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Restive Russia reiterates strategic ties

Jyoti Malhotra  |  New Delhi 

The missiles are out in full strength at the in Delhi’s enormous Pragati Maidan complex, but it seems that flower pots are also being considered as potential weapons of influence for India’s growing defence market. At least, that is what some Russians seemed to believe.

At their second floor stall in Hall no 18, the Russians asked for the flower pots placed by the municipal authorities on the balustrade in front of their stall to be removed – in case the pots were accidentally knocked down and fell on the Israelis below, the Russians didn’t want to be blamed, said an official working for Rosoberonexport, the country’s premier defence trading agency.

Clearly, the worldwide recession has sharpened the competitive instincts of the world’s largest defence suppliers. And, keenly aware that countries like the US and Israel are muscling in on its established turf – the Indian armed forces’ equipment are still 70-80 per cent of Russian origin —- Russia is pulling out all the stops to staunch India’s growing defence interests in the west.

At the same time, Russian officials admit to a certain apprehension. Or, as Vladimir Ereschenko, the deputy director of the international department of Rosoberonexport put it, “India has been buying from the Soviet Union and now Russia for decades. Earlier, we were the main supplier, but now the introduction of the tender system definitely creates very serious competition. The stress was not as much as it is today.”

Other Russian officials emphasized that in these days of the changing world order, Moscow still very much considered Delhi a “prized relationship”. One quoted Nikita Khrushchev, the general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in the 1950s, who famously told the Indian leadership that they “should shout across the Himalayas if you ever need us”.

The officials would not publicly admit to India’s growing attraction towards the US, especially after the conclusion of the Indo-US nuclear deal. “To counter the growing competition, however,” Ereschenko said, Moscow believed it was imperative to consolidate the technological and scientific collaboration with Delhi and mount new joint ventures, to keep both defence establishments strategically tied to each other in the decades to come.

For example, the Russians will lease its ‘Nerpa’ nuclear submarine to the Indian Navy this summer. An Indo-Russian joint venture some years ago built the Brahmos, the only supersonic Cruise missile in the world. The missle has a range of 290 km, just enough to bury the 300-km limit mandated by the Missile Technology Control Regime, of which India is still not a member. And, Russian engineers quietly assisted in the design and building of the ‘Arihant,’ India’s own nuclear-powered submarine.

In fact, as the Indian design team fits the Brahmos in various horizontal and vertical configurations on naval ships, tanks and submarines, they admit that “the engine of the Brahmos missile is still built by the Russians”.

Sivathanu Pillai, CEO of Brahmos Aerospace, told Russia Today, “We are very strong in guidance technology and software, while Russia is very strong in propulsion and cruise missile technology. So, having the technology in both and respecting each other in trust, we formed a joint venture.”

As for the buzz in the international strategic community around the manner in which India would return the US favour on the Indo-US nuclear deal, the Russian officials admitted that speculation was mounting in favour of some US defence companies winning some big Indian deals – especially since the $10-12 billion to be earned by US companies for building civil nuclear plants on allotted Indian sites would take several years to come through.

Asked if he believed the prize catch of the 126-fighter jet deal, worth $7-11 billion, would go to the Americans, Ereschenko simply shrugged. “Everybody remembers that the Americans imposed sanctions against India after it conducted its nuclear tests. Russia did not even consider this.”

The officials said they intended to renew their charm offensive to counter growing US influence on both sides of South Block.

Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin will be visiting New Delhi in March, barely three months after Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visited Moscow to renew the strategic partnership and sign a second 10-year military cooperation agreement.

On the margins of Putin’s visit, the deal for the aircraft carrier, Admiral Gorshkov, in the making since 2004, will be finally signed for $2.34 billion, thereby bringing to a close the acrimonious chapter in price negotiations. Delhi will also pick up another squadron of Su-30 MKIs, the officials said.

First Published: Fri, February 19 2010. 00:58 IST