NEW DELHI — On the heels of a marked pro-U.S. shift in its foreign policy, India is now welcoming the president of its old friend, Russia. The focus of President Vladimir Putin’s four-day visit is on reviving Russia’s sagging ties with India.

Before Putin was abruptly handed the reins of power by the ailing Boris Yeltsin, he had useful talks in New Delhi during a brief stopover a year ago as premier. Now he is an elected president determined to reverse Russia’s decline. This week’s visit appears to be part of Putin’s larger plan to build closer ties with the major Asian states, particularly China, India and Japan.

Of these powers, however, India is the only one that has no serious bilateral problems with Moscow. Behind its newfound “strategic partnership” with Beijing, Russia nurses deep misgivings over China’s ambitions. Russia and China have resolved most of the dispute over their 4,300-km border, but the agreement was made possible by a rudderless Russia under Yeltsin making more than four-fifths of the territorial concessions. Despite the two countries’ desire to counterbalance the United States and work toward a multipolar world, a genuine Sino-Russian partnership still looks distant.

Similarly, despite Putin’s useful visit to Tokyo last month, Russia still has deep problems with Japan. It has yet to sign a peace treaty with Tokyo or indicate its intention to return the four captured northern islands to Japan.

However, the “strategic partnership” with India — the highlight of Putin’s agreements in New Delhi — will look hollow without the two sides putting significant content into it. A decade of weakening bilateral cooperation and trade has shriveled the once-strong relationship between Moscow and New Delhi.

While building closer links with the U.S., India cannot neglect Russia. Despite Russia’s present fragility, its strategic importance for India has not declined. Rather, the growing imbalance of power in Asia has only reinforced the stabilizing value of a close Indo-Russian partnership.

No single event in modern history has so radically transformed the world as the Soviet Union’s collapse. The rise of Pax Americana, the emergence of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank as potent instruments shaping national economic policies, and the growth of a power disequilibrium in Asia are all the outcome of that single event.

Today’s qualitatively different world demands a qualitatively different Indo-Russian relationship. Putin’s strategic partnership with New Delhi will be poles apart from the Indo-Russian partnership that Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi helped forge in 1971.

The strategic terms and bonds that governed the old relationship are no longer relevant, although the underlying interests that cemented those ties remain valid. Russian policymaking has changed radically, with private empires filling the power vacuum created by the demise of communism. In place of barter, hard cash is the norm. And in place of a centralized system for negotiating or ordering, India now has to cope with a Russian decision-making structure more diffused than in New Delhi.

With the evaporation of ideology, the business of Russian foreign policy is increasingly business. While we all know how commercial interests drive U.S. foreign policy, not many are aware of the immense clout in Russian policy of the private empires that have been built through dishonest capture of state assets.

These empires are also mammoth: Gazprom commands one-third of the world’s natural-gas reserves, while the petroleum reserves controlled by Lukoil and Yuksi put them in the same league as the major U.S. oil companies. Some Russian private empires also control media and banking businesses. Then there are government-exporting agencies like Rosvooruzheniye that have aggressively pushed for arms sales to China, prevailing over Defense Ministry objections.

India remains a major buyer of Russian arms, particularly of components worth $1.5-billion a year for indigenous production of Soviet-model tanks, aircraft and weapon systems. The arms transactions are not reflected in the bilateral trade figures. In the past decade, the only major weapons India has bought from Russia are the Sukhoi-30 fighter jets. During Putin’s visit, several arms deals are being signed, including the sale of T-90 battle tanks and an old aircraft carrier.

Indo-Russian defense cooperation is limited by the extent to which Russia has sunk. U.S. national income and GDP fell by a third during the Great Depression, while the past decade has seen Russia’s real per capita income go down by 80 percent and GDP by 55 percent to reach a level equal to that of the Netherlands. The new robber barons spirited $180 billion out of the country in the 1990s, and only $10 billion came in. A recent UNDP study shows that under mass privatization, nearly one-third of Russia’s population has slipped under the poverty line.

With a massive external debt of $160 billion, that requires $1 billion a month in principal alone to be repaid, Russia needs hard cash from swift arms sales. China has been ably tapping the cash-and-carry opportunities in the Russian market, picking up a number of sensitive technologies. The U.S. was quick to buy advanced Russian space and rocket technologies cheaply in the early 1990s. In contrast, India’s cumbersome bureaucratic procedures and preference for government-to-government contracts have been a hindrance.

When alluring opportunities opened up after 1991 to pick up important strategic items off the Russian shelf, India’s defense expenditure was plunging so sharply that New Delhi could not afford to expand its earlier import commitments. Also, India’s decision making is so slow that by the time it is ready to place an order, the opportunity may have been lost. Now that Russia has integrated itself fully with Western technology-control cartels, such as the Missile Technology Control Regime and Wassenaar Arrangement, it curtails India’s but not China’s access to Russian strategic items.

Putin’s visit is an occasion for India and Russia to discuss wider strategic cooperation beyond the patron-client arms-supply relationship. The two countries have fairly common interests and concerns focused on the entire region between their borders. The area between the Indus and the Aral Sea has become a breeding ground and sanctuary for terrorists and other extremists. These elements are a threat to Russia’s and India’s unity.

As two large multiethnic, multireligious, democratic societies under pressure from fissiparous forces, India and Russia can forge concrete cooperation on the Pakistan-Afghanistan-Central Asia belt, harmonize counterterrorism efforts and hold consultations on China’s force modernization and ambition to become the unchallenged power of Asia. The China factor that led to the 1971 Indo-Soviet friendship treaty is becoming important again in Asia’s present state of disequilibrium.

Despite its decline, Russia remains a key country for India’s long-term strategic interests. Given its resources, scientific base, skilled manpower, geopolitical position and history, Russia will bounce back as a great power. It is important for India to cultivate the various independent and powerful constituencies that have emerged in Russian policymaking.

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