September 16, 2010

The Evolution of India-Russia Relations by Amb. Ronen Sen





Hon’ble Vice-Chancellor Prof. Suranjan Das,

Mr. Rudrangshu Mukherjee,

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am highly honoured to have the opportunity to address this distinguished gathering in the august premises of Calcutta University. It was India’s first English medium university, with an initial jurisdiction of almost subcontinnental proportions from Burma and the North-East through Bengal and the Indo-Gangatic plains and undivided Punjab to the NWFP and Baluchistan, and Ceylon in the South. It had a number of other firsts, including India’s first science college, first college for women, first art college, Asia’s first medical college etc. It was led by outstanding educationalists, like Sir Ashutosh Mukherjee; had illustrious faculty members, including Rabindranath Tagore, Sir C.V. Raman, Nilratan Sarkar, Sarvapali Radhakrishnan; distinguished alumni, such as Rajendra Prasad and Amartya Sen. In view of the University’s awesome reputation, and my poor academic record, you will understand my reluctance to reveal that I am an alumnus of this institution.

Given my last diplomatic assignment in the United States, I have been viewed, correctly, as a strong advocate of Indo-US partnership and, in particular, as one of the architects of the Indo-US nuclear deal. The longest association of my diplomatic career has, however, been with Russia. Some of the happiest and most challenging years of my life has been in Moscow.

I have spent more years in Moscow than in any other city, including my birthplace, Pune. I also happen to be the only Indian diplomat, so far, to serve in every diplomatic rank in our Embassy in Moscow, from that of Third Secretary to Ambassador, in the 1960s, ‘70s, ‘80s and, finally, in the ‘90s. My long experience does not imply that I am a specialist on Russia. I remain a student of developments in that great country. Today, I will share with you some of my personal experiences and assessments on Indo-Russian relations, which I am convinced deserves more public attention and discourse than it has in recent years.

Each of my assignments in Moscow happened to coincide with major transitional periods in our relationship with the former Soviet Union, and subsequently, with Russia. There was a major transformation of the Soviet policies on the Indian sub-continent from the mid-1960s to the early 1970s. These evolved from seeking leverage in Pakistan through large-scale Soviet arms supplies to that country, and thereby revive its mediatory role between India and Pakistan, to one of strong support of India and recognition of our regional pre-eminence. This was manifested in the Indo-Soviet Treaty and the decisive Soviet role in countering US-China moves in developments leading to the liberation of Bangladesh.

General Secretary Brezhnev’s visit to India in December 1980 marked another watershed in our relations. This was the first summit meeting after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and after Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s return to power. Her re-election had caught the Soviet leadership off-balance, since they had written her off since her 1977 election defeat.

Despite her firm determination not to join the international chorus of condemnation of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Indira Gandhi left Brezhnev in no doubt, in her private talks with him, about the potentially adverse security implications for India of the Soviet actions. She also took a deliberate decision to pay an official visit to the United States before visiting the Soviet Union in September 1982. She was given an exceptionally warm and sentimental welcome at the airport near Moscow by seriously ailing Brezhnev, who expired shortly thereafter. Over the next three years there were no major policy decisions, in the wake of the demise in quick succession, of Andropov and Chernenko, till the assumption of power by Michael Gorbachev.

The personal chemistry between General Secretary Gorbachev and Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was very good. The Delhi Declaration on the Principles of a Nuclear Weapon Free and Non-Violent World signed by Rajiv Gandhi and Gorbachev in 1986 was a landmark global document. This is not only in the context of the recent focus on complete nuclear disarmament, including by President Barak Obama, but also in the Soviet ideological acceptance, for the first time ever, of the concept of non-violence as propagated and practiced by Mahatma Gandhi.

By the mid-1980s, however, there were increasing indications that all was not well in the Soviet Union. The economy was in dire straits. The situation was aggravated by the evident loss of central control, as a consequence of political glasnost preceding economic perestroika. Rajiv Gandhi sent a personal letter to Gorbachev on our federal polity. Yet the rapidity of the complete collapse of the Soviet Union came as a surprise.

