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Thursday, September 23, 2021

Of defence and defensiveness

How India struggled to retain Russia as a defence partner after the USSR fell,and what that means for ties with the US?

Written by Ronen Sen |
April 4, 2011 12:25:36 am

Defence cooperation,or for that matter,nuclear,space and high-technology cooperation,has to be seen in the perspective of the evolving global economic and geostrategic architecture. The essential underpinning of such cooperation is strategic partnership based on the convergence of long-term interests. These include not just protecting our territorial integrity,tackling threats posed by terrorists and insurgents,nuclear proliferation,promoting energy security and so on. They also involve promotion of our economic interests,through balanced trade and market access.

After our independence we went through several phases in our defence cooperation. First it was primarily the British,and then predominantly the Soviet Union,from the ‘60s onwards,followed by diversification of procurements from West European countries since the early ‘80s. Thereafter,we had to cope with unprecedented challenges to our defence preparedness following the collapse of the Soviet Union,which accounted for over two-thirds of our defence inventories,and establish a partnership with Russia in the ‘90s. The latest stages involved our defence partnership with Israel and the ongoing process of establishing defence cooperation with the US. During virtually all these transitional phases there were initial reservations and resistance to change in significant sections of our political,bureaucratic and,to a lesser extent,military establishments. The debate on the current transitional phase in our defence cooperation is thus not unprecedented.

The only difference is that this transition coincides with a cyclical peak in our defence modernisation programme. This is in the backdrop of the massive military modernisation and force-projection programme of China,rather than its surrogate in the Indian subcontinent,Pakistan,which is also highly dependant on the US….

One of the most difficult tasks in my diplomatic career was not only to restore defence cooperation with Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union,but to give it a boost with new contracts,as an indispensable element of a new strategic partnership with Russia. The old monolithic structure of defence production involved thousands of major and subsidiary enterprises spread all over the Soviet Union meeting centrally-determined production quotas. No enterprise had any idea of costing,supply chains or marketing mechanisms. Russia retained about 80 per cent of this industrial infrastructure. Yet it could not on its own produce many weapon systems without inputs from enterprises in newly independent states. Orders from the Russian armed forces dried up,with a budget cut of 68 per cent in 1992 alone. They lacked funds even for maintenance of existing inventories and had to resort to cannibalisation for spares and aggregates. Defence production declined by almost 90 per cent between 1992 and 1997. Old structures had collapsed. New ones were constantly in a state of flux. We had no option but to resort to unorthodox measures during the most difficult initial years of the post-Soviet transition period…

I am certain that after more than a decade of subsequent consolidation and revival of the Russian economy,under the leadership of Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev,our defence cooperation has been further strengthened. The biggest current challenges to this relationship are to impart it with greater and more balanced economic content,and the modernisation of the Russian defence industry to sustain defence cooperation in a longer term perspective. We have a big stake in the success of Russia coping with these challenges,since our dependence on Russia for defence supplies is greater than on the rest of the world combined. It is in fact greater than the dependence of most NATO countries on the US. Russia,the US and our other partners will have to demonstrate their competitiveness through a substantially increased serviceability of their systems in current use by us and for new procurements.

Let me now turn to our defence cooperation with the US…

A high-profile manifestation of service-to-service cooperation was that of the navies of India,the US,Japan and Australia after the tsunami in 2004. The then secretary of state,Colin Powell,had turned down former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan’s pleas for including China in these operations in the Indian Ocean. There have been around 50 joint exercises between the armed forces of India and the US so far,which have been of mutual benefit,and led to greater recognition of the high professional standards of our armed forces.

By far the most important agreement governing our cooperation is the India-US New Framework in Defence Cooperation signed at the defence ministerial level in Washington DC in June 2005,after the NSSP,and just prior to the historic civil nuclear initiative. This agreement was a significant manifestation of the strategic dimension of India-US relations.

The US,which has been used to dealing with either allies or adversaries,is currently in the process of learning to deal with a partner with shared values and intersecting interests,but assertive of its autonomy as a vibrant democracy. The process of understanding and undertaking mutually acceptable adjustments aimed at addressing systemic differences between India and the US will have to be done quickly,and not over several years as in the case of our cooperation with the Soviet Union.

Increasing public awareness in India of the evolution of India-US relations,and the extraordinary extent of US support of our national security concerns in our region and beyond,should help in balancing our deep-rooted perceptions of the unreliability of the US as a defence partner. We could also explore ways of reducing dependence and promoting inter-dependence and mutual stake-holding in defence collaboration with all our partners. Pending issues for creating a better atmosphere and enhancing comfort levels for cooperation should also be addressed…

Our approach to all these issues and responses to pending proposals reflect not just our perceptions of the US,Russia or any other country. They relate primarily on how we perceive ourselves; the extent to which we have shed our colonial-era sense of insecurity and fear of being dominated and exploited. It is high time that we stopped the charade of making a virtue of procrastination and lack of decisiveness. We need less ideological posturing and more open debate on whether our own interests are best served by remaining outside global regimes or by joining the global mainstream. We need to ask ourselves whether we should remain fence-sitters or prepare to take our place at the global high table.

Excerpted from a speech at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses,New Delhi,on April 1. Sen is a former ambassador to Russia and the US

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