Soviet delegation arrhino,: Brass blitzIf ever the US contemplated launching a sneak attack on the Soviet Union, they could hardly have been presented with a more opportune moment than last fortnight.In fact, it looked very much like the Soviet Union was invading India when a matched pair of behemoth AN-62,Soviet delegation arrhino,: Brass blitzIf ever the US contemplated launching a sneak attack on the Soviet Union, they could hardly have been presented with a more opportune moment than last fortnight.In fact, it looked very much like the Soviet Union was invading India when a matched pair of behemoth AN-62 aircraft trundled over the tarmac at Palam Airport and sighed to a stop in the heavily-guarded VIP area. Out from the cavernous depths emerged what, at first sight, resembled the joint Services brass band but turned out to be a veritable Who’s Who of the top hierarchy of the Soviet military machine.Leading the invasion force was Marshal Dmitry Fedorovich Ustinov, 74, the craggy-faced Soviet defence minister resplendent in a mustard green uniform encrusted with medals like barnacles on a neglected ship. Ustinov’s entourage included General Shavanov, the deputy defence minister, Admiral Sergei Gorshkov, the Soviet naval chief and one of the most highly-decorated men in the Soviet defence forces; Marshal Koutakhov, the air force chief and an impressive assortment of 30 lieutenants-general and majors-general.In fact, the only missing link was the Soviet army chief Marshal Ogarkov and the omission was only because Ustinov and Ogarkov, who is head of the Soviet armed forces, never leave the country at the same time. The fact that there was more brass on display than at Moradabad was not the only surprise on the day of the generals. It was the first time that Ustinov had made an appearance in a country outside the socialist bloc. It was also the first time that Moscow-had dispatched such a high-powered delegation to any country and left itself so militarily vulnerable.advertisementDespite that, however, the Ustinov visit was shrouded in utmost secrecy. In mid-February, India’s ambassador in Moscow, V.K. Ahuja, flew into Delhi for hasty consultations with the prime minister to finalise dates for the visit. Both the Foreign Ministry and the Defence Ministry were kept in the dark. The only clue they had was when they were asked to arrange a junket for all the foreign military attaches based in Delhi.Accordingly, two IAF aircraft with the attaches aboard took off from Delhi barely hours before Ustinov and his entourage arrived. The only attache missing was the US military attache who dropped out at the last minute. The junket, labelled a “sight-seeing trip” of Cochin and Trivandrum. returned to the capital a few hours after the Soviet delegation took off for Moscow.Short Notice: It was also, in some ways, very much a sneak attack. Ustinov’s unexpected arrival at surprisingly short notice was in reponse to an invitation extended to him five years ago by the then defence minister Jagjivan Ram during his Moscow visit in 1978. In fact, it was obvious the Indian Government was caught napping by the timing of the visit since the air force chief, Air Chief Marshal Dilbagh Singh was away in London and was forced to cut short his trip while the army chief, General K.V. Krishna Rao, was scheduled to leave on a well-publicised tour to Paris right in the middle of the Soviet visit.The reasons for Ustinov’s terribly belated acceptance of the Indian invitation were obvious. For one, the Soviets had no desire to send a man of Ustinov’s stature-he currently ranks number four in the Soviet hierarchy-during the Janata rule since it would have irritated Mrs Gandhi, a leader they are infinitely closer to and comfortable with. Additionally, India only acquired a full-fledged defence minister in the form of the affable R. Venkataraman last January and, with Mrs Gandhi scheduled to leave for Britain and Saudi Arabia, the Soviet leadership obviously felt that this was the best time. The unspoken fact that India has lately displayed signs of curing its obsession with Soviet defence equipment must have also figured in Moscow’s calculations.In that context, Ustinov’s bland statement that he was only here to “renew personal contacts” only formed part of the larger picture. The visit was, in the words of a Defence Ministry source, a “massive PR exercise”, probably the biggest the Soviets have attempted in recent times and, from all accounts, a highly successful one.Star Soldier: The star of the show was undoubtedly Ustinov himself. A bluff, hearty individual sporting rimless spectacles. Ustinov was described admiringly by a top army officer as a “soldier’s soldier” and by a Defence Ministry official as a “consummate politician”. In fact, he was very much a cocktail of the two as was evident right through his week-long tour of defence installations.advertisementIn Jodhpur, at the sprawling MiG-21 and MiG-23 base, Ustinov was visibly appreciative of the IAF’s skills shown at a demonstration