The fourth transitional phase coincided with my assignment as India’s first Ambassador to be accredited to the Russian Federation. The challenges I faced during this long assignment from 1992 to 1998 were undoubtedly the most formidable during my entire diplomatic career.

While the world was celebrating the advent of democracy in Russia, the situation that I encountered in that country in 1992 was chaotic, indeed catastrophic. The Soviet system had collapsed. But there was no sign of an effective new system coming into place. The economy was in a free fall. The familiar queues for scarce consumer goods of the Soviet era were no longer to be found, since the merchandise in the fancy new shopping centers were out of reach for the vast majority of Russians. The only waiting line was that for Rolls Royce and other super-luxury cars. Conspicuous consumption by a few and the flight of capital abroad were accompanied by hyper inflation. This converted life-time savings of pensioners into few months of expenditure. The depth of deprivation and depression were reflected in a massive increase in suicides, further decline of birthrates, a marked fall in life-expectancy, a breakdown of law and order, the emergence of mafia groups and growing political clout of oligarchs. The worst affected areas of the economy were the strategic areas of defence productions and research, civilian and military nuclear and space sectors, manufacturing, scientific centers of excellence, health care and food production.

The writ of Kremlin did not run in most regions. Many Governors unilaterally asserted their authority as directly elected representatives. Virtually all the Governors I met expressed their exasperation at central directives not being accompanied by financial support or even reflecting ignorance of local conditions and priorities. They claimed that they had no option but to fend for themselves, often in coordination with their colleagues from contiguous regions. Presidents of some Republics and Governors of Regions signed agreements on foreign affairs and foreign economic cooperation. Thus, in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, there were challenges affecting the unity and integrity of the Russian Federation itself.

The roller coaster twists and turns in the initial years of post-Soviet transition, were also reflected in terms of personnel changes. When I arrived in Moscow, the Soviet dignitary to whom my predecessor had presented his credentials at the Kremlin, former Vice President A.I. Lukyanov, was in prison. I presented my credentials to the Vice President of Russia, Alexander Rutskoi, and met him subsequently. Thereafter, I witnessed Rutskoi being arrested after the White House, housing the Russian Parliament, which he and Yeltsin had defended in 1991, was virtually demolished by military action ordered by Yeltsin. The last time I met Rutskoi was when he was Governor of the Kursk Region, where he was elected despite Yeltsin’s strong opposition. I also witnessed the remarkable transformation of Yeltsin himself, from an exuberant and confident extrovert, ruling by a series of Presidential decrees, to a Kremlin recluse, who had fired virtually all his close advisors, was totally isolated, and preparing to exit with whatever dignity he could muster. After the August 1998 financial crisis, the democrats were demoralized and discredited.

Russia’s bankruptcy was evident not just in financial terms but in terms of ideas and the loss of direction and focus.

Though I had established close contacts across the entire political spectrum in Moscow and in the provinces and republics, the most perceptive observation on the situation in Russia at that time was made to me by Mikhail Gorbachev. He told me that anyone who tried to present a coherent analysis of the evolving situation in Russia was either a liar or a fool. The situation was far to complex and fluid to foresee how it would evolve. He had agreed with me that the only thing which could be said with certainty was that the transition in Russia would be a long one, measured not in years but in decades.

The uncertainties and contradictions in this fluid situation were also reflected in Russia’s perception of itself and its new identity. Russia emerged from the debris of the world’s first socialist state and the resulting dismantling of the Russian empire. The national emblem was changed from the hammer and sickle to the imperial twin-headed eagle representing the vast Eurasian reach of the Russian empire. However, in terms of Russia’s initial policy orientation, both heads of the eagle looked in only one direction, namely, to the West. The national anthem was given a new musical score, but without the new identity or ideals finding expression in words.

In the midst of this situation, I found that Yeltsin felt that our approach to him was one of reluctant acceptance. It was widely believed, both in Russian political circles and in diplomatic corps in Moscow, that the Indian Embassy’s assessment was that Yeltsin and his supporters would not be in power for long. I must say that this impression was, unfortunately, not entirely without foundation.

