Photo: AFP
Photo: AFP

The myth of idyllic Indo-Russian ties

there is no need to take a roseate view of our long relationship with Moscow. Nostalgia is not a viable foundation for any policy

The ongoing military exercises between Russia and Pakistan have touched off a wave of regret and nostalgia in India. Even seasoned observers and practitioners have lamented that our “best friend", who stood by us unwaveringly for decades, is now cosy with our worst neighbour. Before we ponder the road ahead, it is important to clear the cobwebs from our minds. The relationship, while undoubtedly of huge importance to India, was hardly a fairy tale. At all times, Moscow’s approach to New Delhi was shaped by its own strategic considerations.

The origins of this strategic relationship lay in Moscow’s growing rift with Beijing from 1959. The Soviets not only refused to support China in its territorial disputes with India, but also offered MiG-21s to India. Yet, in October 1962, when the Chinese conveyed to the Soviets their decision to attack India, Nikita Khrushchev, then Soviet premier, executed a volte-face. He told the Chinese that there was “no place for neutrality" and put the supply of MiGs on hold. During the war, Moscow shared with Beijing its intelligence on India. It was the Indian turn towards the US that led Khrushchev to revert to his earlier stance.

At the same time, Moscow sought to build bridges with Pakistan—not least because of the growing proximity between Pakistan and China. When Lal Bahadur Shastri travelled to Moscow in May 1965, he was shocked by Khrushchev’s successor Leonid Brezhnev’s unwillingness to condemn the Pakistani incursion into the Rann of Kutch. During the India-Pakistan war, the Russians played an important role in arranging a ceasefire. Subsequently, at Tashkent, they leaned on India to revert to status quo ante and return all captured territory.

Thereafter, the Soviets sought to maintain a balance in South Asia between India and Pakistan. They believed that a conflict between these countries would play to China’s advantage. In late 1968 they announced military sales to Pakistan, triggering a furore in India. Indira Gandhi bluntly told Premier Alexei Kosygin: “Nothing should be done from which it could be inferred that the Soviet Union treated India at par with Pakistan." Moscow backed off because it now sought a treaty of friendship with India. This desire stemmed from the Sino-Soviet border clashes along the Ussuri river.

India agreed to sign the treaty only in the summer of 1971, when there was a convergence between the US, China and Pakistan on the Bangladesh crisis. Until then, Moscow had advised India not to precipitate a war. And New Delhi hoped to change the Soviet stance by inking the treaty. Much to India’s chagrin, Moscow’s position did not immediately shift. The Soviet foreign minister told Gandhi that they should not “prejudge" whether East Pakistan should become independent: “The heart should be warm but the mind should be cool." Only after Gandhi’s trip to Moscow in October 1971 did the Soviet leadership take a more supportive stance. Yet, after the Simla agreement of 1972, they insisted that India should not hold back the 93,000 Pakistani prisoners of war.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the Soviet relationship was crucial for India because of its exclusivity. The USSR—unlike the US—would not provide military equipment or intelligence to Pakistan or China. Soviet technical and financial assistance as well as trade added layers to the strategic relationship.

Still, the two sides had significant differences. Mikhail Gorbachev took a dim view of Rajiv Gandhi’s policies towards neighbours. India, he observed, “wants to have a ‘patrimony’ with vassals in the region." Similarly, he refused to accept India’s requests to pull out of Afghanistan under the cover of a weak agreement with Pakistan: “This position takes only India’s interests into account 100% while the interests of Afghanistan and the Soviet Union are a mere 20%."

Things changed dramatically over the next decade. The collapse of the Soviet Union shrank Russia into a regional power with limited interests outside its periphery. The shock therapy administered to the Russian economy resulted in a disastrous free-fall. This was accompanied by a steep demographic decline, owing partly to vodka. In this context, the Indo-Russian relationship turned from strategic to transactional—centred on military technology and spares.

As India has deepened its ties with the US, including in the domain of military hardware, Russia has naturally sought to nurture other relationships. The announcement last year of the sale of attack helicopters to Pakistan was ample evidence of this shift. More important is the tightening Russian relationship with China.

Today neither side can hope to snip the other’s ties with any third country. Yet New Delhi must consider whether steps like signing the logistics agreement with the US—others are on the anvil—will not disconcert Moscow. Will the US provide or jointly develop high-end military technology as Russia has in the past? Will other incipient relations such as that with Japan compensate for the diminution of ties with Russia? These are important questions to ponder. But in doing so, there is no need to take a roseate view of our long relationship with Moscow. Nostalgia is not a viable foundation for any policy.

Srinath Raghavan is senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi.

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