The defence partnership between India and Russia has achieved new capacities through acquisitions of upgraded weapons supply, military technical cooperation and joint development of weapons. Russia has undoubtedly played an important role in India’s quest for military modernisation. The collapse of the Soviet Union had a domino effect on especially India, which until then had pursued a Soviet-centric defence procurement policy and was exclusively dependent upon it for defence upgradation. India-Russia bilateral relations were energised after the signing of the ‘Declaration of Strategic Cooperation’ in 2000. The Treaty aimed to bridge the gap that had emerged in the bilateral relations post-Soviet disintegration. The defence cooperation between the two countries is however not without challenges especially given the current Sino-Russia defence cooperation and India’s diversification of defence procurement market. In the past twenty years, India-Russia defence relation have seen an ebb and flow in recent years, but is it less volatile than is generally portrayed?
India and Russia celebrated twenty years of strategic partnership in 2020 since the signing of the Declaration of Strategic Partnership on 3 October 2000. Defence cooperation has been an important component in the India-Russia strategic partnership since the Soviet era. In the past two decades, the defence partnership has achieved new capacities through acquisitions of upgraded weapons supply, military technical cooperation and joint development of weapons. Russia has undoubtedly played an important role in India’s quest for military modernisation. There is however a downgrading of defence engagement between India and Russia due to several factors. Some of the current trends in defence engagement have reinforced the argument by naysayers that it is no longer a critical component in projection of India-Russia strategic relations. To some extent the naysayers are correct in their observation and some of the factors bolstering their arguments are: a) the comparison of the magnitude of the current defence cooperation to the Soviet era, b) diversification of defence market, c) shift in foreign policy priorities and interests of both the countries and more importantly, d) the focus of defence cooperation today is largely commercial with limited strategic and security connotations. Given these trends in Indo-Russian strategic relations since 2000, it is therefore an opportune time to anatomise the current and future engagement in defence cooperation.
Two Decades of Defence Cooperation: Transition from Supplier-Client to Co-Equal Partners
Russia has played an important role in India’s national and security interests especially during the Soviet era. The political support to India during the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War gave the much needed impetus in strengthening the defence engagement between the two countries. Soviet Union’s ‘exceptionalism’ in defence supply to India- a non-Warsaw member came along with upgraded defence equipment accessibility, quality weapons alongside affordable prices. Exceptionalism also came in the form of ‘Rupee-Rouble arrangement’ and license-production during the Soviet era.
The collapse of the Soviet Union had a domino effect on all its partner countries especially India, which until then had pursued a Soviet-centric defence procurement policy and was exclusively dependent upon it for defence upgradation. India’s difficulties multiplied during this period as it had to search for supply of spare parts and there were issues also became discontented with the quality of weapons supplied by Russia. The renewal of the 1971 Indo-Soviet Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation in 1993, several changes were made in the Indo-Soviet Treaty. Analysts such as Prof Arun Mohanty has pointed out that the renewed treaty was bereft of the vital security clauses that constituted the core of the Indo-Soviet Treaty[i] especially Article IX which declared the willingness of both Russia and India to assist militarily during an external threat to its national security.
India-Russia bilateral relations were energised after the signing of the ‘Declaration of Strategic Cooperation’ in 2000. The Treaty aimed to bridge the gap that had emerged in the bilateral relations post-Soviet disintegration. As for defence cooperation, the agreement paved the way for enhancing joint Research and Development (R&D) capabilities for the production of new weapons system. India and Russia also established a new institutionalised structure to oversee the complete range of issues of military technical cooperation. The India-Russia Inter-Governmental Commission on Military Technical Cooperation (IRIGC-MTC) is a case in point. The defence ministers of both the countries meet annually, to discuss and review the status of ongoing projects and other issues of MTC.[ii] The MTC between the two countries has been the most successful in the joint production has seen India manufacturing armaments, including the joint production of BrahMos missiles, assembling of tanks and aircraft, T72M1 tanks, radars, anti-ship and anti-tank missiles, etc.
