Russian-Indian nuclear cooperation


Kudankulam Nuclear Project

Dr MR Srinivasan, in an interview to the author, elaborates on the history of the Kudankulam project in the background of the emerging Indo-Soviet nuclear cooperation towards the end of the 1970s when he was still Director of PPED (Power Projec Engineering Division) and its culmination into the nuclear agreement on Kudankulam. He recalls that “during term of PM Desai (1978-79), a senior Soviet Minister came to India and said that Soviet Union was prepared to offer you 1000 Megawatt reactors. Indian side asked; what about the fuel? He had replied; we will also give you the fuel for the entire lifetime, we are not like the Americans. They were prepared to do that. Next, in 1980 I proposed to Homi Sethna that our nuclear program is going slow because of the contstraints of having to make all the equipment here, embargo problems, heavy water shortages, etc. Sethna responded that we could import six reactors from Soviet Union but I was not then talking in terms of 1000 Mw reactors but rather of another size i.e. 440 Mw smaller sized reactors which Soviet Union had been providing the East European countries.

I said we can put two each in Northern, Western and Southern region. Thereafter, I sent a paper to Sethna proposing to procure the Soviet reactors, but Sethna who had lived through the embarassment of Tarapur which required imported fuel said that I don’t want to get invovled with another lot of reactors requiring imported fuel, you know the mess we are having in Tarapur and so he was not prepared to take it seriously. Then towards the end of Sethna’s term i.e. latter part of 1983, I again proposed the purchase of Russian reactors at the AEC, Ramanna supported me, stating that although it is true that the Tarapur agreement had given lot of trouble but we should still explore the possibility of enriched uranium reactors with fuel from outside. Sethna retired, Ramanna took over and one of the first things that happened was that Ramanna told me ‘lets go to Moscow and follow this idea’ and we went. Russians put on an elaborate program of many days with an itinerary where we would be taken to many facilities but on reaching Moscow, Ramanna said that he has only three days to spend here as he had been asked to be in Delhi for some urgent consultations so we will straightaway initiate for the discussions on power cooperation.

We had also had a brief meeting with Kosygin and also had a long chat with the Deputy Prime Minister. The Deputy gave a one and a half discourse on Indo-USSR relations. In the course of talks, Russians said that they were prepared to offer the 1000mw reactors along with the fuel and also assured us that the conditions would be such that we would be prepared to accept the offer. A little while after that i.e. beginning of 1984, I noticed that Ramanna had begun to have some serious reservations about a reactor deal from Russia. He began to say that ‘no no no…all these things will tie up our hands and I don’t think we should get into the trap of importation of reactors and fuel’. I had never openly asked him the question is this something having to do with weapons but my feeling is that by 1984 Ramanna would have already become aware that Pakistan had made much progress on enriched uranium separation.

This was much prior to the bombs in the basement line of 1987. This was much earlier to this. Base don his feedback, Ramanna had become sensitized to the inevitability of having to go ahead with a weapons program by that time and it is very likely that he thought why get into a situation where our options will get blocked off. Even if we had a power project with Russia and an option of going for a weapons program came up, there would have been an unpredictable situation. Probably he became chary of Russian cooperation. But in late 1984-85 after Rajiv took over as PM, Russians brought up the argument with PM Rajiv by outlining the broader cooperation between the two countries in petroleum, hydro power, coal, etc. so why don’t we work together in nculear power. Rajiv thought that there was nothing wrong in considering this, but because Ramanna responded to Rajiv by saying that we shouldn’t proceed with this at all. Rajiv responded by doing something very unusual, even though Ramanna was Chairman of AEC yet he set up a committee chaired by MGK Menon which also included me, VS Arunachalam (DRDO), Dr Ramanaiya who looked after plutonium reprocessing plant chemistry who was there as representative of Ramanna, Rakesh Sood from MEA Disarmament as Member Secretary of this Committee.

The Committee was asked to define what are the political conditions that Soviet Union should accept before India can accept nuclear cooperation from them. The Committee prepared a report in a year and a half time but then Chernobyl took place and talking about reactors with Russians became a little complex. Rajiv sent for me and said that ‘now this disaster has hapenned, I will not agree to sanction any more nuclear projects unless you show me what the emergency preparedness plans are, how you are going to handle emergencies in case they occur, etc. Ramanna was still the Chairman at the time. When I took over as Chairman AEC in 1987, my first job was to have whole lot of meetings with Chief Secretaries of states where we had nuclear facilities to prepare emergency contignency plans which took about 8-9 months and we reported back to the PM and he was reasonably satisfied. Then Rajiv said that why don’t we take a look at the reactors because the Soviets were not offering the RBMK Chernobyl type reactors but the VVER like the PWR of the Western countries which were enriched uranium water type.

