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India, Russia Struggle to Maintain Ties From Another Era

As India appears to move closer to the United States, questions are being raised about the status of India's relationship with its long-time ally, Russia. VOA's Steve Herman reports from New Delhi on the current situation and where things may be headed.

Since President Vladimir Putin's most recent visit here in January, Indian-Russian relations have had their ups and downs.

Moscow is either asking for more money for a range of big-ticket items ordered by New Delhi, from jet fighters to an aircraft carrier, or more time to make promised deliveries.

Energy-hungry India is fretting that a pair of 1,000 megawatt nuclear power plants will not be able to go on line until 2009, because Russia is dragging its feet in supplying crucial equipment.

To add insult to injury, Russia has helped arm, albeit indirectly, India's main rival, Pakistan.

Research fellow Reshmi Kazi at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies hopes that was an isolated incident.

"One thing which I am really perturbed about is China supplied FC-1 fighter jets to Pakistan," said Kazi. "These planes are fitted with Russian engines. We all know what the situation in Pakistan is at present. I leave it to the wisdom of Russian foreign policy whether they would further indulge in such kind of deals."

Russia, under President Putin, has not hesitated to use its resources as a political weapon, as when it cut oil and gas supplies to Europe. That has led some here to question whether Russia is using price hikes and delays in deliveries to signal its displeasure with the direction of Indian foreign policy.

Analysts such as Brahma Chellaney of India's Center for Policy Research doubt that is the case, but Chellaney says Moscow is obviously worried about burgeoning commercial and military ties between India and the United States.

"Moscow would be certainly concerned about this push by Washington to be a major supplier of high-tech weaponry to India, because the Indian market is the biggest weapons market in the world, [and] the [U.S.] entry will cut into the Russian share of the Indian weapons market," he said.

During the Cold War, India was one of the Soviet Union's major allies outside the communist bloc, and received preferential treatment on the prices of Soviet military hardware.

Even today, 70 percent of India's military equipment is stamped "Made in Russia." That percentage is certain to decrease, however, and not only because the Indian military constantly grumbles about the quality and reliability of Russian equipment and spare parts.

Israel has emerged as one of India's top new military suppliers. Meanwhile, the United States and others are in competition with Russia to sell New Delhi 126 advanced jet fighters, a deal that will be worth somewhere between $7 and $11 billion.

A purchase of American planes could be viewed by Moscow as lack of gratitude by India, after Soviet largesse allowed the country to build a military muscular enough to keep the Pakistanis and Chinese at bay for decades.

On the other hand, Indians say, Russia has too quickly forgotten how purchases by India in the immediate post-Soviet era kept Russian shipyards and manufacturing plants afloat.

Analyst Reshmi Kazi says Indians need to avoid over-analyzing every perceived slight by Moscow.

"These are the critical moments where India needs to have that patience, not to allow such overblown interpretations to take place and soil the relationship, soil a bright prospect between the two democracies," added Kazi.

However, Indian strategy experts, such as Brahma Chellaney, are optimistic that closer ties with the United States will not undermine the relationship between Moscow and New Delhi.

"The Russia-India relationship, strategically, is not going to languish. In fact, I see that relationship picking up quite a bit of momentum in the years to come because China's rise has been largely at the expense of Russia," continued Chellaney. "And the Russian and Indian concerns center on China's growing assertiveness."

China and India fought a brief border war in 1962, and there are lingering border disputes. Relations between Beijing and New Delhi have warmed in recent years, even if military leaders here are uncertain about the long-term intentions behind Beijing's military modernization.

India's trade picture with China is brighter, and dwarfs Indian commercial activity with Russia by a nine-to-one ratio.

The analysts say India's strategic goal is to engage in equal partnerships with such powers as the United States, European Union and Russia, while avoiding becoming too close to any one of them.

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