Over the years, India with Russia’s cooperation has achieved new capacities through procurement and joint development, which include the induction of INS Vikramaditya, the launching of own INS Arihant, the commissioning of MiG (Mikoyan Gurevich) 29K squadron into the Indian Navy,[iii] the purchase of 350 T- 90S tanks and the successful development of BrahMos supersonic cruise missile.[iv]Russia agreed to further broaden its technology and equipment assistance to manufacture in India, complementing latter’s domestic initiatives such as the ‘Make in India’ project. In December 2014, India and Russia signed a defence agreement for the production of Mi-17 and Ka-226T helicopters in India with full technology transfer, with the possibility up to 400 ‘Kamov’ helicopters annually. On May 15, 2015, the Indian Defence Acquisition Committee (DAC) cleared the purchase of 200 Russian Kamov Ka-226 helicopters. Thus, these agreements and developments in defence cooperation have signalled a robust Russia-India defence collaboration.[v] Another agreement signed during the 16th bilateral summit was the Training of Indian Armed Forces Personnel in the Military Educational Establishments of the Defence Ministry of the Russian Federation. This agreement laid down the provisions and procedures for training courses in military educational and training establishments. The INDRA joint military exercise between India and Russia which has been taking place since 2003 saw for the first time the participation of personnel from all three service branches from both countries.[vi]
During the 17th bilateral summit that took place on 15 October 2016, the two countries signed a total of 16 agreements. In defence relations, India and Russia agreed to construct four frigates under Project 11356, one is to be built in Russia and three in India. As a follow up to the agreement signed in the 15th annual bilateral summit, a tripartite joint venture was established between Rosoboronexport, Russian Helicopters and Hindustan Aeronautics Limited, to manufacture 200 Kamov Ka-226 light utility helicopters for the Indian Army. Of these, 60 would be manufactured in Russia and the rest in India. Purchase of the S-400 Triumf air defence missile system was also agreed during this summit.[vii]
At the 18th annual summit held on 31 May to 02 June 2017, defence cooperation continued to be a key focus area of cooperation between India and Russia. Progress regarding the joint ventures for production of Kamov KA-226 helicopters and frigates were also mentioned. Joint production, joint manufacture, military technical cooperation and exchange of advanced defence technologies with/to India were reiterated by President Putin. “The assembly of high-tech military products has been set up in India with Russia’s participation. We agreed with the Prime Minister to continue to jointly develop and manufacture modern weapons systems,” Putin said, adding the cooperation is not limited to direct supplies of the latest Russian military equipment to India. [viii]
The 19th annual bilateral summit between India and Russia held on 4-5 October 2018 took place at an opportune time as the partnership was put to test once again. India signed a $5 billion deal to purchase S-400 Triumf air defence system from Russia during the summit despite strong objections from the United States (US). By signing the deal, India demonstrated its strategic autonomy though it was cautioned by the US of a possible imposition of Countering America's Adversaries through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) sanctions for continuing defence ties with Russia.
In 2018, India and Russia agreed to launch the joint project to manufacture AK-203/103 rifle in Amethi in the state of Uttar Pradesh in 2019. It is a joint venture between the Ordnance Factories Board (OFB) on the Indian side, and RosonboronExports and Concern Kalashnikov on the Russian side.[ix] The two countries concluded the 10th INDRA joint exercise on November 28, 2018 at India’s Babina Military Station, near Jhansi in Uttar Pradesh.
A 75 member tri-service contingent of the Indian Armed Forces participated at the 75th Anniversary Victory Day Parade in Russia on 17 June 2020.[x]
Shifting Trends in the Defence Engagement
Based on the payoff of the defence cooperation between India and Russia in the past twenty years, it can be said that the partnership has been substantive in promoting mutual interests. However, there have also been challenges to the partnership. One of the emerging trends in the defence cooperation between India and Russia is the diversification of defence markets. While India continues to remain the largest market for Russian military equipment accounting to 56 percent, there is a general trend of reduction of defence purchase by India (fig.2).
