Putin visit revitalises india-russia ties

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India must not succumb to the US’ arm-twisting as Russia remains an all-weather friend and a vital supplier of arms

by G Parthasarathy

The United States believed that after the collapse of the Soviet Union, a new Russia could be brought to its knees by economic pressures and political manoeuvres. Washington sought to see that Moscow’s leadership remained in the hands of individuals like the occasionally sober President Boris Yeltsin. They had not counted on a young former KGB agent Vladimir Putin assuming leadership, determined to restore Russia’s influence in the emerging world order.

Putin thwarted US backed initiatives to undermine Russian influence in neighbouring former Soviet Republics, like Georgia and Ukraine, where Russia annexed its erstwhile naval base in Crimea. He thereafter used military assistance to successfully back the secular Syrian Government of Bashar al Assad, against American backed Islamic fundamentalists.

Successive governments in India have wisely not made the mistake of underestimating the power and influence of a new Russia, emerging from the ashes of the Soviet Union. While trade and investment ties with Russia have been limited in recent years, the Russians have remained reliable suppliers of frontline defence equipment to India, at competitive prices.

India has also joined forums like BRICS and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, where it can exchange views with both Russia and China, on issues of security and economic cooperation, particularly across the Eurasian land mass. Moreover, given the rise of an aggressive and assertive China, our economic, diplomatic and military ties with the US, Japan and the EU have been significantly strengthened.

But, things have now come to a head, with the passing of American legislation “CAATSA,” to impose sanctions against countries that buy sophisticated weapons systems from Russia. This is as much to “punish” Russia as to “enrich” the American arms industry! American officials have testified in the US Congress confirming that one of the main aims of CAATSA is to wean countries away from Russian arms purchases and turn to the US.

Long-Standing Friend

Russia has remained a major partner for five decades now, as a reliable supplier of defence equipment and diplomatic support, especially in difficult times. Moreover, Russian cooperation in crucial areas, like our space programme continued, even when the Americans imposed sanctions on India, after its nuclear tests. It was the inability of the US to isolate India globally, because of support from countries like Russia and France that led to Washington ending sanctions. Washington thereafter designated India as valued “partner” across the “Indo-Pacific,” primarily to balance and counter a territorially aggressive and economically assertive China.

The last two decades have seen a significant turnaround in India-US relations. American arms supplies to India, estimated at $18 billion, have included sales of maritime patrol aircraft, 130 mm. artillery guns, C17 and C130 Transport aircraft and Apache Attack Helicopters. Moreover, further acquisitions from the US are under consideration. This is apart from bilateral agreements for practical military cooperation, and an unprecedented military basing agreement. Joint exercises between the militaries of India and the US are now a regular feature. While India shares some strategic objectives with the US, we cannot agree to give the US the right to veto our acquisitions from Russia, thereby adversely affecting our national security. The US made it clear that India opens itself to American sanctions if it undertakes any move to acquire the much-needed S400 Air Defence Missiles from Russia.

These missiles are unquestionably the best defences we can acquire to defend the Capital Delhi, other cities and strategic defence targets against attacks by missiles or aircraft, launched against them. Even the US does not possess such a missile defence system, which we need now more than ever, especially given the depleted strength of our Air Force.

China has already been targeted by the recent American legislation for acquiring the S400 Missile defence system and the SU 35 advanced fighter aircraft. US President Donald Trump has warned that India will “find out” how the US will react to the S300 Agreement “sooner than you think”.

While the S400 missile defence deal, could be subjected to American sanctions, there can be no question of us demeaning ourselves, by going with a virtual begging bowl to the Americans, asking them not to apply sanctions, on every arms deal, we propose to sign with Russia. We should bear in mind that there are several crucial weapons systems where we have decided, in principle, will be acquired from Russia.

Crucial Weapons Systems

These crucial weapons systems include lease of another nuclear attack (SSN) Submarine, over 200 Light Helicopters to be built in India, four naval frigates, conventional submarines to be largely built in Indian shipyards, and an estimated 6,00,000 AK-103 assault rifles, also to be made in India. Our Jawans urgently need these rifles, as the present weapons they carry are far from satisfactory.

Following the recent American sanctions on arms purchases from Russia, India was faced with the prospect of its leading banks, with large dollar holdings, facing crippling American sanctions, if they made payments for large arms purchases from Russia. The only viable alternative for India and Russia was to devise measures to avoid and sidestep possible American pressures. We have now reportedly devised measures to face up to the threat of American financial sanctions.

One agreement signed during the Putin visit received little attention. This was an agreement reportedly between three Indian banks — Syndicate Bank, Indian Bank and Vijaya Bank — and Russia’s “Sberbank”. The Agreement reportedly facilitates payments for all Defence related transactions between India and Russia, not in the “Almighty” American dollar, but in rupees and Russian roubles. It remains to be seen whether and what sanctions Indian defence organisations involved in such transactions will be subjected to. Many of them could ironically be essential partners in any defence deal, which India decides to sign with the US also!

Three decades ago, the US threatened to cut off fuel supplies of enriched uranium for India’s Tarapur nuclear power plant, unless we agreed to place all our nuclear facilities under international safeguards. The then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi refused to oblige and turned to France for supply of nuclear fuel. Two decades later, former US President George Bush ended all unilateral nuclear restrictions on India.

One hopes that this will be remembered by the US, when it comes to its ill-advised sanctions on acquisitions of Russian arms by key Asian countries like Vietnam and Indonesia also. India, Vietnam, Indonesia, and the US, will derive no benefit from application of the present ill-advised American sanctions.

The writer is former High Commissioner of Pakistan

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