The Indian-Russian Arms Relationship: Managing the Challenge for US-Indian Relations


By Richard Weitz

India was de facto part of the recent U.S. decision to impose sanctions on the Chinese Defense Ministry’s Equipment Development Department, and its director, for their purchasing of advanced Russian weapons.

Section 231 of the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act(CAATSA) of 2017 mandates penalties for entities “engaging in significant transactions” with Russian defense firms and other targeted actors. The CAATSA measures can include denial of export licenses, entry visas, access to the U.S. financial system, and holding property within U.S. jurisdiction.

The State Department noted that China had recently bought Russia’s Su-35 combat aircraft and S-400 surface-to-air missile system.

The United States also opposes India’s defense relations with Russia, including its planned purchase of the S-400 system. Earlier, Turkey and its decision to buy an S-400 system came under scrutiny from Washington as well.

During the Cold War and into the 1990s, India was one of the largest buyers of Soviet, and then Russian, advanced weapons systems.

Prominent purchases included submarines and surface ships (including an aircraft carrier), tanks, armored vehicles, anti-air and anti-ship weapons, and high-performance combat planes and helicopters.

More recently, Russian sales to the Indian Armed Forces have included Su-30MK and MiG-29 fighter jets, AWACS command-and-control planes, transport and utility helicopters, main battle tanks, and an Akula-class Type 971 submarine.

In light of their significant prior purchases of Russian arms, the Indian Armed Forces are also a perennial customer of Russia for spare parts and repairs, maintenance of existing platforms, and overhaul and modernization of antiquated systems.

The two nations have also long engaged in the joint research and development of military technologies.

Given the limited development of commercial and humanitarian ties, and their now modest diplomatic coordination on international issues, Russian arms transfers to India, whose arms import market is the largest in the world,are the most significant element of their overall relationship.

Yet, the deterioration of Russian-U.S. ties and India’s expanding acquisition of U.S. defense technologies have made U.S. officials and Congress more concerned about India’s purchases of Russian weapons.

Current U.S. concerns revolve around India’s purchase of the S-400s. The sale of this advanced surface-to-air interceptor would yield Russia’s defense sector billions of dollars in revenue over the life of the system.

Furthermore, U.S. officials worry that, in the words of Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia Alice Wells, that this type of large military purchase “would shape India’s strategic relations over the next generation and … impact … interoperability and the ability to continue to deepen its partnership with [the] U.S. and others.”

Advances in weapons systems make it harder for major importers to mix and match systems from different national suppliers due to interoperability and security considerations.

Regarding the latter, U.S. experts are concerned about Russia gaining access to the advanced U.S. defense technologies that India is acquiring whose activities could be monitored by the Russians and that knowledge transferred to their own capabilities and combat approaches.

In mid-July, Indian Defense Minister Nirmala Sitharaman said that India and Russia were close to concluding the S-400 deal and that his government does not consider the U.S. law binding on India.

The United States is also threatening to sanction India for importing large volumes of Iranian oil. Though these imports have been falling in recent months, it is infeasible for India to cease all Iranian oil imports by November due to the higher costs of alternative fuel sources. The timing for such an energy price hike is also poor given the weakening rupee and the approaching Indian national elections.

Though the sanctions provide a useful means of encouraging other countries to respect U.S. national interests, the legislation allows for presidential waivers on national security grounds.

This raises a fundamental question: how should the Trump Administration deal with India and its arms transfer ties with Russia?

Most members of the U.S. Congress, who forced the Trump administration to accept the CAATSA despite its impingement on the executive branch’s authority,would generally support a waiver decision.

Making a national security exception for India in this case would certainly be less controversial than the earlier round of nuclear-related waivers granted India and the multitude of terrorism-related waivers offered to Pakistan for decades.

One reason for the recent progress in Indian-U.S. relations—which has seen the gradual weakening of Russia’s quasi-monopoly on arms sales to India—has been that prior U.S. administrations have recognized the need to compromise on some Indian national priorities in order to make greater joint gains through enhanced bilateral cooperation and partnership.

According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), while Moscow is still India’s leading arms provider, their proportion of total Indian defense imports is shrinking.

Between 2008-2012, India bought 79 per cent of its weapons, measured by value, from Russia. This percentage declined to 68 per cent during the next five-year period. Measured by value, Russia now provides only 60 percent of Indian defense imports.

Indian purchases of Russian arms will likely continue to decline relative to its rising proportion of purchases from Western countries, including European, Israeli, and U.S. firms. Indian buyers, thanks to their country’s rapidly growing national economy, no longer need to compromise on performance in exchange for lower prices.

India is not the target of such sanctions—Russia and Iran are.

As Secretary Pompeo pointed out during his September 2018 visit to New Delhi, “The sanctions aren’t intended to adversely impact countries like India. They are intended to … have an impact on the sanctioned country.”

There is a clear danger in focusing directly and loudly on the Russian-Indian arms relationship.

Indians see coercion that infringes on their national security and independence as a core value to be defended. Indian leaders share Trump’s preference for strategic autonomy and a reluctance to let foreign ties impede their national security decisions.

A negative learning example was provided by recent Chinese actions. Recently, the Chinese  to overtaly tried to intimidate South Korean against deploying the THAAD missile defense system. China’s economic punishment of the Republic of Korea backfired and undermined Beijing’s leverage in both Koreas.

U.S. policies can better constrain Indian defense ties with Russia through targeted U.S. competition, such as securing arms delivery contracts to displace possible Russian weapons transfers.As the Russians know, deepening binational defense industrial cooperation also generates greater opportunities for U.S. arms sales.

In particular, U.S. small and medium enterprises can more readily collaborate with India’s growing private sector as opposed to Russia’s large state-controlled corporations, especially in the technologically dynamic emerging cyber and space sectors.

Looking beyond Russia, more Indian and U.S. cooperation is needed against mutual threats to their terrestrial and space infrastructure, such as from the PLA’s offensive cyber or counterspace capabilities.

Featured Photo: The S-400 Triumf anti-air missile system © Alexey Malgavko