PRESIDENT Boris Yeltsin wasn't simply mouthing Soviet era sentiments when he told Prime Minister Deve Gowda: "We have been friends for many decades, and we remain friends. India is a stabilising force in the region." He was underlining current strategic expediency. The red carpet laid out in Moscow for Gowda, whose visit coincided with that of Chinese Foreign Minister Qian Qichen, showed India and China are clear beneficiaries of a post-Cold War geopolitical battle between Russia and the West over NATO's eastward expansion.
The Indo-Russian summit came just days after Yeltsin met US President Bill Clinton in Helsinki, where Russia failed to get the West to budge on NATO plans to admit the former Soviet Union's satellite countries as members. The fact that Yeltsin played lavish host to top officials from two major Asian powers is a clear sign that, disillusioned with the West, Russia is looking east for strategic partners. India and China, who reject the "bloc policy" concept, serve just fine.
Concerns of Indian diplomats that the Indo-Russian summit would be overshadowed by the Helsinki meet vanished as Gowda's motorcade, with blazing lights and wailing sirens, paralysed traffic in downtown Moscow, reminding Muscovites of ceremonial summits of old, stressing "eternal friendship between the two peoples".
Hours before Gowda's arrival, the Indian Ambassador to Moscow, Ronen Sen, told Outlook that, as opposed to economic issues, no clear political agenda was set for the summit and "any question may come out or not". The Segodnya Moscow daily even speculated that "the NATO expansion question is not hypothetical to India; there are worries that the alliance could be enlarged to encompass Pakistan".
The tone of official Russian comments resembled the Russian-western 'honeymoon' of the early '90s. "Cooperation with India is high priority," Russian Premier Viktor Chernomyrdin said while opening the bilateral talks. "We have always and in all matters found mutual understanding." Speaking at the Kremlin banquet in his honour, Gowda stressed both sides should work together and strive to create a world without military blocs. Quoting Buddha, he added that the greatest victory is where there are no victors or defeated—words that were met with warm approval.
Relations advanced further when Gowda confirmed an accord under which Russia will build two nuclear reactors in Tamil Nadu. At $1.5-2 billion each, the two reactors can jointly produce 2 million KW. The deal, which has been dragging since 1988, is likely to upset the West, especially the US which suspects India is developing nuclear weapons. Washington had earlier asked Russia to refrain from the sale, saying it violated the spirit of a 1992 pact banning nuclear export to aspiring powers. "Kudankulam is Kremlin's first gesture towards the White House after Helsinki, indicating that if
Russian interests are ignored in Eastern Europe, it will turn a deaf ear to US worries on nuclear technology transfer," notes Sergei Solodovnik, a senior research fellow with the International Relations Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences. Also on the anvil is a resumption of the cryogen rocket deal with India. The Glavkosmos space agency says Russia will start the delivery of cryogen boosters to equip Indian rockets soon. "The resumption of the deal, once held back by Russia under US pressure, is another acid test for the growing maturity of Russian foreign policy," says Tatyana Shaumjan, an expert with the Moscow Institute of Oriental Studies.
The breakthroughs were followed by four bilateral agreements—avoidance of double taxation, customs cooperation, quarantine plant protection and sports exchanges. Officials also discussed the progress of military cooperation and new contracts on the delivery of Russian weapons systems to India. Interfax quoted Oleg Sidorenko, deputy head of Rosvooruzhenie, Russia's state arms exporter, which is spearheading its effort to elbow into the US-dominated global arms market, as saying the two countries plan to launch a new long-term military aid programme in AD 2000.
Last December India agreed to purchase Russian Su-30MK fighter jets worth $1.8 billion. Sources at Rosvooruzhenie reveal that India has purchased $3 billion worth of arms in the past two years. Military experts say Russia sells arms to 51 countries, with 60 per cent of the sales to India and China.
Gowda's visit was also marked by some symbolism. While in Moscow, he unveiled a statue of Nehru to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Indian Independence and diplomatic ties between the two nations. Sino-Russian ties have a more chequered history. Relations were chilly ever since the two communist giants fell out in 1960 over who was the "true Marxist". But the last two years have seen a dramatic thaw. Yeltsin met Chinese leader Jiang Zemin in Beijing last April and the two countries signed a host of economic pacts and an agreement on border demarcation. The two are now keen to develop a strategic partnership, though ruling out any ideological or military bloc.
During his visit, Qian and his Russian counterpart Yevgeni Primakov put final touches on a critical agreement on troop reduction on the 4,835-km common border. The pact is slated to be signed in late April during Jiang's Moscow visit.
There is no denying that Russian foreign policy has swung eastward. Yeltsin's remark on Russian TV that his summit with Clinton "was the most difficult in my memory" was in sharp contrast with his positive tone on Indian and Chinese relations. Notes Solodovnik: "Security issues are becoming a bone of contention in Russia's relations with the West, but in Asia these issues serve as a bonding for relations."