Why Modi will look at Russia with new eyes

New PM's warm response to Putin’s congratulatory message, in contrast to a business-like acknowledgement of Obama, has a well-thought out back story and may prove all those predicting a business-as-usual foreign policy regime wrong

r-swaminathan

R Swaminathan | May 26, 2014




Tweets these days often indicate which way the wind is blowing long before it becomes an official policy. The warm manner in which India’s prime minister-designate Narendra Modi responded to Russian president Vladimir Putin’s congratulatory message can well be a harbinger of a new direction in India’s foreign policy. In itself it might be a classic case of over-analysis of what is after all just 140 characters. But a few observers who have an uncommon insight into Team Modi insist that the tweet has a complex back story.

On April 12, 2014, a seemingly minor incident in the Black Sea caught the attention of policy mandarins in several world capitals. It also caught the attention of Team Modi’s research unit, which duly marked it for the attention of the top boss. The Americans keen to show their support to a beleaguered Ukraine, as also eager to not miss an opportunity to project their power to their East European allies in the immediate Russian neighbourhood, deployed Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer USS Donald Cook (DDG-75) in the Black Sea.

The United States Navy (USN) considers the destroyer special, having equipped it with Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense System in 2012. The system is considered peerless in protecting ships against approaching enemy missiles and aircraft. On April 12, when the destroyer was in the international waters of the Black Sea it spotted a lone Sukhoi-24 approaching it. The Su-24 is a legacy aircraft practically on the last legs of its lifecycle. But this one was an upgraded version (Su-24M2), and was surprisingly unarmed. In the normal course, there should have been a missile lock on the aircraft by the destroyer. But much to the consternation of the ship’s commanders and crew the Aegis system just couldn’t get a missile lock. Over 90 minutes the lone Su-24M2 made twelve mock bombing passes over the destroyer.

The fighter-bomber, it was later revealed, was equipped with the latest Russian counter-electronic warfare suite known in military circles as Khibiny complex (named after a mountain range in Russia’s Kola Peninsula). The audacious provocation elicited a terse response from Pentagon about the “unprofessional conduct [of Russians] in violation of international norms”. Curiously USS Donald Cook was immediately pulled out and berthed at Romania where an interesting statement about the destroyer’s ability to “more than defend itself against any threat” was issued.

The geopolitical shifts of power have been quite consistent and visible in the last decade or so. There has been a significant deal of attention on the Chinese economic and military rise and the emergence of Brazil, India and several countries of Southeast Asia and Latin America. What has been marginalised, and often ignored, in all this attention on Asia and Latin America has been the steady rise of the Russian military and technological prowess under the tenure of Putin, and the increasing troubles of the American military establishment with a few fundamental cornerstones of its efforts to retain strategic dominance.

Most notably the troubles have centred on the American efforts to create an ‘all-in-one’ stealth fighter (F-22 & F-35) to replace their 4/4++ generation fighters across their many naval and air force roles. There have been huge cost over-runs, and the technologies deployed are so new that many have never been tested on a battlefield environment. For instance, the stealth coating and material of F-22 peels off so frequently that several air force veterans are not convinced about aircraft’s ability.

Many experts are sure that the US has lost its clear edge in air power, caught up as it were in trying to invent a silver bullet. In fact, the heart of the F-35 – its vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) capability – is directly derived from the Russian Yakolev 141, as are other breakthrough features like the wind brakes and air intake valves. Significantly, the Yak-141 project was abandoned by the Russians, for lack of money, as also for the significant technical difficulties that they faced.

The distinct possibility that the Americans have been barking up the wrong tree all this while was quite starkly, and shockingly for some, brought out during the Le Bourget Paris Air Show of 2013 when the Russians decided to officially take the veil off their latest Su-35S. The new-generation Sukhoi was often dismissed by Western analysts as nothing more than a Su-27 airframe fitted with bells and whistles. But its performance had the usually hard-to-please Western media anointing it as the best all-round fighter aircraft in the world today: it outclassed F-35 on practically all parameters, had an angle of attack exceeding 35 degrees, more than the famed F-22, unmatched manoeuvrability and stability at low speeds, a PESA radar that could spot an aircraft over 300 km away, new optical locator system (OLS) and infrared search and tracking (IRST) system (critical for penetrating stealth environments) and, as usual, a superb within visual range (WVR) dog-fighting capabilities. The icing on the cake, of course, was the per unit price.

The last time the media, cosy as it is with the western arms industry, was blown away by a piece of Russian equipment was during the 1988 Farnborough air show was when the then Soviet Union revealed the MiG-29 to the NATO world for the first time. Of course, Su-35S is still not a stealth fighter, but it has integrated enough new-age materials and special paints to make its radar signature really small.

The performance of Su-35S caused quite a stir in several parts of the world traditionally associated with western weaponry. Several experts in Australia, for instance, questioned the logic of the Australian establishment in putting so much amount of faith in F-35s as the next generation line of defence. It must also be noted that many Australian policy makers have been watching with consternation the proliferation of Sukhois in Asia, especially China, and consider even the top-end F-16s, F-15s and F/A-18 Hornets incapable of defending its airspace.

To cut a long point short, policy makers around the world tuned to geopolitical shifts have been aware of this changing equation. The French decision, for instance, to militarily cooperate with Russia by supplying it with Mistral class amphibious assault ships, as the strategic Russian decision to first unveil Su-35S in Paris, is a concrete reformulation of policy at the ground level aligning with the new geopolitical realities. The Indian policy makers, more than the others, have been actually aware of it having seen how upgraded MiG-21 Bisons and Su-30MKIs performed against American machines in the various Cope India exercises.

Military prowess apart, observers say that Modi also knows that Russia has an extremely strong and diversified industrial base, and that the last decade has seen a massive investment in the areas of information technology, new materials, robotics, energy and fundamental research in science and technology. These are exactly some of the areas that the Modi government also wants to focus on and build India’s indigenous expertise. India has been a trusted partner of Russia several decades now, and actively funds and contributes scientific expertise to several key projects. Additionally, Russia’s desire to expand its network and footprint beyond military sales, as evidenced by the 30-year $400 billion gas deal with China, is something that India also wants to leverage.

Modi is an extremely astute leader, much like Putin, having a rare ability to cut through the clutter and forge new alliances. He brought in investments and partnerships from China, Taiwan and Japan for Gujarat, at a time when the US was pulling out its human-rights card and indulging in subtle double speak. It actually indicates his ability to evolve a policy environment focused on pragmatism and realism.

Today, he also has the mandate to decisively break away from the Manmohan Singh era, focused excessively as it were on creating a ‘special partnership’ with the US on the back of the Indo-US civilian nuclear deal. Observers say Modi understands the need to create a non-western alliance of emerging powers that are critically shaping the geopolitics of Asia and the world. While substantial parts of our foreign policy may display a business-as-usual approach, it shouldn’t come as surprise to anyone if there is a paradigm shift by the Modi government in establishing a ‘special partnership’ with Russia and China, in the process creating a new and dominant geopolitics of Russia-India-China (RIC) strategic grouping.
 

 

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