Russia-India partnership enters new era

Posted in Russia , India | 25-Jan-07 | Author: Somini Sengupta| Source: International Herald Tribune

Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, shakes hands with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, shortly after his arrival in New Delhi, India, Thursday, Jan. 25, 2007.

NEW DELHI: A new nuclear accord, booming trade and an ever closer partnership with the United States notwithstanding, the guest of honor later this week at India's Republic Day ceremony, an annual display of military pomp, will represent New Delhi's newest old friend: President Vladimir Putin of Russia.

Putin's two-day visit to this country, his fourth since becoming president of Russia, is seen as testament to the enduring ties between India and Russia, ties that have been battered by the end of the Cold War, challenged by India's warmer relations with the United States, and then revived by Indian strategic demands — energy and arms. In both areas, Russia stands to be an important partner.

One Indian government minister, when asked about the significance of Putin's visit, took pains to say that his country's old camaraderie with Moscow ought not to alarm India's new friends in Washington.

"Our relationship with Russia is not directed against the United States, and our relationship with the United States is not at the expense of our continued engagement with Russia," said Jairam Ramesh, junior commerce minister of India.

For starters, India is eager to expand its access to and investments in Russia's vast oil reserves.

Among the items on the agenda during Putin's visit, Indian officials have said, is a proposed India-Russia joint venture to explore for oil in Siberia. India's $1 billion stake in an existing joint venture project, Sakhalin 1, represents the country's largest foreign investment anywhere. Reliance Industries, an Indian energy company, has also proposed investing in a Russian refinery.

Meanwhile, according to Indian government officials, Russia has expressed interest in investing in a controversial pipeline that would channel natural gas from Iran through Pakistan to India; the Bush administration has repeatedly expressed reservations about the project.

Current oil imports to India from Russia, or indeed from anywhere outside the Middle East, remain negligible, primarily because of transportation problems.

As for arms, Moscow is already New Delhi's largest defense partner. It is a relationship so vital that when the U.S.- India nuclear deal allows New Delhi to buy nuclear technology for its civilian nuclear program, Kanwal Sibal, the Indian ambassador to Russia, predicted that Russia would be "among the first, if not the first, to walk in."

India would be allowed to purchase nuclear fuel, reactors and other technology from the world market only after it gains approval from the Nuclear Suppliers Group, a coalition of 45 countries that regulates the atomic energy trade.

Russia is already building two nuclear reactors in this country. Earlier this week, Interfax quoted Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov of Russia as saying that his government was prepared to build additional reactors in India.

Likewise, India has Moscow to thank for a battery of conventional armaments, from tanks to an aircraft carrier to fighter jets. Russia remains India's biggest defense partner, though New Delhi's utter dependence on Moscow during the Cold War has been complicated by new entrants, most prominently Israel.

The Indians and Russians have jointly produced a short-range missile, called the Brahmos, which, contrary to Russian objectives, India wants to sell on the market. And Indian ambitions for space research — particularly in light of the Chinese test of an anti-satellite missile last week — rely heavily on Russian cooperation.

"Russia continues to be as important an ally as before and will remain that way, but the contours of this relationship have changed," Ashok Mehta, a retired general in the Indian Army, said.

Best of all, from an Indian perspective, Russia has not displayed the penchant that the United States has, for instance, to maintain good relations with India's neighbor and rival, Pakistan. Moscow has never chastened India over Kashmir, nor has India ever questioned Russian actions in Chechnya, or Putin's commitment to democracy.

"There are no strings attached to Moscow's assistance to India in any field," said B. Raman, a retired Indian intelligence official and now a commentator. "It will be suicidal for India to let its relations with Moscow be diluted for any reason whatsoever."

Gauging Russia's future importance to India is a matter of debate. If and when India is allowed to shop on the world nuclear market, Russia is likely to face stiff competition from France, C. Raja Mohan, the strategic affairs columnist with The Indian Express newspaper, argued.

Soldiers kill 3 businessmen

Government soldiers shot and killed three businessmen, mistaking them for separatist militants, in India's troubled northeast on Wednesday amid a surge of violence before the Republic Day celebrations, The Associated Press reported from New Delhi.

The three were shot after ignoring orders to stop their motorbikes near Geleki, a town 350 kilometers, or 215 miles, east of Gauhati, the capital of Assam, said B. J. Mahanta, a police officer. The soldiers could face murder charges.

Aircraft arms deals struck

Russia and India struck new arms deals Wednesday on the licensed production of Russian aircraft engines in India and the joint development of a new transport plane, The Associated Press reported from New Delhi.

"The development of a close and trusting relationship with India is a top priority for Russia's foreign policy," Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov of Russia said after signing the agreements.