Breaking with Russia on defence is difficult
India has enhanced arms purchases with other countries over the last two decades. But it will be years before its dependence on Russia ceases if its domestic industry truly flourishes
India could be heading to become a collateral casualty of the devastating Russian attack on Ukraine. The United States-European Union (US-EU) sanctions can derail our ties with Russia.
So far, India has remained neutral and abstained from voting against Russia at the United Nations (UN). But soon, there may be no more wiggle room left and the seas could become rougher, even stormy. This could push the US to place sanctions through the Countering American Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA). This action can have its own geopolitical fallout on the growing Indo-US alignment aimed at checking China.
India’s stand on the Russian invasion of Ukraine is shaped by two factors. The first is the history of the relationship, and the second is our significant reliance on Russia for military equipment, spare parts, and ancillaries, along with strategic weapons such as missiles and nuclear-propelled submarines. A 2021 study by Stimson Centre scholars suggests the share of major Russian systems in our military is an astonishing 85%. Between 2000 and 2020, Russia accounted for 66.5% of India’s arms imports.
India’s current acquisitions include four more high performance S-400 surface-to-air (SAM) systems, four Grigorovich frigates (two to be built in India), 21 MiG-29 fighters, and an Akula nuclear-powered attack submarine on lease. There is also an order for Kalashnikov 203 assault rifles — 20,000 off the shelf and more than 500,000 licence built in India. At the planning stage are some missile acquisitions, including the hand-held anti-aircraft missile for the Indian Army.
There are several ongoing projects — licence producing more T-90S tanks, Sukhoi 30 MKI fighters and upgrading the BrahMos missile to a hypersonic version. Note that ancillaries and components routinely imported from Russia are essential for maintaining existing equipment and licence production, though Indo-Russian projects for nuclear-propelled submarines are presumably already sanctions-proof.
India’s geopolitical posture in Eurasia has been remarkably stable, unlike the US, China, and Russia, which have shifted alignments and preferences. We have had close ties with the former Soviet Union since the mid-1950s and maintained Russia-favouring neutrality when it invaded Hungary in 1956, Afghanistan in 1980, and now, Ukraine.
For its part, the former Soviet Union and now, Russia, has unreservedly endorsed India’s South Asia policy. It backed the liberation of Goa in 1961, maintained a largely neutral stand in the Sino-Indian war of 1962, and played a key role in helping India win the Bangladesh war in 1971. It has, all through, backed India on Kashmir, down to the 2019 effective nullification of Article 370, which bifurcated the state and demoted it to a Union Territory.
The Soviets came through in the 1950s and 1960s with equipment such as MiG-21 fighters and Foxtrot submarines, whose equivalent our erstwhile mentor Britain refused to give. The Soviet Union had no concept of market prices, and so, all of it came at throwaway prices under rupee-ruble exchange arrangements along with technology transfer. We would never have been able to afford the size of the military that we have had since the 1980s with western equipment. The Soviet systems, grumbled a critic, were a drug habit that India could not break.
New Delhi did seek to overcome the addiction in the 1980s by buying from the West, and also tried to design its own systems. Imports often got entangled with corruption, and domestic programmes, like that of the Tejas fighter and the Arjun tank, proved to be disappointing. India has not been able to field an aerial drone of any consequence, even though we have been working on this since the 1990s.
After Russia emerged from the Soviet Union, arms purchases began to be designated in dollars, but there were still good deals available such as the licensed manufacture of the formidable Sukhoi-30 MKI fighter and the T-90S tanks that give India an edge against the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) today.
Can we break away from the Russians? In the last two decades, India has enhanced arms purchases from countries such as France, Israel, and the US. Even if India were to stop all Russian purchases today, it would take decades before it would show. This is because systems such as tanks, fighter aircraft and ships, and artillery are routinely upgraded and often remain in service for decades.
The Russian arms industry is now in the cross-hairs of the Americans, and New Delhi and Moscow will have to come up with creative solutions to keep the relationship going. One obvious move would be to revert to the old rupee-ruble trade.
A major problem for India is the lack of an adequate general industrial capacity that can feed the domestic defence industry. Indian defence manufacturing may be on the point of take-off. But whether it can fly remains to be seen. As my colleague, Kartik Bommakanti, has pointed out, government investments in defence research and development (R&D) are “not just worryingly, but laughably small”. Just what can be achieved through effective policy and investment can be seen in South Korea which has, since the 1990s, developed its own tanks and submarines, and is working on a fifth-generation fighter and is one of the largest arms exporters in the world. India has a long way to go.
Manoj Joshi is a distinguished fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi
The views expressed are personal