The Evolving Indian-Russian Relationship


2017-07-13 By Brig (Retd) Gurmeet Kanwal

New Delhi

Defence Ministers Arun Jaitley and General Sergey Shoigu jointly chaired the 17th meeting of the India-Russia Inter-governmental Commission on Military-technical Cooperation on June 21-23, 2017, at Moscow.

The two sides agreed on a roadmap and signed a protocol to take defence cooperation to a higher level through the joint development of future weapons systems and military equipment, enhanced joint training and the exchange of visits.

Indications are that India will acquire arms and equipment worth $10.5 billion from Russia including “five S-400 Triumf advanced air defence missile systems, four Grigorivich-class frigates and 200 Kamov-226T light helicopters.”

Russia will also lease a second nuclear-powered submarine (SSN) to India after INS Chakra.

The Indian Defence Minister invited Russian companies to participate in defence manufacture in India as part of the Government’s “Make in India” policy.

Strategic Partnership

The meeting helped to arrest the recent drift in the relationship that has been described as a “special and privileged” strategic partnership since 2000.

India’s new policy to diversify its sources of defence procurement, especially its reliance on western weapons platforms had not been received well in Russia and the relationship had tended to deteriorate into a transactional rather than a strategic one.

The relationship with Russia goes back to the time India got its independence.

The erstwhile Soviet Union and its successor state Russia have stood by India on Jammu and Kashmir over several difficult decades. One-sided UN Security Council resolutions on J&K sponsored by Pakistan’s friends were vetoed by the Russians many times. The Indo-Soviet treaty of “Peace, Friendship and Cooperation”, signed before the 1971 War with Pakistan over liberation of Bangladesh, stood India in good stead.

Though the agreement was not a military alliance, India was deliberately perceived by the United States (US) and its western allies to have joined the Soviet camp.

The 1971 agreement, signed in the scenario of US sending its 7th Fleet led by aircraft carrier Enterprise against India was stated to have signalled the de facto end of non-alignment, which John Foster Dulles, US Secretary of State (1953-59), had called “immoral”.

It wasn’t really so.

That is why, despite the Soviet help in building the Indian Navy’s Vishakhapatnam facility, particularly to house submarines, Moscow’s request for basing rights was turned down by the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.

As part of its foreign policy, India also did not lag behind in supporting the Soviet or Russian positions.

The Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in December 1979. India was privately opposed to the ill-conceived intervention as it brought the Cold War to India’s neighborhood. However, because of the long-standing strategic relationship with the Soviets, India opted not to condemn the invasion publicly and officially moderated it with the word intervention.”

When Indira Gandhi became the Prime Minister again in January 1980, she is known to have insisted on nonalignment, and so to Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin.

India is closer to the Russian position on Iran’s violation of its Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT) commitments than to the US approach of imposing sanctions and holding out military threats.

A negative aspect though has been that the New Delhi and Moscow have failed to cooperate on peace and stability in Afghanistan despite shared interests.

Impact of Asian Geopolitics

The collapse of the Soviet Union in December 1991 and the consequent end of the Cold War led to the emergence of a unipolar world order with the US as the sole super power.

In the mid-1990s, Boris Yeltsin’s Russia and Jiang Zemin’s China repeatedly made joint statements favoring a “multipolar world,” while denouncing “unipolar domination.”

In the post-Cold War era of strategic uncertainty, Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov floated the idea of the China-India-Russia “strategic triangle” in December 1998.

However, China was uninterested and India’s stand was one of ambivalence.

At that time, China had only recently opened up to the US and was building a strong business relationship.

It was following Deng Xiao Ping’s doctrine of “strategic patience”, expressed in the well-known 24-character” strategy to “hide your capacity, bide your time…” China gradually began to integrate itself with the global economy under the cloak of its self-proclaimed “peaceful rise”.

However, China simultaneously launched a large-scale drive for military modernisation and this made its Asian neighbours wary of its growing power and influence, some of them describing this as ominous. Some of them also see the US as a declining power and have begun to hedge their bets. (The recent developments in China claiming territorial rights along most of its neighbourhood are worrying for most).

Russia has been apprehensive of NATO’s creep forward policy, moves towards an enlarged European Union, the planned forward deployment of ballistic missiles defence – ostensibly aimed at Iran but of equal effectiveness against Russian nuclear-tipped missiles, and the proactive wooing of erstwhile Soviet states like Ukraine.

The era of “Cold Peace” has dawned over Eastern Europe and Putin’s Russia has begun to gradually drift towards China and its only military ally Pakistan.

However, it is a relationship on the rebound and remains unrequited.

Due to Russia’s apprehension about China’s military assertiveness, the China-Russia strategic partnership is unlikely to gather momentum despite the US “pivot” or strategy of re-balancing to the Indo-Pacific and the growing India-US strategic partnership.

Defence Technology Cooperation

India’s acquisition of weapons and defence equipment from Russia has been the most enduring part of the India-Russia strategic partnership.

Almost 70 per cent of India’s defence acquisitions are still sourced from abroad, mainly from Russia.

Russia had provided several high-tech weapons platforms to India when India was still subject to technology denial regimes.

Civil nuclear cooperation between the two countries has a long history. Russia gave India nuclear submarines on lease and provided assistance for the development of the cryogenic rocket engine as well as for India’s indigenous Nuclear-propelled Nuclear-armed (SSBN) Arihant.

In the 1980s, State-of-the-art fighter-bombers, including the MiG-25 strategic reconnaissance aircraft, were sold to India. The two countries cooperated on the Russian GPS satellite system called GLONASS. The Russians had offered India the S-300/S-300V BMD system as far back as the mid-1990s.

During the December 2014 summit meeting between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Vladimir Putin, Russia had agreed to supply 12 nuclear power reactors over the next 20 years.

Russia also supports India’s quest for membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) and related groups.

The Soviet Union sold hi-tech weapons and defence equipment to India at “friendship prices” and on the basis of barter trade as India did not have sufficient foreign exchange reserves.

However, military-technical cooperation remained a buyer-seller, patron-client relationship.

While fighter aircraft and tanks were manufactured under license in India, no transfer of technology (ToT) ever took place and India’s defence technology base remained low.

The co-production of the BrahMos supersonic cruise missile is the only example of a successful joint venture.

The decline of Russia’s defence industry — production had declined by almost 90 per cent in five years – after the collapse of the Soviet Union had an adverse impact on India’s defence procurement.

India found it difficult to obtain spare parts, get its equipment overhauled and seek upgrades.

There were unacceptable time and cost overruns in executing pending orders. The five-year delay and the three-fold cost escalation in the acquisition of INS Vikramaditya (Admiral Gorshkov) aircraft carrier is a typical example.

Now these challenges are gradually being overcome, but the Russian defence industry has fallen behind the West in the development of cutting-edge weapons technologies.

A new concern is about the techno-commercial feasibility of the joint development and production of the Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA) tentatively called PAK-FA or SukhoiT-50.

There is still no agreement on its engine, a key component.

The Indian perspective for future defence technology cooperation will be shaped by Mr Modi’s drive to “Make in India” with ToT.

Russian OEMs will need to demonstrate their competitiveness in market-oriented ways – as the western companies do – and enter into strategic partnerships by way of joint ventures (JVs) with Indian public and private sector companies to bid for future contracts in keeping with the Defence Procurement Procedure (DPP) 2016.

If they are nimble enough to rival the western MNCs, India-Russia military-technical coop will have a bright future.

The author is Distinguished Fellow, Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), New Delhi.

Editor’s Note: This article is republished with the permission of our partner India Strategic.