While I was in Russia, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili decided to send troops into the breakaway republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Russian troops, who were ostensibly on a peacekeeping role, were attacked and several were killed as Georgian forces attacked the two republics. The weeks preceding this witnessed hectic activity in Tbilisi. Condoleezza Rice came calling and assured the Georgians of full US support and even a possible entry into NATO. Shades of US Ambassador April Glaspie's meeting with Saddam Hussein of Iraq on July 25, 1990, when she assured him that the US will not be unduly perturbed if Iraq invaded Kuwait. That was the cue for Saddam to occupy Kuwait, which finally ended in disastrous consequences for Iraq and Saddam personally.
Our friend Saakashvili is an interesting fellow. He is a US citizen of Georgian origin who returned to Georgia to seek that country's leadership primed and paid for by the US. Georgia's geography makes it important as any oil pipelines out of Azerbaijan into the West, fully skirting Russia, will have to run through it. Whether egged by Rice or not, Saakashvili miscalculated. The Russian response was swift and devastating. His army, modernised and supplied by the US and Israel, collapsed within hours of the Russian counter attack. Russia is back.
In the weeks before the August coup against Mikhail Gorbachev in 1991, Moscow was one of the bleakest places in the world. It was dank, grey and tatty. Even as the Indian ambassador extolled the resilience and power of the Soviet State, the corner store outside the compound did not even have a loaf of bread. Back in Hotel Ukrainiya, we foreigners ate at special dollar designated restaurants where the buffet tables were piled high with meat and vegetable dishes and chased down with a choice of beverages. Soviet citizens ate at ruble designated restaurants where the menu was quite spare. My Russian friends didn't need much persuasion to accept invitations to breakfast, lunch or dinner.
We foreigners shopped at beriozkas with our black-market dollars and snapped up submariner wrist watches, cut glassware and caviar at good prices. It all reminded me of an unforgettable scene in David Lean's version of Doctor Zhivago where the aristocracy is shown feasting in a restaurant while tired and scruffy little children peer in with their noses pressed against the glass.
More disasters followed the failed coup. The drunkard Boris Yeltsin terminated the Soviet Union and led Russia into economic and social chaos and for six long painful years the Russian economy kept contracting and the new elite looted the country. The West clapped with joy and its strategists announced a unipolar world. Others like Francis Fukuyama announced the ‘End of History'.
In New Delhi, a new lot of World Bank and IMF trained technocrats comfortably padded with international pensions charted a new course for India. Like true Great Gamers, they also clapped with joy believing that Russia will implode. It didn't make a whit of difference whether it was Narasimha Rao or Atal Bihari Vajpayee at the helm. At the end of his tenure, as Russia opened another layer of the matrushka doll, Yeltsin gave way to a former KGB agent, Vladimir Putin.
Putin's arrival on December 31, 1999 began to transform Russia. By 2004, Russia was well on course. That year, the GDP grew at 7.9 per cent. The average GDP growth since 2000 has been over seven per cent and the GDP has grown six-fold. It has risen globally from 22nd to 10th largest now.
There was nothing in Putin's background that would have suggested that he came with a plan. He had served most of his career in the Fifth Directorate of the KGB, which was concerned with foreign intelligence. The only other country he visited was East Germany, where he could have learnt very little about nation-building. Putin quit the KGB in 1991 and by the end of that decade was president of Russia. It was a steep climb. But he had a steely resolve to restore Russia to its rightful place in the world and a fearlessness to take the bull by its horns.
When I visited Russia again in 2004 the signs of revival were everywhere to be seen. But like the ambassador in 1991 who couldn't see the empty shelves at the corner store, the mandarins in South Block in Delhi and their mouthpieces in the media couldn't see past their noses and were convinced that Russia was going down the tubes.
There is little doubt that many of them got their cues from the West. Small bureaucrats began to talk down to Russian diplomats. The present Russian ambassador had to wait for months before being scheduled to present his credentials to the president. A former IAF chief was so rude to a visiting senior Russian official that a formal complaint had to be lodged and the defence minister had to have a quiet word with him. This gentleman, after retirement, has taken to bad-mouthing Russian equipment on the seminar circuit. He has special comments reserved for the MIG fighters that are the backbone of the Indian Air Force (IAF).
I have heard him say that you don't need radar to locate a MIG 29. All you need to do is to look for its smoke trail. But the story doesn't end here. When the MIG 35 was being put through its paces at Aero India 2007 and as this gentleman was watching it perform, MIG officials made it a point to point out to him the absence of a smoke trail! They also assured him that since it is a 4.5 generation aircraft with 360 degrees vector thrust and a 2,600 km range, even if radar catches it, it can outfight and outwit anything else up in the sky.
The first Russian aircraft inducted into the IAF was the MIG 21 in 1965. Its NATO counterpart was the Lockheed F 104 Starfighter. By 1980, the Starfighter, which had earned the name ‘widow-maker', was withdrawn from service. It had a tendency to break up mid-air without a shot being fired at it. Not that they did not get shot down. IAF MIG 21s shot down four of them in 1971. Other counterparts of the MIG 21, like the British-made Lightning, were also withdrawn decades ago. Over 11,000 MIG 21s were produced, many hundreds of them in India and they have been flown by over 50 air forces all over the world! Since they were first produced in the early 1960s, there have been 21 variants and the latest is still the mainstay of the IAF.
This MIG 21 bis has been reported to have stunned USAF (Air Force) pilots flying F-15s and F-16s in the exercises with the IAF, both in India and abroad. One former IAF Western Command Commander-in-Chief even described the MIG-21 bis as being superior to the F-16. But the MIG 21 is now the most abused fighter in the IAF and Aamir Khan even made a movie where its abilities were questioned.
