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INDO-RUSSIAN RELATIONS: PRIMAKOV'S VISIT

Despite its joining the other permanent members of the UN Security Council in proforma expressions of concern over India's nuclear tests of May,1998, (Pokhran II) and in calling for India's adherence to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), Russia has ensured that the tests and their sequel do not affect its long-term strategic relationship with India, which has been painstakingly built up over the years.

President Boris Yeltsin went ahead with preparations for his planned visit to India, which, however, had to be unfortunately postponed due to his indisposition. In his place, Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov is to visit India on December 21 and 22. The postponement of Yeltsin's visit has not delayed the finalisation of new long-term programmes for bilateral economic, financial, commercial, defence, scientific and technological co-operation during the first decade of the new millennium . These programmes are expected to be signed during Primakov's visit.

The successful groundwork for these programmes was laid at the meetings of the Joint Working Group On Defence Co-operation and the Inter-Governmental Commission on Trade, Economic, Scientific, Technical and Cultural Co-operation held in Moscow during November.

According to reports published in the Moscow press (mainly in "Kommersant", a daily), the value of India's defence equipment purchases from Russia during the coming decade is expected to double from the estimated US $ 7 to 8 billions during the current decade. Amongst items of interest to India mentioned by the Moscow press were 10 more SU-30 MK long-range fighter planes to supplement the 40 ordered earlier, an unknown quantity of T-90 tanks to neutralise any advantage secured by Pakistan through its procurement of 320 T-80 UD tanks from Ukraine, six S-300V mobile air defence systems and Russian co-operation in the designing of a nuclear submarine.

The proposed agreement on trade co-operation reportedly envisages the doubling of bilateral trade from its current level of US $ 1.5 billion by the end of the year 2000 and a further doubling by the year 2005.

Yeltsin is perhaps the last of the pre-1991 generation of Russian political leaders to be influenced in his policies and vision by an emotional attachment to Russia's bilateral relations with India. Similarly, Primakov belongs to a dwindling number of the pre-1991 crop of Russian bureaucrats-turned-politicians who continue to underline the importance of India in Russia's strategic calculus.

As the then head of Russia's Foreign Intelligence Service, Primakov is believed to have played an important role in encouraging Yeltsin's concept, enunciated in 1992-93, of a triangular strategic relationship involving Russia, China and India. However, unfortunately, during the Foreign Ministership of Andrei Kozyrev till January 5,1996, the implementation of this concept by the Russian Foreign Office was marked by mental reservations and feet-dragging.

Of all the Foreign Ministers who had held office in the erstwhile USSR and Russia, Kozyrev was the least interested in Russia's relations with India. A noticeable lack of warmth and relative inaccessibility marked his relations with visiting Indian dignitaries. He gave the Russian foreign policy a distinct pro-US twist, whether it be in respect of UN action against Iraq and Serbia or the projected NATO expansion into East Europe.

He was also amenable to US pressure on Russia's co-operation with India in the defence and technological fields. Russia's going-back, under US pressure, on the transfer of cryogenic technology to India could be attributed to his influence .Fortunately, after taking over as the Foreign Minister on January 5,1996, Primakov corrected these distortions which tended to adversely affect the bilateral co-operation with India. Russia has firmly rejected till now US pressures to tone down its co-operation with India in the military, nuclear power and space fields.

Even under Kozyrev, despite the sensitivity to US pressures, Russia showed a total understanding of India's concerns over Pakistan and refrained from selling any equipment or technology to Pakistan, which might threaten India's security. Similarly, largely under the influence of Primakov, the Yeltsin Government reportedly rejected frequent offers from Pakistan for close co-operation between the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) of Pakistan and Russia's Foreign Intelligence Service. The present co-operation between the intelligence communities of the two countries is confined to counter-terrorism and counter-narcotics.

Russia's receptivity to India's security concerns not only over Pakistan, but also China was underlined by a recent report of the Moscow correspondent of the Press Trust of India ("The Hindu" of November 15,1998), which had quoted an unnamed senior official of the Russian Defence Ministry as saying that Russia would be unwilling to sell the SU-30MK multi-role fighter planes to China or any other country in India's neighbourhood.

References to the idea of a triangular strategic co-operation involving Russia, India and China have been absent from the recent policy pronouncements of Moscow, presumably because of a lack of an enthusiastic response from China, which prefers to develop its strategic relationship with Russia at the bilateral level only. Russia has been trying to ensure that its relations with the one do not come in the way of its relations with the other.

However, a somewhat disquieting recent development was Moscow's agreeing to a Chinese demand for a reference to the South Asia situation in the statement on "Russian-Chinese Relations On The Threshold Of The 21st Century" issued in Moscow on November 25 at the conclusion of Chinese President Jiang Zemin's visit to Russia.

The statement mentioned South Asia, Afghanistan, Korea and Kosovo as regions of " the most acute conflict situations , which, if they escalate, may pose real threats to the international community."

It added: " On South Asia, Russia and China confirm their position expressed in the UN and at other international forums and stress the paramount importance of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty for global efforts to promote non-spread of nuclear arms and nuclear disarmament. Russia and China call upon all countries which have not yet joined these treaties to do so without delay and without pre-conditions."

Russian officials have subsequently played down the significance of the reference to South Asia and claimed that they had, in fact, rejected a demand from China to name India and Pakistan in their call for adherence to the NPT and CTBT.

Even if it be so, the statement would show that India could not always take for granted Russian support for it. Next to India, China is the biggest market for the Russian arms industry and Moscow, therefore, finds itself obliged to be sensitive to Chinese concerns too.

At a time of steady decline in Russia's earnings from the oil industry, the money which it earns from the export of arms and ammunition and nuclear power stations is of vital importance to it. Because of the economic turmoil in South-East and East Asia, the only countries in this region with the required cash for arms and nuclear purchases are Japan, Taiwan, Singapore, China and India. Japan and Singapore prefer Western equipment and technologies. Russia has given a commitment to China not to sell arms to Taiwan. Before July,1997, Indonesia was negotiating with Moscow for arms purchases, but the proposal has since been dropped after the financial crisis in Indonesia.

Thus, India and China in this region and Iran in the Gulf are the only countries wanting to procure Russian equipment and technologies and in a position to pay for them. While the US has shown no undue concern over the Chinese purchases from Russia, it has been off and on pressurising Moscow to review its defence and nuclear power deals with India and Iran.

Under Yeltsin's leadership, Moscow has thus far resisted the pressure. Would it continue to resist after Yeltsin's exit from the political scene in the year 2000 or even earlier due to illness and, even if it wants to, would it be able to resist because of its growing dependence on the US-influenced International Monetary Fund and the West for rescue packages to bring its economy out of the present mess? T

hese are questions of tremendous relevance to Indian policy-makers and, in this context, the power play in Russia due to Yeltsin's continuing ill-health and how successfully Russian policy-makers manage to deal with their economic problems without succumbing to US pressure need to be closely monitored . At the same time, other options in case a new leadership after Yeltsin bows to US pressure need to be identified.

B.Raman                                                                    07-12-98

(The writer is Additional Secretary (Retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, and presently Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai.)

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