There was also a general sentiment in Moscow that the relationship with India was part of the baggage of the Soviet era; that old ideological blinkers should be shed, and that the relationship should be accorded lower priority in the pragmatic new foreign policy framework of Russia. In the Indian establishment, on the other hand, Russia was viewed as a pale shadow of the former Soviet Union, which had lost not only its super power status, but also its self-esteem in its subservience to the United States, and could no longer be regarded as a fully reliable partner.

My first task was to try to change these misperceptions in both countries, and do this very quickly. The process of preparations for Yeltsin’S visit to India in end-January 1993 was utilized for a better appreciation of the fact that relations between Delhi and Moscow were never based on ideological affinities, nor even on the dynamics of the bi-polar cold war period. They were anchored in the convergence of long-term interests of the two countries and in mutually beneficial cooperation.

There is an impression that the Yeltsin era represented wasted years in which India-Russia relations lost their moorings and momentum, and that these relations were put on track later. This impression is misleading. During this period, we went beyond the stage of problem resolution and set up new structures of cooperation adjusted to new realities in both countries.

Let me first look at the overall geopolitical framework of our relations with Russia. I happened to be involved in the negotiations which led to the conclusion of the Indo-Soviet Treaty of 1971, as well as that of the new Indo-Russian Treaty signed in 1993. What had taken years to negotiate in the end 1960s and in 1971 took just about a couple of hours to re-negotiate in end 1992. The new treaty involved a dilution of a couple of clauses, but contained notable aspects of continuity of mutual commitments of the Indo-Soviet Treaty, as well as positive developments in Indo-Soviet relations in the two decades thereafter.

The Moscow Declaration on the Protection of the Interests of Pluralist States, concluded by President Yeltsin and Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao, was also a significant document. It was the first international document signed at the highest level on post-cold war threats posed by religious extremism, terrorism and separatism. This declaration also expressed mutual support to each others’ “territorial integrity, as constituted by law and enshrined in their respective Constitutions.” Our Constitution of course defines our territory, and the applicable law relates to the legality of the “Instruments of Accession.” The first proposal for an Indo-Russian Declaration of Strategic Partnership was also announced during Yeltsin’s second term as President in 1998. The Declaration was eventually concluded around two years later by President Putin and Prime Minister Vajpayee.

During the very difficult years of contrary pulls and pressures, the continuation of cooperation on vitally important Indo-Soviet strategic projects, with which I had been directly involved since the early 1980s, was problematic and uncertain in the new Russia. The choppy waters were successfully navigated in continuing the process of production of a nuclear submarine and the second lease of a nuclear submarine. After France went back on its commitment on the supply of cryogenic engines to India, we had signed a contract, on far better terms, with the concerned Soviet state agency. The Russian government conveyed to me their final decision not to implement this contract, in view of their international obligations. Both the French and Russian decisions were obviously taken under US pressure. As in earlier cases, I resorted to some unorthodox measures. As a result, a number of cryogenic engines were supplied to India from Russia, commencing in September 1998, shortly before my departure from Moscow. In the meantime, there was also significant technological collaboration leading to the development of indigenous cryogenic engines in our country. These are some important instances of cooperation in strategic areas. There were other such cases as well.

Reviving Indo-Russian defence collaboration was another top priority. The collapse of the USSR led to the dispersal of hundreds of defence production enterprises in newly independent States, though the majority remained in Russia. Unlike in the Soviet era, the Russian government could not mandate or enforce defence production targets, due to their inability to pay the main enterprises and their subsidiary suppliers. The virtual stoppage of orders from the Russian Armed Forces, not only for new equipment, but also for minimal maintenance support for existing weapons systems, including all those in use in India, was very worrisome. I saw many production lines, including for spares, had closed down enterprises in different parts of Russia. Official government agencies, acted essentially as intermediaries retaining exhorbitant “service charges”. They demanded “international pricing”, without corresponding adherence to international norms of effective product support and acceptable levels of serviceability.

All these developments had a profoundly adverse impact on India’s defence preparedness, given our overwhelming dependence on Soviet-era defence equipment.