Fig.1. The 10 Largest Exporters of Major Arms and their Main Clients, 2015–19
Fig.2. The 10 Largest Importers of Major Arms and their Main Suppliers, 2015–19
Given the developments in the neighbourhood and global affairs have compelled India to find alternative defence markets apart from Russia. The US today shares India’s concerns of China’s muscle flexing including the recent military stand-off between India and China in Ladakh. In the maritime domain, China’s assertive posturing in the Indian Ocean region has made India more desirous to leverage other options to counter the threat of aggressive manoeuvres from China. The growing defence Sino-Russia engagement is a factor in these developments.
Although the growing Russia-China strategic relations are to challenge the pre-eminence of the US, it comes at a cost for India. While the current levels India-Russia defence cooperation are often compared to the degree of engagement during the Indo-Soviet relations, today a comparison is also however with Russia-China defence cooperation. The current defence cooperation between Russia and China is set to include cooperation in sensitive fields, such as strategic missile defence, hypersonic technology, and the construction of nuclear submarines. Their engagement between Russia and China is both commercial and largely strategic in nature. The purchase of S400 missile defence systems, Su30MKK and Su35 fighter aircrafts from Russia are examples of Russia granting access to China on high end weapons and military technology for up-gradation and power projection.
India has diversified its defence procurement profile which has seen an enhanced defence trade relationship and broader security engagement with the US. Currently, India’s defence engagements with the US stands at $20 billion alongside crucial defence and strategic agreements that include the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA), Communications, Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA), Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA) and the Industrial Security Agreement (ISA). Given the growing defence engagement between the two countries, in 2016, the US designated India as a Major Defense Partner and in 2018; India was elevated to Strategic Trade Authorization tier 1 status, which allows India to receive license-free access to a wide range of military and dual-use technologies regulated by the Department of Commerce.[xi] India and the US have also conducted bilateral and trilateral joint military exercises on a regular basis. In November 2019, the two countries conducted Tiger Triumph, the first-ever tri-service (ground, naval, and air forces) exercise between the two countries.[xii]
Russia, on the other hand, is also exploring the potentials of geographical diversification of defence markets to meet the demands of maintaining its defence industrial complex and to meet the growing potentials of the global arms market. In this context, Russia’s defence engagement with India’s neighbouring countries especially Pakistan merits due attention.
Russia’s defence relationship with Pakistan is a result of its geographical diversification and based on India’s move towards diversification of its defence markets. The sale of four Mi-35 helicopters and Klimov RD-93 engines in 2015[xiii] and ‘Friendship’ joint Russian-Pakistani military drills being held annually since 2016 is a step in this direction.[xiv]
While India will critically monitor developments in Russia-Pakistan relations, one needs to bear in mind that the defence cooperation with Pakistan is likely to remain limited in scope for three possible reasons: a) Russia may not gain economically from a crisis hit Pakistan and monetary backlogs for defence equipment is the last thing that Russia’s defence industrial complex can afford, b) Russia is aware that China will and want to continue to remain the primary defence supplier to Pakistan and c) given the traditional partnership, Russia will not antagonise its largest defence partner India for Pakistan.
India-Russia defence relations have seen an ebb and flow in recent years, but have been less volatile than is generally portrayed. India sees Russia as a reliable partner not just for its support to India on critical issues but also because the Russians have been far more willing to share technology unlike other defence supplying nations. The military technical cooperation is accorded the most prominent status in India-Russia defence cooperation. Given the growing competition in the global arms market, Russia’s decision to diversify its market has led to a compromise in selling weapons to Pakistan and has no qualm in selling high end weapons technology to China. India’s security dilemma has however manifested as it is not only surrounded by two nuclear powered hostile neighbours - Pakistan and China but major defence supplying nations including Russia emerging one of the factors for enhancing military power projection especially China.
Russia-China current strategic engagement especially since 2014 has compelled India to move closer to the US for defence and security engagement which today shares India’s concerns of China’s inroads and muscle flexing especially in the Indo-Pacific region. India’s engagement in Quad along with the US is largely based on security interests in the Indo-Pacific. India’s engagement with Russia unlike the Soviet era in the maritime region is seemingly focused on enhancing geo-economic relations today between the two countries. Analysts opine that the China factor is a major factor for Russia’s lukewarm response to India’s maritime concerns in Indian Ocean region.
