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India's moves to sew pact with Ukraine miffs Russia

A330 multi-role tanker transport (MRTT). A file photo

NEW DELHI (PTI): Russia, the country's longtime and largest defence partner, appears to be miffed over India working towards sewing up a defence pact with Ukraine.

The issues were "raised" informally by the Russians with an Indian delegation led by Defence Secretary Vijay Singh during a recent visit to Moscow, a Defence Ministry official said here Tuesday.

The official was asked about Moscow's reaction to India's efforts to firm up a defence pact with Ukraine, which is seen by Moscow as a rival to its thriving defence export business, particularly with India.

Moscow is also believed to be unhappy over reported comments of former IAF chief Fali Homi Major, just before his retirement, that India would prefer A330 multi-role tanker transport (MRTT) for mid-air refueling of fighter aircraft, instead of the Russian Illushin-78 tankers, six of which are already in use with the IAF.

Though Major did clarify that the government was yet to take a decision, it failed to placate the ruffled sentiments of Russians, who indicated that much to the Indian delegation that was in Moscow last week to attend the high-level monitoring committee under an inter-governmental commission.

The Defence Ministry official said India had already exchanged a formal draft for the defence pact with Ukraine, which had shown interest in a "deeper military relationship." The pro-NATO tilt of Ukraine, which was part of the erstwhile Soviet Union, in the recent times, has come at a time when Russia has started asserting itself and challenging the unipolarity of geopolitics, the official said.

At present, Ukraine is among the world's top ten arms exporters, gaining from the defence industry it inherited after the break-up of the Soviet Union two decades ago.

Apart from producing the Antanov series of transport aircraft, which are a large part of the IAF's inventory, Ukraine also retains the rights to service them.

It also has the capacity to build the Mi series of helicopters, apart from T-80 tanks.

With Kiev being the former Soviet Union's aircraft building base, Ukraine retained the capacities to build these mammoth war machines, forcing Russia to build the capability at Sevmash shipyard, meant for submarines, in north Russia.

India is also pursuing similar defence agreements with Spain and Sweden. In Europe, India already has such agreements with Russia, Britain, France, Italy and Germany.

The A330 MRTT issue too came up for an informal discussion with the Russian officials, who stated that they were "slightly upset" with the remarks emanating from India that the Il-78 platform was 'not up to the mark.'

The Defence Ministry official clarified that India had not yet taken a decision on which of the two shortlisted platforms -- A330 and Il-78 -- they should go in for under the USD 1.3 billion deal for six aircraft.

"Both the platforms are currently under consideration. We will take a decision soon," he said.

However, he did indicate that the IAF's technical evaluation committee had pointed out certain advantages in going in for A330 MRTT.

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