India’s Defence Partnership with Russia and its Implications on India-U.S. Bilateral Relations

    • By,
      Piyush Mittal – Executive Assistant to Dean, Kautilya

India & Russia’s defence and strategic partnership dates back to the soviet days in the 1970s. In 2000, “India- Russia Strategic Partnership” was signed to solidify the military and defence cooperation with Russia keeping in mind the long-run perspective. Today, 70% of the military equipment and arsenals in India are of Russian origin and according to a report by Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Russia commands nearly two-third share of India’s total arms imports. Even the Indian Navy’s aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya is a refurbished Soviet-era Kyiv-styled aircraft. Indian Navy’s nuclear-powered submarines are on lease from Russia. The dependence is so much that it will take an era of time to become completely self-reliant on the military equipment and unlike the US and Australia, India doesn’t have a blessed neighbourhood. So, keeping the China and Pakistan factor in mind, the dependence on Russia is likely to grow.

In 2014, a defence deal with Russia on the manufacturing of 400 ‘Twin Engine Kamov Helicopters (Kamov Ka-226T)’ was signed. Various defence projects were discussed and priority was given to India’s ‘Make in India’ programme. PM Modi said that Russia has been India’s foremost defence partner for decades and will remain so. There are various other defence products where India wants to crack a deal with Russia. For an instance let’s take an example of Russian Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA) i.e., Sukhoi/Hal jets was signed after a delay of many years to buy 12 of these fighter planes. The Indian Air Force is in the process of acquiring 114 multi-role jets from Russia. If signed, it will be a deal of 1.3 trillion Rupees.

In November 2017, the Brahmos missile, developed by the Indo-Russian joint venture Brahmos Aerospace, was successfully test-fired for the first time from a Su-30. As a result of that, India became one of the few countries in the world capable of launching a supersonic cruise missile from a jet. Even though India is doing defence deals with various other countries, like Israel and France, its dependence on Moscow is likely to remain for the coming decades. India signed a deal with Russia in 2018 to buy 5 Surface to Air Missile system i.e., S 400 to enhance its defence with this advanced missile system. The major reason why India deals with Russia first then any other country for its defence needs is the technological built of the Russian arsenals with a cost less than what others can offer and a technology which is contemporary.

In 2017, CAATSA (Countering America’s Adversaries through Sanctions Act) came into existence which deterred countries from buying Russian weapon systems. China and Turkey had already faced sanctions under CAATSA for buying the Russian S 400 system and India feared it would face the same. India made it very clear that they have had continuous relations with Russia, including defence procurement, which have endured for years and dismissing CAATSA as a US law not a UN law. India has had US defence agreements and Indo-Pacific brings it much closer and a sanction right now will affect the greater bilateral relationship between India and the US. India already has BECA (Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement), COMCASA (Communications, Compatibility and Security Arrangement), LEMOA (Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreements), ISA (Industrial Security Agreements) with the US, and putting up sanctions could affect these agreements. The US greatly needs India for its emergence in the Indo-Pacific region as this region of the world is going to be signifcant site of ‘geo political competition’ in the coming decades.

Stimson Center in its report said, “The United States should either issue India an enduring waiver or apply very light, symbolic sanctions once, with sufficient forewarning and dialogue with Indian leadership to mitigate political repercussions”. Areas such as Research & Development through institutional partnerships and talent exchange flows that could fill US demands for STEM talent and boost India’s economy. The US and India could also partner to form strategic Tech Alliance. According to the Stimson Center, a joint deployment of Surveillance Towed Sensor Systems in the Bay of Bengal could also help in the building the US existence and given India a security perspective. There are huge speculations that whether India will get a waiver on CAATSA sanctions or not but there is a possibility because if a country is cooperating with the United States on its matters of its strategic national security interests, the President of the US can furnish a waiver. There could be export sanctions, cancellations of loans from the US and other financial institutions, visa and travel bans, etc.

The US is India’s largest single-country trade, investment and technology partner. Both countries are an important part of the Indo-Pacific and QUAD. India’s diaspora makes a community of 4 million and 2 lakhs of Indian students studying in the US. If not for the strength of the Indian diaspora in the US, the Civil Nuclear Deal would have never gotten approval by the US, where 94 out of 100 senators backed the deal. The recent war in Ukraine has made India think again of its dependence on Moscow for its military needs but still, the Indian government seems to be clear about its position to avoid deterioration of its relations with Russia in the current scenario when there is a Chinese standoff at the doorsteps.

*The Kautilya School of Public Policy (KSPP) takes no institutional positions. The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author(s) and do not reflect the views or positions of KSPP.