the Times of India and editor of the Asian Age Sunday Section. Her work has appeared in numerous U.S., Asian and European print and Web-based publications.

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