During the transition period of the Yeltsin Presidency, we took a number of initiatives to put our defence relationship on an even keel. We tried to shift the focus from one of dependence to inter-dependence; to transform a buyer-seller relationship to that of a longer term partnership, based on joint research and development, co-production and integration of Indian components in Russian weapon systems. We pressed successfully for pricing not only on the basis of initial procurements but also on projected life-time costs, including predictable escalation in prices of aggregates and spares. We involved major Russian manufacturers in supply contracts to ensure that they were in the loop on prices and payment schedules linked to completion of different phases of projects. At the same time, our own defence establishment was persuaded to modify earlier patterns of contracting which were no longer effective in the changed circumstances.

At the same time, I pressed for conclusion of new agreements, including on multi-role SU-30 MKI combat aircraft, which has now become main-stay of the IAF, the MIG-21 BIS upgrade programme, collaboration projects on frigates, equipping submarines with modern missiles, initiating actions for acquisition of T-90 tanks etc. I had the honour to commission some Indian Naval Ships. The first major Indo-Russian joint venture for the Brahmos supersonic cruise missile was concluded at our Embassy. As a result, during the first four years of my assignment alone, the value of our defence collaboration, excluding some major projects, increased 26 fold. Yes, 26 fold.

And it continued to rise thereafter. Defence collaboration was thus not only stabilized but given an unprecedented boost.

Sensing the tremors in the Soviet system at the time, a clause was inserted in the 1988 agreement on the supply of two 1000 MW nuclear power reactors at Kudankulam. Despite subsequent Russian laws in pursuance of its acceptance of the Nuclear Supplier Group (NSG) guidelines, work on implementing this agreement continued in the ‘90s, and thereafter.

The Integrated Long Term Programme (ILTP) on Science and Technology Cooperation, signed during Gorbachev’s visit to India in 1987, was Rajiv Gandhi’s brainchild. It was continued in the 1990s. It was, and still remains, the most comprehensive science and technology cooperation programme that India has with any country.

The Soviet Union had played a pioneering and invaluable role in the industrialization of India. We should always cherish this assistance. By the mid-1980s, however, it was evident that the Soviet economy was facing very severe strains. The precipitous plunge by Russia into a “free market economy”, which could more accurately be described as a “free for a few economy”, also coincided with the launch of major economic reforms in India.

The dismantling of the rupee-rouble arrangements were inevitable. This was recognized by both governments even during the Soviet period in the late ‘80s. India made a major political gesture to Russia in 1993 by agreeing to settle all Soviet credits to India in Indian rupees, at an effective discount of about one-third of the face value.

The criticism of this agreement by a number of our experts was unfair. After all, virtually all our imports from the former Soviet Union, consisting of oil, metals and other commodities, were at prevalent international prices. Our defence procurements were often at less than market prices. I will give you one example. In 1986, we bought advanced conventional submarines from the Soviet Union for Rs. 76.7 crores each and from Germany for DM 215 million each, then equivalent to Rs. 87 crores. If we went purely by market exchange rates for repayment of our dues, it would mean the purchase of the submarines at a cost of around $50,000 or so. This was clearly not just untenable but ridiculous. In retrospect, however, it would have been preferable to have repaid the entire Soviet debt to Russia in free foreign exchange at a somewhat higher discount rate. This would have prevented dubious practices and distortions in trade, which contributed to its rapid decline. After so many years, Indo-Russian bilateral trade has not yet been restored to what it was in Soviet times, or even what it was in the immediate aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union. We also missed early opportunities for equity stakes in oil exploration and defence industries.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, I found a notable change in Russian perceptions about India and Indians. There was a clear generational gap between the continuing goodwill of older Russians, including President Yeltsin, and the younger western-oriented generation, including Foreign Minister Kozyrev. I also discerned a clear difference in attitudes in large cities, like Moscow and St. Petersburg, and in other areas of the Russian heartland. In smaller cities and towns, the warmth of the welcome, the generous hospitality and spontaneous goodwill towards India were experiences that my wife and I never encountered elsewhere.

