One of the biggest changes in India’s foreign policy has been its increasing alignment with the US. This is evident not just at the diplomatic level, but also in military-to-military relations.
As you read this, the Indian Navy along with that of Japan, the US and Australia have kicked off the Malabar naval exercise in the western Pacific.
Another important initiative that seeks to bring India and the US closer than ever before is the formation of the Quad.
Not to forget that India has already inked three foundational agreements with the US, which open up a wide opportunity for cooperation in security, defence, intelligence, and big tech.
The increasing India-US ties has caused a lot of heartburn in Russia, which has been New Delhi’s most important strategic partner since the 1970s.
Russia has been publicly critical of the Quad. Its foreign minister Sergey Lavrov had last year said that “India is currently an object of the Western countries’ persistent, aggressive and devious policy” while assailing the West for what he described as attempts to “undermine our close partnership and privileged relations”
However, despite all the hiccups and tensions between India and Russia, the two countries have signed defence deals worth $15 billion in the last three years, Victor N. Kladov, head of International Cooperation and Regional Policy of Rostec State Corporation, said this week.
Remember that all these deals have happened despite US sanctions and India’s arms imports witnessing a 33 per cent drop in the last five years, with sales from Russia being hit the hardest.
The deals that make up for the $15 billion bill includes the $5.2 billion deal for the S400 Triumf air defence system signed in 2018, $3 billion deal for the lease of a third nuclear-powered attack submarine— Chakra III — signed in 2019, and a host of emergency procurement done of various missiles and other weapons since 2018.
This even as the deals with the US since 2018 was less than $5 billion.
I had written in March that while India is keen to do the tango with the US, its ballet with Russia will continue, at least for the foreseeable future.
Why Russia continues to be a key defence partner for India
Sources in the defence and security establishment say that even as both India and the US get closer, New Delhi will also keep the Russian interest also in mind.
This is primarily because Russia is the biggest partner for India in the latter’s strategic programme.
One of the primary reasons why the Narendra Modi government went about procuring four frigates from Russia despite the country having indigenous capability to design and make such vessels, was that Moscow had linked this deal with the leasing of the nuclear submarine.
Russia also helps India with its indigenous strategic programme, something that no other country will be willing to do.
Interestingly, Russians’ knowhow and technology fallout from the India-Russia joint venture product BrahMos has also been one of the reasons behind why some of India’s indigenous programmes has been a success off late.
Also, another factor for the continued defence cooperation is also the fact that Russia technology is modern and very latest and are much cheaper than any of the western systems and also comes with no strings attached, unlike an American system.
Future of India-Russia defence ties not so smooth
So, while mega deals have been signed with Russia in the past three years and more will be inked in the coming years, the fact remains that Indian defence establishment has already made up its mind about what it wants from Moscow.
As ThePrint Editor-in-Chief Shekhar Gupta had said in one of his Cut the Clutter episodes, “In fact, if India goes to war with anybody right now… all the tanks will be regimes that will be T-72s and T-90s…Two-thirds of combat Indian Air Force will be of Russian origin which are Sukhois and the various MiGs.”
However, this will change. The Indian Air Force (IAF) has made up its mind that it does not want any more Russian fighters. The experience with the Su-30 MKI, which makes up for the majority of fighters in its arsenal, has not been so good – from weapons to maintenance.
With fighters gone, the dependence on Russian missile systems and other armaments for the fighters also go.
Such has been the IAF’s desperation to arm up the Su-30s that it is actually integrating the Israeli Spice 2000 and the British Advanced Short Range Air-to-Air Missile (ASRAAM) on the Russian fighters.
Both the IAF and the Indian Navy have slowly moved their missile dependence on Russia to other countries, especially the French and Israel besides of course the indigenous technology.
One service where the Russians continue to have a stake currently and possibly into the future as well is the Army.
The other sector where the Russians will continue to have a strong hold is India’s strategic programme, which becomes the binding factor for many other deals that India signs. But the growing India-French ties may just be able to offset it. At least that is what some in the Indian establishment hope for.
Another factor that will come into play in the future and possibly desist India from putting in the Russian crate is the increasing ties between Moscow and Beijing. Russia has emerged as one of the principal suppliers of defence equipment and technology to China, a development that India is not really happy about.
Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant Dixit)