It's true that in the Yeltsin years, Russia was in disarray. Its economy was contracting and its military equipment production was in shambles. The production of parts was dispersed all over the USSR and when those economies took the dive supply lines dried up. But since 2001, Russia has been able to sort out most of its problems, but we are still suffering from a perception time lag.
Russia's recent record has been truly extraordinary. It has a GDP (PPP) of about $2,100 billion and is now growing at 7.3 per cent. On a per capita income of $14,700, that means a big leap in consumption and investment each year. It has a current account balance of 8.9 per cent of GDP, which is higher than that of the high-flying Chinese economy. FDI inflows account for 2.7 per cent of GDP, which is far ahead of India's.
Many will argue that Russia hit the jackpot with oil prices shooting up and since oil exports account for over 65 per cent of Russian exports, luck has had more to do with it than competence.
This might be so, but all over Russia you see signs of that money being put to good use. The infrastructure is being expanded at a phenomenal pace and small town Russia is witnessing an unprecedented revival.
I visited the small town of Tula about 190 km south west of Moscow with a population of about 450,000. In 1712, Peter the Great, impressed by the local Demidov blacksmiths, chose Tula to be Russia's armament production centre. Tula's great moment came during World War II when it raised its production of weapons to new levels. It was at Tula that General Heinz Guderian's Second Panzer Army was held and Moscow's southern flank was secured. A grateful nation awarded Tula the status of ‘Hero City'.
When the Soviet Union disintegrated, Tula's fortunes sank. Its factories shut down. The city centre was taken over by derelicts. This was the story all over Russia. Even at the turn of this century, few would have predicted a revival of Tula. But Tula is now booming. Its old factories are producing more than ever before. The giant Lenin statue in the main square does not any more preside over desolation. New shops and restaurants are opening every day and tourists visiting Leo Tolstoy's estate, Yasnaya Polyana, 14 km away, have a choice of places to visit. Indians are a familiar sight in Tula. Not only does India continue to buy a lot of Tula manufactured weapons, Indians like to visit Tolstoy's home and pay respect at his grave.
But the real reason for Tula's revival is that the Russian Army has begun to place orders again and is demanding newer and more modern weapons. Tula has also become Russia's main producer of accordions and samovars indicating that music and good times have returned to the country. If towns like Kazan, Nizhny Novograd (formerly Gorki), Novosibirsk and Vladivostok are reviving, the metropolises of Moscow and St Petersburg are gleaming with new wealth and reconstruction.
I took the legendary Red Arrow Express train from St Petersburg to Moscow. I had thought that I would not ever travel on a better train than the Qinghai-Lhasa Express. But the Red Arrow is something else. It's quiet, smooth and well-appointed. After a long and hectic day at Alexander Nevsky's city, the Red Arrow was just what the doctor had ordered.
St Petersburg is a city that gets better with each visit. There is history at every corner, and some more of it is
added each passing day. As we sat having coffee at a fine café overlooking the St Isaacs Cathedral, the three of us concluded that the girls in St Petersburg came in combinations from three basic models - Anna Kournikova, Maria Sharapova and Elena Dementieva. One can have lots of espresso and wonder how Russia has changed.
Coffee over, we visited the offices of the Kronshtadt Company, a joint venture between State-owned Rosoboronexport and a privately owned company Tranzas CJSC, established in 2000. Tranzas is essentially a high- end software and technology company. The Kronshtadt research centre on the outskirts of St Petersburg is located in what was an unused factory building. It has been modernised and has a funky and spiffy
air about it. Mostly young people work here, on floor over floor, peering over their computer screens and producing binary magic.
Kronshtadt manufactures sea and air simulator systems, computer-aided teaching systems, navigation aids and avionics for military applications. I sat in a simulator for a Mi-17 helicopter and went on a spin over Sochi. Its visual realism was breathtaking as the simulator rocked and turned to the pilots stick. Then I took off from a harbour to land on the INS Vikramaditya with its complement of MIG 29K's with folded wings on the deck. Evgeny Komarakov of Kronshtadt, who was showing us around laughingly, complained, "Your air force people
come and take the rides and say it's wonderful, but don't place any orders." To this, I replied that you must just set one up in India and charge users by the hour - that might be a better business model. This is the new Russia and he replied that he will do the numbers instead of just saying nyet!
In recent years, Kronshtadt has developed a line of un-manned aerial vehicles (UAV's). We saw a small system, the Dozor-4, with a wingspan of 4.6 metres and a payload of 12 kg designed to monitor power lines, oil pipelines, aerial surveying, coastline and border patrolling. It has a range of 400 km and can fly night and day. Kronshtadt has bigger UAV's capable of payloads of 100 kg plus. A flight of three Dozor-4's packs into a Landrover Defender with a trailer.
Back in Moscow, on the way home, we visited the MIG factory on the outskirts of the city. Originally, we were supposed to go to Zhukhovsky airfield where the Moscow Air Show is located. But it was raining and we settled for a factory visit. It was the former Air Marshal's show all the way. He had flown both MIGs and Sukhoi's. In 1971, he had brought back a Sukhoi-7 with half-a-wing shot off and got the VM for it. As the MIG officials and he bantered about sharing experiences, I was wondering about the Russian journey I had witnessed since the last days of Mikhail Gorbachev and to the early days of Dimitry Medvedev.
However, Delhi, obsessed with the American nuclear deal, is still fishing in the woods. The South Block is condemned to miss the lessons of history. It will keep looking westward when it is the East
that is rising.