and insisted on chatting to the pilots and inquiring from them through his interpreter how they liked the MiG’s performance. He was equally at home chatting to mechanics, technicians and an air force dispatch rider, particularly the last-named since Ustinov is a motorcycle freak and owns a 30 horsepower BMW. He spent considerable time comparing the merits of Soviet motorcycles and the dispatch rider’s Royal Enfield.On a side trip to Agra to see the Taj Mahal, he broke away from the group, to the consternation of the security people, and joined a group of schoolchildren having a picnic on the lawns. While the rest of the entourage waited, Ustinov entertained the children between bites of their sandwiches and then, in a spontaneous display of gallantry. presented the delighted schoolteacher with a necklace.Boundless Energy: His most masterful performance, however, was reserved for Babina, which houses the armoured corps and the largest number of Soviet T-72 tanks. “He is a soldier and he knows that for a soldier the most important thing is faith in his fighting equipment,” says an Indian army officer who accompanied the entourage. Displaying energy that belied his considerable age, Ustinov mixed freely with officers and jawans, asking them if they had any problems with the tanks or with spares and complimenting them on their maintenance. He revelled in making unscheduled visits, first to the house of an officer to see how the Indian Army lives, and then a surprise visit to the jawan’s langar to see how they eat.In the langar, he had the jawans guffawing at his antics, particularly when he examined a bench at the dining table and asked how many people it accommodated during meals. On being told it held four jawans, he shook his head as if in sympathy and then called three of his stoutest generals and ordered them to join him on the bench. Naturally, it proved a tight squeeze for just three and wagging his finger at the cook, said, “only three” and then pantomimed to the watching jawans that his officers ate too much. As a finale, he ordered the cook to serve him langar food which he then proceeded to consume with obvious relish.Later, at a luncheon in his honour, he charmed the officers’ wives by making a little speech prepared specially for them. “You have a great deal to do with keeping up the morale of the Indian Army,” he said gravely and then, with a mischievous twinkle added, “you can nag him as much as you like when he gets home but make sure you give him a good dinner.”Exchanging Compliments: Ustinov’s back-slapping bonhomie and quick-wittedness was soon being shared by his more proper colleagues. On a visit to Bombay, the Soviet naval chief, Admiral Sergei Gorshkov applauded the loudest when the western naval chief, Admiral Awasti, delivered his welcoming speech in fluent Russian. At the end of the speech, when Awasti told Gorshkov that he must come again to India, the latter replied: “Only when I can deliver a speech in Hindusthani.”advertisementDespite the hectic schedule, Ustinov and his beribboned party made a point of flying back to the capital almost every day of their visit. Wherever they went, they made a point of eating Indian food and drinking Indian liquor, particularly gin which probably came closest to their standard vodka fare. Ustinov also used his own aircraft for most of the trip except on occasions where the airfield was too small to accommodate it. On a visit to Khajuraho to view the erotic art of ancient India. Ustinov used the IAF’s VIP Boeing while his visit to Babina was accomplished via IAF Soviet-made helicopters.But right through his tour, he made three major points in his discussions with defence officers. One was that the Soviets do not merely say things unless they are prepared to back them up with actions. Secondly, that Indo-Soviet friendship and defence cooperation was not directed against any other country and lastly, that the Soviets knew how the Indian mind, particularly that of the soldier, worked. He did also make one more important point confidentially; that he realised it was indirectly because of the Soviet presence in Afghanistan that there was an infusion of arms into the subcontinent and the formation of a Washington-Beijing-Islamabad axis was of potential danger to India. In that context, confided Ustinov, the Soviets would like to see India strong enough to defend itself and would cooperate towards that as much as possible.Though no defence deals were signed during Ustinov’s visit it is evident that the elaborate foundations of future deals involving more advanced MiGs, tanks and battleships, were laid and unofficial commitments on both sides given. Considering the heavy Soviet involvement in India’s defence infrastructure and the steady deterioration of relations between India and the West, particularly the US, Ustinov’s visit was a masterful diplomatic and image-building exercise and in conjunction with its timing, is probably creating considerable ripples across the globe in Langley, Virginia.