India is drifting away from Russia on defence
For New Delhi, the costs of overdependence on a single nation for defence requirements are obvious with a recalibration likely to produce new defence engagement
Defence partnerships, by their very definition, are strategic in nature. A simple act of buying and selling weapons, more often than not, binds nations in a symbiotic relationship that can be both liberating and constraining at the same time. It gives the buyer nation much-needed space to conduct its foreign policy without the threat of violence hanging overhead, and to be able to respond in kind, if indeed that threat comes to pass. In the anarchical environment that is international politics today, effective military capability is the sine qua non for effective diplomacy.
Yet, the constraints of defence partnerships are equally strong. An overdependence on external supplies of weaponry keeps a nation perpetually on tenterhooks, forcing upon it choices that it would not make otherwise. In an attempt to keep the defence supplier in good humour, the buyer has to ensure deft navigation of ties as and when interests diverge. A buyer nation is often forced to craft its foreign policy according to the benevolence of the supplier nation; for any country, that can be costly at times.
Throughout the Cold War, the structural realities were such that India and the West were on the opposite ends of the political spectrum. The West targeted with a vengeance India’s attempts at securing its strategic autonomy and denied it access to high-end technology, be it civilian or defence. Facing this technology denial regime, where India started building its nuclear and space programmes indigenously, it reached out to the former Soviet Union for meeting its operational defence requirements. India, right from Independence, faced a tough neighbourhood with Pakistan and China emerging as critical threats. And both ended up having the support of the West.
To secure its periphery and wider interests, New Delhi entered into a defence partnership with the former Soviet Union that helped India manage a highly adversarial regional and global environment. While the Soviet Union balanced the United States (US) at the global level, the arms it supplied to India allowed New Delhi to hold its own against regional adversaries. From aircraft carriers to nuclear submarines, the sky became the limit for the Indo-Soviet defence partnership. However, a relationship that evolved due to the structural requirements of Cold War geopolitics, soon turned into one of extreme overdependence in the absence of efforts by New Delhi to develop its own domestic defence manufacturing base.
As the Cold War ended and the international order shifted, the need for diversification of defence imports became all the more obvious. And a process started that continued till date whereby India started engaging nations as diverse as the US, France and Israel in defence. Though Russia’s share of Indian defence imports fell from 62% to 45% between 2017-2022, it remained India’s largest defence supplier by a wide margin, with France coming in second at 29%.
Moscow has proved to be a reliable defence partner of India over a long period, and this gives it a lot of cache in Indian strategic circles. In defence, reliability is a key criterion if a long-term relationship is to be sustained.
But changing strategic realities come with their own constraints and possibilities. Russia’s war against Ukraine is putting pressure on the ability of the Russian defence industry to meet Indian defence needs. Even to meet its own material requirements, Moscow is today having to rely on Iran and North Korea for weapons and munitions, raising serious doubts about its ability to fulfil its external obligations. The Indian Air Force has publicly made a statement that due to the war in Ukraine, Russia won’t be able to meet its commitments on vital defence supplies to India.
More significant perhaps is the growing perception of an ever-closer Moscow-Beijing relationship. At a time when the most important security challenge for New Delhi is China’s aggression along the Line of Actual Control, Russia’s gravitation toward China will inevitably have an impact on how New Delhi views its long-term defence partnership with Moscow. Reliance on Russian weaponry for taking on Chinese soldiers along the LAC is an interesting contradiction that may have influenced India’s stance on the Ukraine war, but it is hardly likely to be a sustainable option for a problem that is going to be part of India’s strategic calculus for years to come.
It is in this context that one has to view the conclusion of a roadmap for US-India Defence Industrial Co-operation during US secretary of defence Lloyd Austin’s recent visit, aimed at galvanising technology co-operation and co-production in India’s defence needs. Ahead of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s US visit next week, the two nations are also negotiating a security-of-supply agreement, and a reciprocal defence procurement pact. The same week also witnessed German defence minister Boris Pistorius pitching for Berlin as a reliable defence partner with ThyssenKrupp AG and Mazagon Dock Shipbuilders Limited (MDL) signing a MoU to jointly bid for constructing submarines for the Indian Navy.
For the West, this is a moment to reflect on the possibility of weaning India away from Russia; for New Delhi, the costs of overdependence on a single nation for defence requirements are becoming obvious. This recalibration is likely to produce new defence engagements and New Delhi would do well to make the most of this unique moment in global politics.
Harsh V Pant is vice-president, ORF, New Delhi and professor at King’s College. The views expressed are personal