March 16, 2010

Rediscovering Russia

India's relations with Russia over the two decades since the collapse of the Soviet Union have alternated between indifference and neglect, on the one hand, and active cooperation and intense friendship, on the other. Both states of the relationship have sprung from the kind of situation Indian and Russian policymakers have found themselves in at different times. Broadly speaking, New Delhi and Moscow have both tended to calibrate the bilateral thermostat with an eye on the temperature in Washington. When the U.S. tries to cosy up to either power, India and Russia are quite happy to take for granted, if not forget, each other. But when Washington's mien is frosty and unhelpful, comfort is sought in the warmth of druzhba. However, the U.S. attitude towards the two is not always symmetric. The George W. Bush years, for example, saw a deterioration in America's relations with Russia over issues like missile defence and the expansion of Nato, even as U.S. engagement with India scaled new strategic heights. Although India's relations with Russia remained on an even keel, the Manmohan Singh government did not accord Moscow the kind of priority it deserved. Indeed, with the Bush administration using the nuclear deal to push for gains across a broad spectrum of areas, especially military procurement, India's relations with Russia came under a bit of strain.

The coming to power of Barack Obama in the U.S. has restored some sense of balance to Indian foreign policy, with the government scrambling to revive old friendships in the face of Washington's changed policies towards the region, especially Pakistan and Afghanistan. This is the geopolitical context for India's rediscovery of Russia. Though the Russian side today lacks the same narrow motivation for embracing India more tightly — after all, Mr. Obama has tried to repair relations with Moscow — Vladimir Putin, a strong leader with a clear strategic vision, realises it is important for Russia to expand the ambit of its cooperation with India. On Afghanistan, both share the same anxieties about U.S. indulgence towards the Pakistani military and the proposal to integrate a ‘reformed' Taliban leadership in the power structures at Kabul. On the nuclear energy and defence fronts, Russia has stood the test of time as a valued friend and partner, supplying India with attractively priced advanced equipment without preconditions at a time when other countries have a long list of collateral demands. To be sure, a lot more needs to be done to add ballast to the relationship, especially on the trade and business-to-business fronts. But it is essential that the current period of intense engagement not be allowed to falter once the U.S. makes some fresh overture to India.

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