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Ukraine makes a mistake by not considering India a priority country

Journalist Vishal Thapar on the New Delhi’s military-technical policy and overwhelming Russian factor
06 грудня, 00:00

The topic of military-technical cooperation between India and Russia is of interest for Ukraine because of the three facts. First, India is the world’s largest importer of arms. Second, 50 to 70 percent of these weapons are supplied to India by Russia. Third, the president of Ukraine will visit India from December 10 to 12. Ukraine is a country that could also qualify for more serious positions among the suppliers of military equipment to India. But it seems that it does not. Why is it so?

Although lately Russian suppliers started to feel less confident in this market (because now they have to participate in tenders, which means that they have to fight for a place under the sun on a competitive basis), India admits that there is still a huge influence of the Kremlin. And this influence is surely disturbing when you see, for example, the court trial over the Pussy Riot case and the fact that the chances for the development of democracy in Russia rapidly move into the abyss. By the way, less than two weeks after Viktor Yanukovych’s visit to New Delhi, Vladimir Putin will come there as well. Political contacts between India and Russia are much closer than those between India and Ukraine.

Indian journalist Vishal Thapar has been covering the topic of defense for many years. For more than a decade he has worked in one of the most prestigious and oldest Indian newspapers Hindustan Times, he has also worked for the English-speaking Indian news channel CNN IBN. Since 2010 he has been the editor of the recently established news channel NewsX, his subject is defense and strategic affairs.

We began our conversation with the history of relations between India and Russia, which, in fact, resulted from the Cold War. Actually, there is a feeling that in India the topic of the Cold War has not yet been closed.

“Partly India-USSR relations are a product of the Cold War. A very important factor was that throughout history there has been no area where these two countries were in conflict, but Western denial to India definitely re-imposed the Soviet-India partnership of that time.

“There was another reason. Huge majority of the Indian political leadership after Indian’s independence in 1947 was educated in Britain. Britain was never a communist country. But among the intellectuals of those times ‘leftism’ was an intellectual fad. Indians who went to study there were also influenced, from Jawaharlal Nehru to Indian communists. Most of Indian communist leaders came from extremely rich families, and during education in Britain picked up ideology and practiced communism here. The ideas of the intellectual elite in Britain also played a very important role. Yes, the British left in 1947, but it was still India’s window into the world.

“And, in a manner of speaking, if somebody colonizes India after the British left, it was the Soviet Union. Soviets were everywhere, from the steel plants to the power plants, to the military hardware, to the construction technology. They had a very special place here and they managed to work the system. There wasn’t a very close relationship on people-to-people level, but there was a great relationship on the government-to-government level. I don’t want to use the word ‘alliance,’ because India would never agree to any alliance, but in practice it was.

“Then, after the USSR collapsed, Russia was extremely busy with itself. Relations with India weren’t a top priority. But when Putin became the president, India and Russia signed a Strategic Partnership Agreement in 2000. You must understand that India was also a very big market for Russia and they wanted to protect their interests. Russia’s big USP – unique selling proposition – is: ‘I’ll give you whatever you want! I’ll give you all those things which nobody in the world is prepared to give you!’ In April this year India inducted into its Navy a Russian nuclear powered submarine Akula. We call it Chakra. This is Russian submarine, leased to India. When it has been inducted, Russian Ambassador Kadakin was there and he said: ‘Which other country in the world will give you this? Don’t count me along with the others! They are not my competition! – As many were talking about US, and France, and Israel. – They are out of my competition! Which country in the world will give you this?’ – He said it in so many words…

“Even in the times of the Cold War this very heavy dependence on Soviet Union bothered some people in Indian establishment. But Russia still had a big influence.

“When strategic partnership agreement was signed between India and Russia, one of the issues, which Indians raised, was India’s nuclear powered submarine SSBN which is capable of firing ballistic nuclear missile. India called it Advanced Technology Vessel (ATV) Project. And also Russian helped. When this submarine was launched into the water in 2009 by the prime minister of India M. Singh, Russians were again all over the place.

“So, whether it was warships, or submarines, or tanks, or aircraft – everything was Russian. Over 70 percent of Indian military hardware is still Russian. The only thing which India was doing independently was developing of a strategic nuclear weapon program.

