Holding onto Russia

But it will need more than incrementalism to break the stasis in India-Russia relations

It was Vladimir Putin's visit to India in 2000 that injected significant strategic content into the India-Russia relationship after a prolonged drift in the 1990s, following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. Putin has returned to the top job in Moscow this year after he ceded the presidency to Dmitry Medvedev four years ago. His rushed Christmas-eve trip to Delhi saw the signing of a number of agreements that covered additional arms sales and technological collaboration. Russia will sell 71 additional Mi-17 helicopters and kits for the assembly of 42 Su-30 fighter aircraft.

These deals, worth many billions of dollars, and additional plans to jointly produce helicopters in India, do not mask the difficult challenges confronting Delhi and Moscow, including in the defence sector. The endless delay in the transfer of the aircraft carrier and the huge escalation in the price, have underlined the problems of defence cooperation. The Russian telecom company, Sistema, has been left in no man's land after the Supreme Court cancelled the 2G licences. Moscow has been resentful of Delhi's inability to offer redress. India's nuclear liability legislation has complicated Russia's plans to proceed with the construction of two more reactors at Koodankulam in Tamil Nadu. Delhi has been wary of the talk in Moscow about expanding cooperation with Islamabad. Moscow, in turn, has looked askance at India's warming relations with Washington and America's expanding arms sales to India. Trade between the two countries has grown 30 per cent last year but it remains at the pitiful level of $10 billion, way below India's trade with other major powers and Asian neighbours.

Putin's brief sojourn in Delhi did not reveal any clues on how these problems would be resolved. Nor have the two sides come up with a bold plan to boost commercial relations, which must form the foundation for any sustainable partnership into the future. Any realistic assessment of the current uncertain international and regional environment would suggest that Delhi and Moscow must necessarily hold on to their time-tested relationship. But India and Russia cannot advance only on the basis of nostalgia or mere political commitment. Tinkering and incrementalism are not enough to move the relationship forward. Delhi and Moscow must do a lot better if they want to break out of the current stasis in Indo-Russian relations.

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