I made a couple of visits to Soviet Union and by 1988 Finance Secretary Venkatramnan also came with me and costing basis for the project was laid out and so the Kudankulam (Indo-Soviet project) was signed in November 1988 by Gorbachev and Rajiv Gandhi. Kudankulam had already been indentified by the time the agreement was signed. Then there was collapse of Soviet Union and on the Indian side there was a serious economic crunch requiring export of gold and then the nuclear program went into the backburner. At the time I sent a paper to the Planning Commission just before I retired in February 1990 that we should have agreement with Soviet Union for preparation of Detailed Project Report (DPR).

The Russians quoted a price of $80 mn for preparing the DPR with the understanding that the price would go as part of the over all price of the project but in case the project did not go ahead then India would reimburse the Russians for their work done. I was called back to be member of Planning Commission in June 1996 by United Front Government and the first paper on the table was my own file and it had been commented upon extensively by GV Ramakrishna stating that ‘its high time India gave up nuclear energy because it is uneconomic, unsafe, high cost overruns, takes long time to build’ enclosing a UK based paper in its support. I had to write a counter note against all those points raised, the Deputy Chairman Planning Commission Dr Madhur Dandavate himself Professor of Physics who agreed with me and said we should not give up and diaagreed with the earlier note. Meanwhile, PM’s Principal Secretary Satish Chandran was also convinced of the Russian cooperation but we encountered opposition to Indo-Soviet cooperation from Finance Minister P Chidambaram who had a visceral dislike of Russia and it took me sometime to convicen him.

After 10 years in 1998,a supplementary agreement was signed with the difference now being that in my time the Russians had agreed to interest rate of 2.5 percent but now they said it was not possible and they could only offer 4 percent. In May 1998 there was Pokhran II tests but the Russians stood by us, signed the supplementary agreement and did not go back on their assurances to us. Whenever India has had any acute difficulties which might stall us anywhere, the Russians have more or less been forthcoming to assist. Of course, its not smooth sailing all the time, cost of spare parts are high, quality may fall short at times, cost may be high, late delivery but they have not given up on us anytime. Turning off the throttle and the closing off the tap like the Americans have done has not happened where fuel is not supplied and hardware not shipped and so Russians have been a predictable partner. With US, some Senator creates some ruckus in the Congress they point out their inability to supply due to domestic pressures.” (Srinivasan, 2016)

On Kudankulam, former PMO official points out a particular novelty in this agreement. One clause states that there will be no retrocactive application of any law of either country on this agreement. Strictly speaking, it effectively took away the prerogative of Parliament. Parliament can decide whetehr something is prospective, retrospective or anything. Strategic intent, national security interest trumped everything. Rules were not the most important thing. Interest oif any particular party or individual were secondary. All other thing would work out”. (Official)All Russian laws were changed by Duma and the Federation Council and Russia also joined MTCR (Missile Technology Control Regime) and other nuclear control regimes. Former PMO official explains that “we did not know exactly what was going to happen but we had a pretty good idea that things were not going to be the same. There was an indication, though not clearly evident, that Russia may become more of a genuine Federation and not a strong centralized authority. We had vague outline of these movements. But the clause said that there could be no retrospective application and thus kept the Kudankulam project intact. That clause is there for a strategic reason and is not there for constitutional experts or lawyers to study” (Official)

Nuclear Test 1987?: COSC Note

Simultaneously, another development on the nuclear front hapenned in 1987. All three service Chiefs; General Sundarji, Air Chief Marshal Denis La Fontaine and Admiral Tehliani had discussed possibility of India undertaking a nuclear test. Admiral Tehliani requested his Naval Assistant to draft a one page note in a week’s time. (CNS) Just to be clear, this is the Chief of Staff Committee (COSC) note. It was said that Rajiv Gandhi did not read more than one page. In the neatest possible hand, the Naval Assistant went about preparing the note. In the process of preparing the note, the Naval Assistant took up objections cited by Ministry of Finance. In his meeting with Finance Ministry (MOF), the Additional Secretary was objecting that all aid to India will be stopped if India conducts nuclear tests. A figure was available for the cost of nuclear arsenal and testing that was made in dialog with Dr. Ramanna, Dr. Chidambaram and others; it was also assessed that the international repercussions from the test would be manageable. However, MOF did not agree. The three service Chiefs had recommended nuclear testing to the Prime Minister. Naval Assistant went with Admiral Tehliani to PMO to meet Rajiv Gandhi. Rajiv shared a little bonhomie with Adm. Tehliani as both were pilots.