“But now what happens is that Russia has lost every competition it entered. In government-to-government deals there was no competition. But now there is a competition.

“The thing is that in post-2000s the situation changed for India. India had again explored its nuclear weapons in 1998. And the way the world saw India changed. Everyone wanted to be friends with India. So, never in 5,000 years of its existence India has enjoyed so much international cooperation and goodwill as it is now. Now India has a choice.”

What is the main Russia’s interest in India?

“India is a very big market, the biggest market for a military hardware. Nobody sells weapons to China. Everybody wants to sell it to India. For the past several years India has been the largest importer of military equipment and systems in the world. Russians are very quick movers in this market. They know this market better than anyone else. They know how to protect their interest.

“Russians have tied India into the Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA) category. It supposed to be an Indian-Russian project. But the point is that it has already been developed by Russia. And India doesn’t have any capability to develop its own FGFA category project. The defense minister said that India will buy 250-350 of these aircraft. We are talking about an order of 40-50 billion dollars. But Russia cannot stick to the deadlines. They said that they would give us FGFA already flying till 2017. It is already delayed by more than three years. It is not denying huge Russian talent in creating technologies, but this cooperation is not easy. All Russian equipment is late. In military terms it matters a lot. In comparison: Americans delivered the Hercules [aircraft. – Author] ahead of time and under cost. Russians are still uncomfortable in the way the world is doing business.

“Putin is coming to India on December 24. As I said, they realize that monopoly in Indian defense arms market is over. Next big thing is energy. They also want to get into the consumer market. They are looking for the ways to broaden the commercial arrangement trail.”

Recently I have read an article by former foreign secretary of India and former Ambassador of India to Russia Kanwal Sibal. He wrote very interesting things about Russia and tenders which they lose all the time. And it seems to me that this story is about India, which still has huge problems with corruption, but wants to play by the rules of market, and Russia, which still tries to play by the rules of Cold War and polarized world...

“Generally speaking, Western equipment is more reliable. Look at the Indian Air Force. It includes a large number of Russian aircraft. But in term of reliability the Indian Air Force loves the French Mirage [fighter aircraft. – Author]. Russians are losing their ground in quality. And India, from the other side, has more options now.

“In October Russian defense minister came to India. This visit had been delayed for about a week. On the same time President’s Putin visit to Pakistan was cancelled. And around the same time chief of the Pakistan’s Army Staff Kayani went to Moscow. And there was some buzz in the media here: Russian defense minister stayed back because of Kayani, Pakistan and Russia are trying to explore each other for, maybe, future partnership. It was something new. And for India very strange, because India and Russia have been very big friends and in past Russia always said that they will not provide any weapons to Pakistan. October 8 here is an Air Force Day. There was an Air Force reception. There I’ve heard a conversation between Pakistan military force attache in Delhi and former chief of Indian Air Force. ‘So, I heard that you, guys, are looking around for the equipment in Moscow…’ – the former chief of the Indian Air Force asked the Pakistan military attache. ‘Why not?’ – He replied. ‘My dear fellow, I can give you only one advice,’ former Indian Air Force chief said. ‘If you want to buy Russian equipment, buy lots of it. The problem is that most of it is on repair all the time.’”

Can you say that Russia is a factor in Indian foreign policy?

“Russia is a huge factor in Indian foreign policy. I can say that after India got independence, Russia became more influential in India than even Britain.

“Besides everything that I mentioned, there is a great deal of common interest: China, Central Asia, Afghanistan, Iran.”

Some people say that Russia has become a factor in Indian-Ukrainian relations? Do you know anything about that?

“Ukraine is such a resourceful country. But as I see Ukraine has not been able to push itself. Many years ago (it was about 2002) I saw Ukrainians at the big defense exhibition in India. After that I didn’t see them. India would always want balance in its relations. India tries to widen its base of suppliers. US, France, Israel... But anyway India is going to be dependent on Russia for a long time in nuclear and energy, defense sectors.

“As for Ukraine, besides cooperation with China, we’ve also heard about Ukraine, who tries to build a relationship with Pakistan. Of course, every country protects its commercial and national interests. But it seems to me that Ukraine does the same mistake that Russia did in the 1990s: Ukraine thinks that India is not a priority.”

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