Page last updated at 15:31 GMT, Wednesday, 12 March 2008

Are India and Russia no longer comrades?

By Sunil Raman
BBC News, Delhi

News that India's naval chief, Adm Suresh Mehta, has reluctantly agreed to pay the full price for the refitted Russian aircraft carrier, Admiral Gorschkov, is a manifestation of the growing number of differences between the two former cold war allies.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in Moscow, May 2005
Rising costs over the refit of the Admiral Gorschkov
Disagreement over a major submarine contract
Russian restrictions on Indian agricultural exports
Visa problems for Indian businessmen
Lack of direct and speedy trade links
India's perceived pro-US foreign policy

It seems that they are moving further and further apart over a number of issues.

Their leaders still visit each other's countries and rarely miss any opportunity to emphasise their decades-old ties. But nagging doubts remain over their ability to redefine their relationship in a fast-changing world.

The Admiral Gorschkov is a good example. From a negotiated price of $700m, the Russians subsequently demanded $1.2bn with delivery delayed till 2013.

Around the same time, the Indian navy has refused to accept an upgraded diesel-powered submarine after delays in the installation of a missile system.

Souring relations

These irritants and other disagreements over trade and India's foreign policy have all served to put a strain on once close relations.

Adm Mehta has called for a government review of military ties with Russia, amid growing resentment within the military about the Russian attitude to their needs.

Vladimir Putin and Manmohan Singh
The relationship could be going downwards

Having depended entirely on the erstwhile Soviet Union to meet those requirements in the past, India today finds Russia a lot more aggressive and even a little indifferent. Around 70% of India's military hardware comes from Russia.

When India's foreign and defence ministers visited Moscow last year, President Putin allegedly refused to meet them.

In fact, Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee, next only to the prime minister in seniority, was not even given an appointment by the Russian prime minister.

And when Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh travelled to Russia at the end of last year, he curtailed his visit to just 28 hours.

'Not enthusiastic'

Officially the politicians deny any souring of relations.

"Despite major transformations, our relations remain firmly rooted in a mutual bond of friendship, understanding and trust," Mr Singh said recently.

Visitors throng a Russian book stall at a World Book Fair in Delhi
Ties between the two countries are not now so strong

Indian Defence Minister AK Antony for his part reiterated that India will not develop ties with any country at the cost of its friendship with Russia.

But experts say their words belie the truth.

The Delhi-based Russia expert Nivedita Das Kundu, says that both countries "have taken each other for granted".

She says that Russia is not enthusiastic about Delhi's growing relationship with the US.

But at the same time she points out that India needs to understand that for the next 15-20 years her dependence on Russian military hardware and spares will continue, despite frustrations in the military over delays and escalating costs.

Again the aircraft carrier saga clearly illustrates this. India's ageing Vikrant carrier needs to be replaced and Delhi has committed itself to a Russian replacement.


It is only recently that India has begun to diversify and look at the US and Israel for military imports.

But Ms Kundu says "nostalgia" will not help improve relations.

India's foreign office has to get issues such as visa problems for Indian businessmen to Russia sorted out, she says, because at the moment, they have to wait as long as Pakistanis and Afghans.

Russian Defence Minister Sergei Ivanov inspects an army parade in India
Trade between the two is currently worth about $2bn a year
Russia is helping build two nuclear reactors in Tamil Nadu and is offering four more
India is keen to source more oil and gas from Russia
Russia is keen to sell India its new MiG 35 fighter jet

The break-up of the Soviet Union has also affected trade between the two countries. Russia's share in India's total trade has fallen from 9% in 1991 to just over 1% in 2007.

From the third largest export destination in 1991, Russia has slipped to 34th place for Indian exports.

And the recent restrictions on Indian tea, coffee and agricultural exports to Russia - some of which have now been lifted - only served further to sour the relationship.

Experts argue that India needs to work harder to erase the widely held perception in Russia that Indian goods are of poor quality.

Earlier India was treated differently from other countries by Russia. Now it is dealt with in same way as any other country and that is what irks many in the Indian bureaucracy.

Now Indian defence contractors have to negotiate with the different departments in Russia which deal with exports and imports while at the same time haggle over the prices of military hardware.

"But probably the main factor that has become an obstacle to better relations is Delhi's growing closeness with the United States," says security expert Uday Bhaskar.

Russia and India's complex friendship
26 Jan 07 |  South Asia
India, Russia sign defence deal
20 Jan 04 |  South Asia
India nears Russian warship deal
02 Dec 03 |  South Asia

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