1990s: Towards an Unambigous Triad Platform

The thread for the ATV (Advanced Technology Vehicle) project is picked up in 1995. The tracks left from previous discussions had left enough opening for the threads to be picked up again from where they were left. Russian Chief was sounded out on revived Indian Naval interest. Russian Naval Chief was told that the Navy would force the issue in New Delhi. The nuclear submarine design cooperation with Soviet Union remained fillibustered throught these intervening years. Impetus was given to the project by PM Deve Gowda whose role was crucial in the ATV Project history. APJ Kalam as Project Head of ATV told the Naval Chief that he had shortage of funds.

Deve Gowda, CNS and APJ Kalam: Midnight to Nuclear Submarine

After day exercises at sea, Prime Minister was requested for a meeting by Naval Chief who said that Kalam would be accompanying him. PM Deve Gowda asked ‘meet me about what?’ Naval Chief responded ‘people want to meet Prime Ministers for getting some approvals’. Meeting began at 1.30 am. Kalam opened his laptop and started showing outline drawings, sketches, etc to the Deve Gowda. PM asked ‘what do you want?’. Naval Chief looked at Kalam and said ‘Dr Kalam, please tell the Prime Minister’. Deve Gowda stated ‘I want to hear from you’.

Deve Gowda: Are you recommending this?’

CNS: ‘Yes’.

Deve Gowda: ‘Are you going to take responsibility for this?

CNS: Yes

Deve Gowda: Are you going to assure me?

CNS: Yes

Deve Gowda: How are you going to assure me?

CNS: Dr Kalam and I will establish milestones and we will report progress.

At the end of ten minutes of presentation a sum of Rs 5000 crores were sanctioned from special funds at 2 am at Raj Bhavan. Decision had been taken in 1998 between the Prime Minister, CNS and Scientific Adviser to RM and DG of ATV Project that the steel for Arihant will be cut on 5th January 1999.

Source from the Indian Embassy Moscow informs that “the Russian Government was completely divided on whether to go ahead with the nuclear submarine cooperation or not”. He explains that the mutual perceptions of the two had changed, “We considered them to be a pale shadow of the great Soviet Union and they considered as hangers on from the Soviet era who were drawing on their coffers in the name of solidarity”. (Moscow)

Akula-II and Arihant Agreement

In order to operationalize this decision, the CNS went to Russia. In July 1998, CNS met with his counterpart for a heart-to heart. CNS also spent a whole day with academicians at Leningrad Nuclear Submarine Design Bureau. CNS was taken on board the Akula-II at Severomorsk, base of Northern Fleet. Till then, as far as the Indian Navy is concerned, this boat only existed in magazines. CNS identified and approved the Akula-II boat. CNS was shown brief outlines of the performance of the boat, size of the reactor, reactor compartment, etc were all shown to the CNS. Russians had commissioned 70 Akula-II nuclear submarines. The main outcome of this visit were-the acquisition of a series of Akula class/ Chakra types (six units) for induction into Indian Navy through lease; putting into fast track the ATV project cooperation on design of vessel and reactor with Russia. Even the US commentators had praised this boat. It was soon after this that nuclear submarine designs were received by Indian Navy and BARC. The CNS returned from the visit in July 1998 and briefed PM, NSA, LK Advani and Yashwant Sinha as well as President of India who was given a half hour presentation on the agreement reached with the Russians. Money would have to be sanctioned and a substantial green signal would be required to go ahead and it was given.

Acknowledging the work done by BARC and Indian Naval engineers, nontheless, the argument on the role of Russians in the design, fabrication and operationalization of the Indian nuclear submarines (the first two) remains an open question. On Russian role, CNS cites for reference the words of PM Manmohan Singh from the year 2009. Acknowledging the Russian cooperation, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had invited Russian Ambassador to Vizag for the ‘premature’ launching of the Arihant. Arihant was launched before it was commissioned. It was called a launch but it was not commissioned, it has still not been commissioned. According to the CNS, “the Russians were invoved in the greatest detail, minutest detail, at least for the first two submarines”. (CNS) CNS also adds that the Russian were intricately involved in Mark series for the first boat and for the Mark I, II, III and Mark IV for the second submarine. Thus, there are two interpretations of the Russian role in the ATV project but the larger picture is that Indian deterrence capability emerges from this effort and even if the Russian component is assumed to be higher than officially stated, eventually the submarines will be almost totally indigenously manufactured.

