India-Russia ties: Strategic cooperation to transactional relationship

The attention of the nation is focussed on President Obama’s visit as the chief guest for this year’s Republic Day parade since the announcement was made. In the bargain, the recent visit by President Vladimir Putin of Russia has not been given the importance it merits.

President Putin met with Prime Minister Narendra Modi in December 2014 for the 15th India-Russia annual summit, a relationship that has been described as a “special and privileged” strategic partnership since it was signed in 2000. 

India’s new policy to diversify its sources of defence procurement, especially its reliance on Western weapons platforms, has not been appreciated by Russia and the relationship has deteriorated into a transactional rather than a strategic one.

The erstwhile Soviet Union and its successor state Russia had stood by India on Jammu and Kashmir over several difficult decades. One-sided UN Security Council resolutions on J&K were vetoed by the Russians many times. 

The Indo-Soviet treaty of “peace, friendship and cooperation”, signed before the 1971 War with Pakistan, stood India in good stead. Though the agreement was not a military alliance, India was perceived by the US and its Western allies to have joined the Soviet camp. 

In its foreign policy, India has not lagged behind in supporting Soviet or Russian positions. The Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in December 1979. India was privately opposed to the ill-conceived intervention as it brought the Cold War to India’s neighbourhood, but opted not to condemn the invasion publicly. Similarly, India is closer to the Russian position on Iran’s violation of its NPT commitments than to the US approach of imposing sanctions and holding out military threats. 

The collapse of the Soviet Union in December 1991 and the consequent end of the Cold War led to the emergence of a unipolar world order with the US as the sole super power. In the mid-1990s, Boris Yeltsin’s Russia and Jiang Zemin’s China repeatedly made joint statements favouring a “multipolar world,” while denouncing “unipolar domination”.

In the prevailing era of strategic uncertainty, Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov floated idea of China-India-Russia “strategic triangle” in December 1998. China was disinterested and India’s stand was one of ambivalence.

China had opened up to the US and was building a strong business relationship. It was following Deng Xiao Ping’s doctrine of “strategic patience”, expressed in the “22-character” strategy: Hide your capacity, bide your time…” China gradually began to integrate itself with the global economy under the cloak of its self-proclaimed “peaceful rise”. 

However, China simultaneously launched a large-scale drive for military modernisation and, combined with its recent assertiveness, this made its Asian neighbours wary of its growing power and influence. Some of them see the US as a declining power and have begun to hedge their bets.

Russia has been apprehensive of NATO’s creep forward policy, moves towards an enlarged European Union, the planned forward deployment of ballistic missiles defence – ostensibly aimed at Iran but of equal effectiveness against Russian nuclear-tipped missiles, and the pro-active wooing of erstwhile Soviet states like Ukraine. 

The era of “Cold Peace” has dawned over Eastern Europe and Putin’s Russia has begun to gradually drift towards China. However, it is a relationship on the rebound and remains unrequited. Due to Russia’s apprehension about China’s military assertiveness, the China-Russia strategic partnership is unlikely to gather momentum despite the US “pivot” or strategy of re-balancing to the Indo-Pacific.

Defence technology cooperation
India’s acquisition of weapons and defence equipment from Russia has been the most enduring part of the India-Russia strategic partnership. Almost 60 to 70 per cent of India’s defence imports are still sourced from Russia. Russia offered strategic technologies to India when India was being subjected to technology denial regimes. Civil nuclear cooperation between the two countries has a long history. Russia gave India nuclear submarines on lease and provided assistance for the development of the cryogenic rocket engine.

State-of-the-art fighter-bombers, including the MiG-25 strategic reconnaissance aircraft, were sold to India. The two countries cooperated on the Russian GPS satellite system GLONASS. The Russians had offered India the 300/S-300V BMD system way back in the mid-1990s. During the December 2014 summit meeting, it was agreed that Russia will supply 12 nuclear power reactors over the next 20 years. Russia also supports India’s quest for membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG)and the other related groups.

The Soviet Union sold hi-tech weapons and defence equipment to India at “friendship prices” and on the basis of barter trade as India did not have sufficient foreign exchange reserves. However, it remained a buyer-seller, patron-client relationship. While fighter aircraft and tanks were manufactured under licence in India, no transfer of technology (ToT) ever took place and India’s defence technology base remained low. The coproduction of the BrahMos supersonic cruise missile is the only example of a successful joint venture.

The decline of Russia’s defence industry after the collapse of the Soviet Union had an adverse impact on India’s defence procurement. Defence production from Russia declined by almost 90 per cent in five years. India found it difficult to obtain spare parts, get its equipment overhauled and seek upgrades. There were unacceptable time and cost overruns in executing pending orders. The five-year delay and the three-fold cost escalation of INS Vikramaditya (Admiral Gorshkov) aircraft carrier is a typical example.

Though these challenges are gradually being overcome, the Russian defence industry has fallen behind the West in the development of cutting-edge weapons technologies. Future defence technology cooperation will be undertaken in keeping with Prime Minister Modi’s push to “make in India” with Russian help will need to demonstrate their competitiveness and enter into JVs with Indian public and private sector companies to bid for future contracts.