India's defense relations with Russia have hit a bit of rough weather with Moscow canceling two important bilateral military exercises in recent months.
First, Russia called off joint naval exercises scheduled to be held at Vladivostok in late April. This was followed with the cancellation of the joint army exercise it was to host in June. According to an Indo-Asian News Service (IANS) report, Russia called off the naval exercises even as India's warships - including INS Delhi, INS Ranvir and INS Ranvijay - had already reached Vladivostok for the war games.
The explanation put out by Moscow was that Russian ships would not be available for the exercises since they were being deployed for relief operations in Japan in the wake of the earthquake and tsunami disaster. Adding insult to injury, after the cancelation of the exercises, the Russian ships sailed off into the Pacific to engage in war games on their own. As for the joint army exercises, Moscow reportedly told Delhi that its late intimation had left it with little time for preparation; hence its inability to host.
The Indian media has interpreted the Russian move as a tit-for-tat response to India's rejection of its bid for a US$10.4 billion sale to India of 126 medium multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA). Russia's MiG-35, Sweden's Gripen NG fighter, and the Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornet and the Lockheed Martin F-16IN Super Viper from the United States were among those that failed to make the cut. That left Typhoon jets from the four-nation EADS Eurofighter consortium and Rafale from Dassault of France in the final round of the race for the mega-deal.
The Indian government is playing down the media's description of the Russian pull out from war games as a "snub". Russia postponed rather than cancelled the exercises, it said. "There was nothing last-minute about the postponement of the naval exercise," said Ajai Malhotra, India's ambassador in Moscow. In view of the disaster in Japan, the Russians informed India in mid-March of the decision to postpone the exercises. "This was well over a month before that exercise was to have been held," Malhotra said.
The Indian navy too has said that the Russians informed them ahead of their inability to participate in the exercises. Its spokesperson Commander P V S Satish said that India sent its warships to Vladivostok only for a port call.
Military sources dismiss the "flimsy excuses" put out by the Russians. An army officer told Asia Times Online that India-Russia military exercises are "planned months in advance" and are "are not informal or ad-hoc." These war games are part of the Indra series of military exercises that India and Russia have been conducting since 2003, and "there have been no problems in the past".
The loss of "the deal of the century" would have hurt Russia, though of the three losers, Moscow is reported to have responded with the least fuss to India's decision not to purchase its hardware. However, a report in Pravda pointed out that the lost bid for the Indian deal "virtually means that Russia's air force will not be receiving those fighter jets [MiG-35s] either".
Elaborating the argument, the report said that had India purchased the Russian fighter jets, the huge contract would have enabled the manufacturer to set its price lower for the home market. That was not possible now. "Most likely, Russia will have to shelve those plans [to purchase 72 MiG-35s]," it concluded.
Furthermore, India's rejection of the MiG-35 is expected to weaken Russia's chances of sales in potential markets in Latin America and the Middle East.
A Ministry of Defense official rejected the view that the Russian move is a response to Delhi's decision on the MMRCA deal.
He pointed out in an interview with Asia Times Online that just as India had "some difficulties with the Russians" with regard to defense procurement, perhaps Moscow too had its "problems" with India "on other issues". These difficulties are bound to find their reflection in "occasional snubs and spats", he said, cautioning against giving these too much importance, especially since the relationship remains robust.
Reports in the Indian media have often drawn attention to the time and cost overruns that plague Russian military deals with India.
A refurbished Admiral Gorshkov (a Russian aircraft carrier now renamed INS Vikramaditya) was to be ready for induction into the Indian navy by 2008. But three years down the line the aircraft carrier is not ready yet and whether the Russians will delivery it by their new end 2012-early 2013 deadline seems doubtful. What is more, India is forking out $2.34 billion for Gorshkov's retrofitting instead of the $974 million agreed upon in 2004.
Similar problems have dogged the delivery of an Akula-II class nuclear-powered submarine, which Russia had promised to handover to India in 2009 on a 10-year lease, and of Talwar-class stealth frigates.
Like the navy, the Indian Air Force and the army have complained about the delays in delivery and repair of Russian equipment and a shortage of spare parts. Russia's sudden hiking of the cost of Sukhoi fighters and its renegotiation of the contract for supply of the Su-30s to India in 2007 did inject a perceptible chill in bilateral relations.
On their part, the Russians feel aggrieved over India's warming relations with the US. They point out that while India is purchasing billions of dollars of weaponry from the Americans, the Israelis and other rivals, Moscow has pointedly avoided supplying arms to Pakistan out of respect for Indian sensitivities.
The bilateral quibbling notwithstanding, India-Russia relations are far more stable and less volatile than those between India and the other big powers. At the end of the day, India knows that Russia is its most dependable partner and the Russians are far more willing to share technology than the others. Delhi also recognizes that unlike the Russians, the Americans have little compunction about making available to Pakistan, the same military hardware it sold to India.
And the Russians know they cannot afford to antagonize India because of the huge market it provides to its arms industry.
Even as Russia recovers from the blow of the rejection of its bid to supply combat aircraft and as India smarts from the Russian snub over the military exercises, Moscow has shifted to top gear its campaign for multi-billion dollar deals for supplying India with light choppers, attack helicopters and heavy cargo carriers. Together the deals are pegged at being worth about $4 billion.
According to the Russia & India Report, in an attempt to make its bids attractive, Russian Helicopters JSC is offering to assemble choppers in India before their export to third countries. Clearly, Russia is anxious to avoid a repeat of its failed bid to sell combat aircraft.
Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in Bangalore. She can be reached at email@example.com
Asia Times Online