The Russians would not give the ballistic weapon, although they had assured that they would assist in validating the missiles. (CNS) The Arihant may have been initially designed for a capacity to have strike range of 750 km but there is no confirmation on the strike range that the ATV team had in mind. Much was dependent on the missile warheads that would be put together by BARC and the options in the initial stages would have been limited but projections would have been made for ballistic range. Proof of the cooperation is that there were payments, agreements/ contract for designs including reactor. Ashley Tellis is off the mark when he wrote that the ATV Project turned a corner in 2000 when it undertook a reorganization.The critical turn came in 1995 as for the decision to sanction Rs 5000 crores and the eventual operationalization of the decision was in 1998. Once the decision to lease the Akula class submarines was taken then the spillover went into the ATV cooperation as part of the naval strategic cooperation bundle.

The Moscow Heists

6 May 1982, reports came in that US had sucesssfully petitioned with Soviet Union to cancel contract on supplying cyogenic engines for ISRO. Designs and drawings were smuggled out of Soviet Union because Agni program was struggling. The impression was given in public domain that Soviet Union had conceded to US pressure on their deal with India. Someone from the Indian Embassy Moscow carried out a clandestine channel to transfer technical documentation on cryogenic engines to India. However, ISRO needed further and fuller support on the cryogenic systems.

At this point, Source Indian Embassy Moscow informs that “we had gone to the Americans and also the French. French quoted a massive amount and also wanted a sweetener which we gave them i.e. thermal power project. American pressure on France got them to back off and it was then we went to the Russians/Glavkosmos. Compared to the French, the cost was a fraction”. (Moscow) It has been written that “the Russian Parliament, however, was in no mood to let President Boris Yeltsin bail on India” implying that Yeltsin was not in favor of carrying forward the deal with India. (Simha R. K., 2013)

Source Indian Embassy Moscow states that the picture was a complicated one. He states that “it is true that Yeltsin wrote a Presidential decree against the Indo-Russian cryogenic deal but he also wrote another one supporting it. A Russian saying was ‘walking between rain drops’. With Russians, they sense sincerity and one must not try deception. If you go one step then they will go two steps. If you have trust then you can get away with anything. These were all Russian patriots who were not going to do anything against Russian interests. (Moscow) As part of the deal, Yeltsin had wanted India to join MTCR but India refused it. As to how history has recorded this event source Indian Embassy Moscow informs that “everything was given; design drawings, hot tests, cold tests done in Russia”. Source explains that the method of carrying out the ‘ops’ was fairly unique and done on case to case basis, “you had to do it fast, you had to constantly take risks”. (Moscow) Multiple consignments were clandestinely tasnported out of Russia and the risk for the operation was on India as any exposure of the episode would have severe international blowback. In India only a ‘very very small group’ knew what was hapenning behind the scenes. Publicly, the success was shown as a failure to create subterfuge and Clinton administration was convinced that they had suceeded in watering down the deal. The small group that knew about the back door status of the deal also engineered the discussion coming into Parliament where there was genuine outrage about the entire episode. Glavkosmos supposedly backed off and renegotiated the deal that was in place by January 1994. Under revised terms, India agreed to limit its use of transferred technologies for peaceful purposes or modernise it without Russian consent. (Harvey, 2001, p. 259) It was also claimed that under the new agreement, no blueprints were to be given to India. It was clear from the start that the cryogenic engines would go into the missile and ballistic program. Source informs that Head of Russian space agency also had to be decieved. Glavkosmos was under him.

India and Russia were re-discovering their relationship and the 1998 tests had drawn a sharp engative reaction from the Russians. Source Indian Embassy Moscow refers to meeting between NSA Brijesh Mishra and Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov. Primakov was also heading Russian intelligence. According to source, “they were furious. Part of the reason was they were caught napping”. (Moscow) According to the source, “the reactor cores for the (Arihant and ATV) submarine project were bought from Russia. The agreement on Arihant was a one page document and the idea was to dovetail the technology cooperation into the long term indigenous program. We were not going to make the mistake of the first Chakra where people are trained and then left with nothing to do”. (Moscow) There were only four copies of the agreement. Only one copy is there in India. The source also informs that Russia had also agreed to provide maraging steel for the centrifuges. The strategic dialog was building up one nuclear deal at a time. The source was taken to the site where Russia was constructing new ballistic missile pens which is symbolic of the trust.


The Indian nuclear weapons program particularly bares the imprint of cold war logics whereby the delivery platforms are almost organically linked to Russian systems. The question for the moment is whether this strategic embedding of Russian systems into Indian nuclear arsenal will continue to evolve or see disruption within the newer patterns of convergence being sought in New Delhi?


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