Sameer Patil, Fellow, National Security, Ethnic Conflict and Terrorism, Gateway House, comments on the significance of Prime Minister Modi’s visit to Russia.
Ashna Contractor (AC): Sameer, defence military cooperation appears to be the key item on the agenda for Prime Minister Modi’s visit to Russia. As we know, India and Russia have a long history in terms of their defence relationship. Russia has been the largest arms supplier to India, but this changed in the post-Cold War era. Today the U.S. and Israel are also among the top suppliers to the Indian military. However, President Putin came to India last year in December as well, and that visit demonstrated that both countries wanted to work towards building their defence cooperation once again. And during Prime Minister Modi’s upcoming visit to Russia too, a number of defence deals are likely to be signed. So let me begin by asking – according to you, how important is the India-Russia defence relationship?
Sameer Patil (SP): It is very important. You talked about the history of the defence cooperation between the two countries, and Russia being the largest arms supplier to India. So not only looking at the current equipment, it’s a very important relationship, but also if you look at the future joint cooperation projects between India and Russia – the Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft, the medium transport aircraft – it’s still a very important relationship. Now obviously, in the last few years, the U.S. and Israel have dislodged Russia from that position. But nonetheless, given the fact that both the countries have very good trust levels operating between the two, it’s a very important relationship.
AC: So in terms of this visit specifically, can you tell us something about the details of the defence deals that we can expect that will come out of this?
SP: So both the sides are discussing a lot of joint cooperation and development projects, including the Fifth Generation Fighter Aircrafts, as I said, but also purchasing and production of the Talwar-class frigates and also the Armata tanks, which the Indian army has reportedly expressed interest in.
But I think you can expect progress on two important issues during this visit. One is the light transport helicopter, the agreement for which was announced during President Putin’s visit. So this time I think the agreement will materialise, probably by including a private aerospace manufacturer from India into the production, which will be a big boost for Prime Minister Modi’s ‘Make-in-India’ campaign. This deal is also important because the eventual number of helicopters to be produced will be much higher than what has been stipulated so far.
And the second thing that you can expect is – just before Modi’s visit, the Indian Ministry of Defence has cleared acquisition of the S400 missile defence system. We are going to buy 5 of these systems for Rs. 40,000 crores. So the ‘G to G’ negotiations, government to government negotiations, will begin on that front. So you can expect progress on these two fronts at least.
AC: Moving on to some of the geopolitical implications – the India-U.S. bilateral particularly has gotten a renewed energy since the Modi government came to power. The two countries have gotten closer together. Do you think that closeness between India and the U.S. affects India’s relationship with Russia?
SP: These kinds of comparisons will certainly be made time and again, primarily because of the fact that India maintains so-called strategic autonomy in its foreign policy orientation, rather than be clearly aligned with any one country. But of course, in some cases it does affect the relationship, which is primarily in the business of defence sphere. Not only have the U.S., along with Israel, dislodged Russia, but also the American establishment is quickly moving from a ‘buyer-seller’ model to a model of joint co-production and development. So obviously in that particular sense, it does affect the India-Russia relationship.
But in certain cases it doesn’t matter, because despite the growing bonhomie with the United States, India has still turned towards Russia for leasing another nuclear submarine. Because it knows, that that kind of sensitive technology will be given only by Russia, and not by the Western countries.
AC: Last year, Russia and Pakistan also signed a defence cooperation agreement. This is the first time in history that Russia decided to sell arms to Pakistan. What are the implications of this on the India-Russia security relationship, and do you think this issue of Pakistan will feature in Modi and Putin’s meeting?
SP: This issue will definitely figure, because in the past Indian officials have expressed concerns over the growing proximity between Russia and Pakistan. But I think Russia is also playing its geopolitical cards because of India’s growing proximity with the United States, and more so because of the fact that some of the Western sanctions have hit the Russian economy, and therefore Russian defence companies are very keen to acquire more and more external hardware contracts. The Russian officials have also hinted that they probably will sell some Su-35 fighter jets to Pakistan. But that is more of posturing to give signals to India, because India has also cut back its order of the Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft. So in my opinion it’s a combination of geopolitics and business in the case of the Russia-Pakistan defence cooperation.
Now India of course, will certainly not like to see this cooperation growing, and endangering its own security interests. And therefore I think the Indian side will remind the Russians of how the previous arms sales to Pakistan have resulted in the arms changing hands and then ending up in the hands of the militants, and then that endangering India’s security. So I think India will highlight that concern in the case of Russia and Pakistan’s cooperation.
AC: And finally, India and Russia are also working on a counter terrorism agreement. So what is the significance of that in terms of the growing threat of the Islamic State and even Russia’s actions in Syria?
SP: So Russia’s military campaign in Syria is not only to save the Bashar al-Assad regime that it has ardently backed, but also because of the fact that the Islamic State, after Syria and Iraq, has set its eyes on the Eurasia and Central Asia region, which Russia considers as its own backyard. So it is natural that both India and Russia will exchange some notes on Syria. But I think the focus will be on Central Asia and Afghanistan and the spread of the Islamic State there, and the evolving dynamics between the Afghan Taliban and the Islamic State.
India and Russia have had a very common perception on the problem of terrorism emanating from the same region, and they have in the past aligned their international positions on this issue. So this time I think as a part of that counter-terrorism agreement, the focus will be in terms of intelligence sharing and also in terms of terrorist financing. Also capacity building of both the law enforcement agencies, particularly because Russia has a very deep experience in terms of urban terrorism and attacks on its mass transit systems which India is also facing. So obviously there will be some discussion on that.
From India’s side I think Prime Minister Modi will also enlist Russia’s support for the Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism, which he has been talking about in all the international fora – to take the Russians’ support on that and to basically say that the international community needs to do away with the distinction of good terrorist and bad terrorist.
AC: Thank you, Sameer.
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