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Marriage Woes
Russian President Vladimir Putin visited India this week to try to restore their once cozy relationship

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.

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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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