In relation to Pakistan, the Russians had the same tendency as the Soviets, namely, that greater Russian leverage through arms supplies and better high-level political and defence contacts with Pakistan, would also benefit India and promote closer Indo-Pakistan ties. There were, however, no arms supplies to Pakistan during my tenure in Moscow. The Russian leadership, particularly at the urging of Yevgeny Primakov (whom I knew in various capacities, including as an eminent academician, foreign intelligence chief, Foreign Minister and finally as Prime Minister of Russia) took the lead to establish a strategic partnership with China, and later with India. When I was supposed to leave Russia in 1996 for taking up my announced assignment as Ambassador to China, and knowing my role in preparing for the pathbreaking visit of Rajiv Gandhi to China in 1988, most top Russian dignitaries I met urged me to support a trilateral India, Russia, China dialogue mechanism. They felt that stronger Sino-Russian relations would promote better Sino-Indian relations. This trilateral mechanism materialized subsequently, though, much to my regret, my posting to China was cancelled, after a change of government in India – one of the four such changes during my six year tenure in Russia! Russia later took the lead in proposing close coordination between the quadrilateral Brazil, Russia, India, China (BRIC) framework since the first G-20 summit convened by President Bush in 2008, and in international financial institutions.

Over a little over a decade since I left Moscow, I have not kept myself fully abreast of developments in Indo-Russian relations. There has obviously been significant changes for the better since Putin took over from Yeltsin as President, and thereafter. There is an established mechanism of annual bilateral summits. Putin restored better central control of Russian regions, of strategic natural resources, defence, space and other sectors, Oligarchs appear to have been put in their place. The flight of capital has reportedly been arrested and reversed. Till the global financial crisis emanating from the USA in autumn 2008, the Russian economy was on a roll. There has simultaneously been consistently high growth in the Indian economy. All these positive factors have, I am sure, led to Indo-Russian relations being strengthened significantly with each passing year in the last decade.

In spite of all this, for some unaccountable reason, I sense a certain disquiet in some circles in Russia about the future of our relationship. Some ascribe it to the rapid transformation of Indo-US relations, as manifested by the Indo-US nuclear deal. But Russia is a major beneficiary of the US-led initiative to lift the global nuclear isolation of India. The “re-setting” of Russia-US relations remains a top Russian priority. There is also some murmuring about our emerging defence cooperation with the US and western countries. The fact is that Russia is, and will remain, a valued and a preferred partner in defence cooperation. Yet it would be unrealistic, and unfair, to expect India not to avail of the best available defence equipments and technologies under our transparent international competitive bidding procedures. Russia will also need to restore its earlier reputation and credibility of fully adhering to contractual commitments.

Despite occasional problems of a transitory nature, ties between India and the former Soviet Union, and then with the Russian Federation, have been the most stable and resilient relations in the post-cold war period for both countries. We share common concerns and have inter-locking strategic interests and goals, including the goal of a multipolar Asian and global world order. We are partners in the combat against religions extremism, international terrorism, illegal narcotics and arms trade. Russia did not mince words in asserting that the elimination of the terrorist infrastructure in Pakistan was a prerequisite for the renewal of a peaceful dialogue between India and Pakistan to resolve all issues in a bilateral framework as envisaged in the Simla Agreement of 1972 and the Lahore declaration of 1998. In its cooperation with India, Russia has been flexible in interpretation of the MTCR of the NSG guidelines, even before the latter were waived for India. It has been supportive of our permanent membership of the UN Security Council in bilateral exchanges, which will undoubtedly percolate down to its Permanent Mission in the United Nations.

All this is well and good. But much more will have to be done. It will become increasingly difficult to sustain a strong relationship by focusing primarily on core geopolitical and security issues. We must work much harder to give greater economic ballast to the relationship. While in strategic terms, the Russian eagle now looks both to the West and East, in economic terms, both heads of the eagle are still directed mainly to the West, particularly towards Europe. Steps will have to be taken to overcome the constraints posed by the lack of geographical contiguity through energy and trade transport corridors. The private sectors of both countries will have to reach out to each other in a much more proactive manner.

We have to facilitate trade, investments and technology transfers in both directions. It will also be a mistake to ignore the people to people dimension of the relationship. Apart from ongoing cultural exchange programmes, the YOUTHSAT project etc., tourism, educational and other exchanges need to be actively encouraged, through a much more liberal visa regime and other measures. This will be to the mutual benefit of both countries and have a positive overall impact in Asia and the world.


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