With heated exchanges between the US and Russia due to heavy concentration of troops in Ukraine border scheduled for talks between both, Russias growing dependency on China due to sanctions from West, and Indian tilt towards the US with inclusion in Quad, the visit of Russian President Vladimir Putin to India on December 6, appears to be viewed differently by different world players. Even in domestic debates, the public anger due to Chinese intrusion in Ladakh and growing partnership of Russia and China, indicates that the visit is sensitive in context of international geopolitical scenario; hence will require a delicate strategic balancing including text of joint statement, if issued at the end of the visit. Notwithstanding the above, the visit is a scheduled 21st India-Russia Annual Summit, which couldnt take place earlier due to coronavirus pandemic, there are many justified reasons to continue with ‘Indo-Soviet Friendship Treaty (1971)’ matured into ‘Strategic Partnership (2000)’, which has stood the test of time till date, even during ongoing rough relations between China and India.
Why Russia Matters to India Despite Chinese Embrace?
Despite Indian effort for Atmanirbhar Bharat in defence manufacturing and SIPRI indicating significant 33 per cent decrease in import of military hardware by India in recent years, it remains heavily dependent on Russian technology, maintenance, procurement of hardware and spares. For many decades Russians have been collaborating with India in its indigenous manufacturing programs and were amenable to transfer of technology, which India was finding difficult to get from others. It includes some major systems like nuclear-powered submarines, warships/frigates, nuclear reactors, space programmes and flagship projects like Brahmos.
The impending visit, besides deal to commence indigenous manufacturing of AK 203 Kalashnikov rifles, may see some forward movement in collaboration in manufacturing (including transfer of technology of very short range air defence missile systems (VSHORADS), twin engine helicopters to replace Cheetah and Chetak, upgradation of inventory of MIG-29 and Sukhoi aircrafts. S-400 Triumf surface-to-air missile system which India had signed in 2018 for $5.43 billion is a done deal, and the threat of CAATSA is unlikely to have any impact on delivery schedule. It was chosen because it was most suitable to Indian requirement at that point of time. There are also speculations of approximately ten agreements to be signed between the two countries, which could include reciprocal exchange of logistics Agreement and 10-year military technical agreement, besides Two plus Two dialogue to strengthen existing strategic partnership. While the US may be amenable to a waiver on CAATSA for S-400, in view of common China challenge, but further deals may create some new friction points in strengthening of Indo-US relations.
On strategic context, Russia continues to be a favourable P5 member in UN and continues to support India in various multilateral organisations like the UN, SCO, BRICS on crucial issues. It’s a technological powerhouse, with one of the largest producer of military hardware, producing rugged equipment suited for variety of terrain, where Indian forces operate. While its nearness to China, its discomfort with Indian embrace to Quad, growing Indo-US partnership, and hardware sale to Pakistan, forces some of the opinion makers in India to suggest divorcing Russia in favour of US, but such opinions are marred by impracticality, ignorance of Indian hardware dependency on Russia and its track record of reliability of its partnership with India. In its revised Military Strategy document Russia continues to name India as its partner along with China, and has not delayed/defaulted on any hardware support to India, even during standoff with China. The interest of both countries also coincide regarding concerns on export of terror after Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan and resultant humanitarian crisis, which will certainly be a subject of discussion and may find some mention in joint statement.
Reality of Sino-Russian Embrace
The much publicised Sino-Russian embrace by Chinese media and Russian acceptance to go along has been due to economic compulsions due to increasing sanctions from West, common adversary US branding both as competitors in security strategy documents. Objectively an expansionist, aggressive China seeking Sino-centric world order does suit Russia as well, which is looking for multilateral world order. Chinese BRI has already side-lined Eurasian dream, its technological theft like alleged hypersonic technology proliferation and increasing border claims in previously settled border with Tajikistan are not to Russian liking. Russia has made no commitment to back China’s misadventure in South China Sea/Himalayas and China has also not made any commitment on Ukraine borders. Reiterating India as a strategic partner may be Moscow’s message to US and Beijing both. It is however, impractical to expect Russia criticising China or Pakistan or India discussing Ukraine issue during this visit, due to peculiar geo-political equations, and Russians need for strategic and economic balancing.
Strategic Balancing by India
India and US have commonality of Interest in most issues including tackling China, which has pushed India to become an important global strategic partner of US, by its aggressive designs. There is congruence of interests in most global issues between US and India in the current geo-strategic equation. India stands with US and Quad in context of Indo-Pacific and facing China challenge. India continues to do its best to respond to sensitivities and concerns of the US, at times risking some of its old relationships like Iran. To accommodate US interest India reduced import of oil from Iran, bearing a cost disadvantage, as Iran oil was being imported in Rupee terms, in crude form and attuned to existing refineries in India. India doesn’t seem to be repeating the same mistake with Russians, who haven’t done anything bilaterally which demands a divorce in mutual relationship. Moreover, military capacity building of India also adds to collective strength of Quad, which is in collective interest.
Lately India is trying to be self-reliant, as well as diversifying procurement from various countries to include US, France, Israel. In last decade the defence procurement from Russia has gradually reduced from over 65 percent approximately to nearly 49 percent and correspondingly increased in favour of the US, Israel and France. There is a noticeable upward trend in purchase of US military hardware, as the year 2020 alone saw a purchase $3.4 billion worth of US military equipment, indicating enough accommodation by India. In a buyers’ market US has competitors to include Russia, Israel and France, and every country will make sovereign choice to pick the best deal including India. India has also made modest beginning in exporting Rs 38,000 crore worth of military equipment, as a step towards self-reliance, seeking support of all the partners.
(Major General S.B.Asthana is a strategic and security analyst, a veteran Infantry General. He is the Chief Instructor, United Service Institution of India. The views expressed are personal)