Russian President Vladimir Putin visited India this week to try to restore their once cozy relationship
By MICHAEL FATHERS
October 5, 2000
Web posted at 11:50 a.m. Hong Kong time, 11:50 p.m. EDT
For a while it seemed the Russians had shot themselves in the foot. After all,
if you're seeking a new strategic relationship with an old ally, why cozy up to
its enemy. That's what happened on the eve of President Vladimir Putin's first
visit to India this week. He sent an envoy to Pakistan to do business with its
military ruler, General Pervez Musharraf. Pakistan gloated and milked the visit
for all it was worth. India was not amused. In fact it was alarmed. Its policy
makers, its politicians, its newspapers all cried foul.
The one constant in Indian diplomacy since independence had been Moscow's
loyalty and dependability. It was an old marriage. When New Delhi wanted support
from Moscow, it always got it. But no longer it seems. If an incident were
needed to explain the change that has taken place in their relationship, this
was it. Russia's imperative was not to isolate Pakistan as India wants, but to
seek its support in containing Islamic extremist guerrillas in Central Asia,
particularly those coming from training camps in Afghanistan. In Kashmir, India
has the same problem Russia has in Chechnya -- a Muslim-led insurgency. But
India will not talk to Pakistan until it stops arming and training the Kashmiri
separatists. Russia has no such qualms and thinks dialogue at this level is
perhaps more important.
On the first day of Putin's state visit, the Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari
Vajpayee sought an explanation. He was told not to worry. "We were assured that
Russia would not establish a relationship with Pakistan to the detriment of
India," the prime minister's chief foreign policy adviser, Brajesh Mishra said.
"We are quite satisfied with that." Satisfied they might be, but the old
intimacy is looking rather strained. Each country is going its own way. The
Declaration of a Strategic Partnership signed by the two leaders attempts to
stop the drift. It provides for annual summits; promises that neither will join
an alliance, military or otherwise, against the other; it calls for a boost in
bilateral trade and investment; it proposes greater defense sharing and says
they will cooperate in fighting "international terrorism." In addition they
signed a raft of agreements covering everything but the kitchen sink.
It is easy to distinguish reality from platitudes in this new relationship.
Platitudes are for public consumption. Reality is largely kept from public view.
Away from the toasts and handshakes, officials were haggling big dollars over
the price of tanks, warplanes and an aircraft carrier. Russia doesn't want
India's bartered tea any more. It want's India's hard cash to keep its defense
industry afloat. India knows this. It doesn't want Russia's cast-offs, either.
However, if that's all there is on the market, it wants bargain-basement prices.
On stage, Putin is being given every honor. He was even taken to India's nuclear
research headquarters outside Mumbai. But the attempt to mirror the popular
informality of Bill Clinton's state visit six months earlier never quite worked.
There has been no great surge of interest in Putin and everything Russian, as
there was in Clinton and all things American. Nowadays, India clearly looks
first to the U.S. Moscow is a long way back in second slot--the dowdy, older
woman recently discarded for the embrace of a young, flashy, painted dame called
Washington. And Indians feel pretty relaxed about it. But, like all affairs, who
knows how long it will last.
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