The strategic relations between India and Russia in the past twenty have endured many litmus tests given the challenges from within and external factors. With regards to the defence engagement, the partnership has now moved beyond buyer-seller relations to that of joint collaboration. With India promoting ‘Make in India’ project, its engagement with Russia has only multiplied the potentials of cooperation in this sphere given the long standing military technical cooperation, mutual understanding and political will. However, the current trends in defence relations poses many challenges and hence failure to address these challenges and grievances in this sphere may lead to a possible impact on the scope and prospects of long term engagement in the future as it is a sensitive component in India-Russia strategic partnership.
*Dr. Chandra Rekha is a Research Fellow at Indian Council of World Affairs.
Discliamer : The views expressed are personal
[i] Arun Mohanty, The Indo-Soviet Friendship Treaty and its Legacy, Mainstream, VOL XLIX, No 38, September 10, 2011. http://www.mainstreamweekly.net/article2989.html
[ii]India-Russia Defence Cooperation, Embassy of India, Moscow, Russia, https://indianembassy-moscow.gov.in/india-russia-defence-cooperation.php#:~:text=Defence%20cooperation%20is%20an%20important,valid%2C%20at%20present%20till%202020.&text=The%20two%20sides%20also%20have,forces%20personnel%20and%20military%20exercises.
[iii] “Achievements of Ministry of Defence during the Year 2013” by Press Information Bureau, Government of India, Ministry of Defence, December 19, 2013, http://pib.nic.in/newsite/PrintRelease.aspx?relid=102021, accessed on February 12, 2014.
[iv] Boris Egorov, “Russia Eyes New Markets for Arms Export, India Still Number 1 Importer”, Russia and India Report, May 23, 2013, http://in.rbth.com/economics/2013/05/23/russia_eyes_new_market_for_arms_export_india_still_number_1_import_25269.html, accessed on 12 February 2014.
[v]Andrey Rezchikov, Vzglyad, Mikhail Moshkin, “India to Buy Russian Helicopters in Major Deal”, Russia and India Report, May 15, 2015, http://in.rbth.com/economics/2015/05/15/india_to_buy_russian_helicopters_in_major_deal_43119.html, accessed on August 14, 2015.
[vi] Franz Stefan Gady, India, Russia Sign ‘Military Cooperation Roadmap’, The Diplomat, 23 June 2017, https://thediplomat.com/2017/06/india-russia-sign-military-cooperation-roadmap/ Accessed on 09 November 2020.
[vii] Alexei Nikolski, “Russia and India will cooperate for the sum of several billion dollars. New Delhi displays interest in the Russian air defence systems, frigates and light helicopters”, Vedomosti, Issue No. 4183, 17 October 2016. Translated by Maxim Shepovalenko, Deputy Director, Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, Moscow.
[viii] Vinay Shukla, “India, Russia Ties on New Growth Trajectory”, India Strategic, June 2017. http://www.indiastrategic.in/2017/06/04/india-russiaties-on-new-growth-trajectory/, Accessed on June 12, 2017.
[ix]Bilateral Relations: India-Russia Relations, Embassy of India, Moscow, Russia, https://indianembassy-moscow.gov.in/bilateral-relations-india-russia.php Accessed on 18 October 2020.
[x]India to send Tri-Service contingent to participate in 75th Victory Day Parade of WW II in Moscow, Doordarshan News, 17 June 2020, http://ddnews.gov.in/people/india-send-tri-service-contingent-participate-75th-victory-day-parade-ww-ii-moscow Accessed on 29 October 2020.
[xi]U.S. Security Cooperation with India, Fact Sheet, Bureau of Political-Military Affairs, U.S Department of State, 21 July 2020. https://www.state.gov/u-s-security-cooperation-with-india/ Accessed on 05 November 2020.