The meeting of Russia's Commission for Military Technology Cooperation with Foreign States at the Kremlin on Monday was of much interest to the observers of India-Russia relations. President Vladimir Putin's introductory remarks made out that Russia proposes to undertake a major review and revamp of its regime for military cooperation with foreign countries in a comprehensive manner, and, simply put, India happens to be Russia's number one partner country.

The Kremlin meeting was anything but routine. The focus was on protecting the intellectual property rights for Russia's military products. Why does this become so highly topical as to intrude into Putin's work calendar?

One main reason is that Russia's "military-industrial complex" is shifting gear. The disarray of the post-Soviet period has been overcome. Russia is flushed with funds and its defence industry can once again attract the best and the brightest minds; seamless vistas are reopening for the talented pool of designers and technicians in the defence industry to work on new products with cutting-edge technology; Russian armed forces have embarked on a massive modernisation program and the upgrade of weapon systems becomes a major part of it – all these factors are intrinsically at work. Furthermore, there is also the external environment. The world's arms market is becoming more competitive and new methods need to be worked out for retaining the competitive edge in the traditional markets and for conquering new markets.

The market conditions impact on the business culture and it can't be different for military products, too. The difference lies in the geopolitical considerations that often outweigh business considerations. Pakistan is a case in point where Russia consciously tied its hands behind its back for decades altogether and refrained from military cooperation in general and arms exports in particular in total deference to India's sensitivities. But the matrix is changing insofar as India is “diversifying” its relations and makes no bones about its intentions to cherry pick its transactions.

The recent visit by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to Washington witnessed the unveiling of a new defence initiative  between the two countries, which promises to be a game changer not only for the role of the US-Indian strategic partnership in the US’ rebalancing strategy in Asia as a whole but also in its specific potentials to catapult the American arms manufacturers on an exciting new trajectory in the Indian market in a conceivable future. The initiative has been under intense negotiation for over a year at the highest level of policymaking both in the Pentagon and the Prime Minister’s Office in New Delhi. Quite obviously, Russia is India’s leading partner but Uncle Sam is straining to catch up.

The Indian elites are openly enamored of the “American connection” for a variety of reasons. They are pulled toward America by the invisible thread of inter-personal kinship, which are seldom acknowledged but are decisive in influencing decisions, human nature being what it is. An imaginative initiative taken by Washington in the recent decades in its policies towards India has been the offer of “membership” to the Indian elites in the US Global Entry Trusted Traveler Network Program “to facilitate expedited entry of Indian travelers to the United States.” This offer might stand out in a long term perspective as a significant outcome of Manmohan Singh’s visit to the US. To be sure, there is going to be a mad scramble from amongst the “Who’s Who” in India’s politics, bureaucracy, industry, culture and the media to be labeled as a “trusted traveler” to the US.

Then, of course, India’s troubled relations with China on the disputed border regions and the deep suspicions regarding China’s intentions toward India as well as the acute sense of rivalry over China’s rise compel India to explore ways of means of tapping into the US’ rebalancing strategy. Senior US officials have openly acknowledged that the new defence partnership being contemplated dovetails with Washington’s rebalancing in Asia. The fact of the matter is that the graph of India-China tensions began rising steadily since the standoff between the two armies in the Ladakh region early this year. The bilateral trade has been dropping lately and the signs of it languishing have appeared. India’s overall sense of insecurity is also rising directly in proportion to the stunning successes of Beijing’s diplomacy in expanding China’s influence in the regions of South-East Asia, Central Asia and the Middle East and the Indian Ocean regions, which India would fancy as its “extended neighbourhood.” Equally, there is every indication that China’s relations with Pakistan are also entering a new phase altogether not only against the backdrop of the regional security situation in Afghanistan but also the changing global situation characterized by the Sino-American competition and rivalry. China is virtually offering to Pakistan a new regional partnership it can depend on for countering the US’ rebalancing. Although its leitmotif may not be “India-centric”, it nonetheless cannot but trigger anxiety syndromes in the Indian mind.

Suffice to say, Russia may need to brace itself for an emergent reality that the playing field in the Great Indian Arms Bazaar is poised to work to the advantage of the American arms manufacturers. The Indian mantra will be that it is “diversifying” the sources of its arms procurement. But its effect is likely to be that there could be volatility in the traditional Indian-Russian relationship even as the US-Indian ties become dynamic.

Indeed, Russia is not standing still, either. On the one hand, it is also exploring new markets. Thus, the ongoing visit by the Russian delegation led by Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu to Brazil (and Peru) will be keenly watched. The Russian media reports suggested that Shoigu carried a stunning proposal to Brazil offering that the two countries could jointly develop the futuristic T-50 fifth-generation multirole warplane featuring “stealth” technology, super-maneuverability, super-cruise capability, and advanced avionics including an active electronically scanned array radar, which would by far outperform Lockheed Martin/Boeing F-22 Raptor. 

What stimulates thinking is that the tantalizing Russian offer aims at weaning Brazil away from its reported fascination for the US Boeing FA-18E/F Super Hornet in a tender for 36 fighter jets worth $4 billion. Put differently, Russia also can give the American vendors a run for their money in countries such as Brazil or India. This is another thing. Russia’s trump card is that it may be far more willing to share military technology with India than the tight-fisted Americans are reputed to be even with their close allies. At any rate, New Delhi is about to test the waters of the US’ readiness to walk the talk when it comes to transfer of highly advanced military technology. But on the other hand, the American side will strive to create powerful lobbies in the corporate sector in India with which it hopes to collaborate in setting up co-production, whereas, Russian-Indian collaborations have been confined so far to the government sector.

To be sure, Russia’s defence partnership with India came up for discussion at the meeting in the Kremlin on Tuesday. The Russian-Indian annual summit is scheduled for early next week in Moscow. In his opening remarks  at the meeting, Putin made three key points:

 •          Russia needs to develop “promising new military technology and equipment” to expand its military technology ties with its “established partners abroad.”

 •          Russia must develop a “comprehensive system of legal protection” for its goods.

 •          Russia must “improve the intellectual property rights protection for Russian arms produced abroad in line with today’s international legal standards,” especially for its “latest arms models.”

 Putin also laid down the criteria Russia would apply for maintaining its reputation as a “responsible player” on the global arms market. He said Russia will fully comply with the international non-proliferation and arms control regimes, will only supply arms to legitimate governments that goes to “guarantee their defence capability and sovereignty.” But, he added, “At the same time, we always make a comprehensive evaluation of the particular circumstances that emerge in any given region.”

The complete absence of ideology in the Russian philosophy guiding its military technology cooperation with foreign countries is at once obvious. In fact, in the Asia-Pacific, Russia’s military ties with Vietnam are developing rapidly, while it is also embarking upon military technology cooperation with China, including in “some very sensitive areas,” as Putin said in his meeting with the Chinese counterpart Xi JInping at their meeting in Bali last week on the sidelines of the APEC summit.

All factors taken into consideration, the annual Russian-Indian summit meeting in Moscow assumes much interest. With the formal handing over of the Russian-built aircraft carrier Vikramaditya to India just ahead of the summit, the defence cooperation has scaled new heights. Having said that, the cooperation is also approaching a crossroads as the Indian market conditions are undergoing a major transformation. New market conditions demand new products and innovative approaches of partnership.