Russia’s growing proximity with China and Pakistan won’t hurt its historically cozy ties with India as New Delhi is the largest market for Russian defence purchases and needs Moscow’s help to maintain its large arsenal of imported military equipment, experts say.
For decades, Russia has been India’s closest ally in the international arena and many strategic defence buys – including tanks, armoured vehicles, missiles, submarines, aircraft and the aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya – have been procured from Moscow.
“This array of equipment will remain in service for the next three decades or more. For their life cycle support, repair, refit and upgrade, Russian support will be crucial. Hence Russia is not going out of India’s defence calculus any time soon even if there are no deals,” said Amit Cowshish of the Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses.
Ahead of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Moscow on December 24, the Defence Acquisition Council approved the purchase of S-4 Triumf air defence systems. It also cleared the army’s proposal to buy six regiments of the Pinaka rocket system.
“If decades of our close association with Russia and years of US military benevolence towards Pakistan have not come in the way of our becoming the largest customer of US defence equipment, there is no reason why Russia’s recent overtures to China and Pakistan should hamper our strategic engagement with Moscow,” said Cowshish, a former financial adviser to the defence ministry.
Stringent sanctions imposed by the West and sliding oil prices have forced Russia to move closer to Pakistan and China to gain from defence sales. Russia has agreed to sell Sukhoi 35 fighters and MI 35 attack helicopters to Pakistan.
Over the last two decades, China has also modernised its military arsenal with Russian equipment. Moscow is, however, upset with Beijing for allegedly violating copyright and reverse engineering its equipment.
“Russia’s tilt towards Pakistan and China is driven by changing geopolitics in a multipolar world. Even the US – with which India is desperate to have better relations -- will always be more tilted towards Pakistan. Russia is wary of Pakistan but wants new buyers for its defence equipment and goods,” said Anuradha M Chenoy, a professor at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University.
“Russia has also contradictions with China on Central Asia. China’s ‘silk road economic belt’ initiative is an attempt to lessen Russian influence on the Central Asian region. Continuing relations with Russia will help India balance influence of other great powers. Russia is important for India’s hydrocarbon and energy needs,” said Chenoy.
Russia cannot afford to disengage with India as it needs to sustain its huge military-industrial base. China and Pakistan have limited potential as a market for Russian arms.
“Russia needs to understand India’s compulsions in diversifying its military hardware supply sources. Moscow should also address Delhi’s concerns on life cycle support to equipment purchased from Russia, technology transfer, timely delivery and inexplicable price fluctuations of Russian equipment,” said Cowshish.