India-Russia Relations

Spearhead Analysis – 03.04.2018

By Shirin Naseer
Senior Research Analyst, Spearhead Research

In February this year, Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, while addressing a press conference with his Pakistani counterpart Khawaja Asif, said: “We have confirmed Russia’s readiness to continue boosting Pakistan’s counter-terrorism capacity, which is in the entire region’s interests.” Russia and Pakistan also agreed to form a commission for military cooperation during Khawaja Asif’s four-day trip to Moscow. This trip was of particular interest to New Delhi, especially since for many observers Moscow offering to help increase Pakistan’s anti-terror capabilities meant it may now be providing arms to Islamabad—a possibility that is likely to make India quite uncomfortable.

India’s growing uneasiness with Pakistan-Russia closeness has been getting more and more apparent in recent months. It may have however worsened with Asif’s trip.

Earlier in February, Dr. Jumma Marri Baloch– a rebel leader from the Baluchistan province of Pakistan who had been in exile in Moscow– in an interview with the Russian media renounced his decades-long campaign against Pakistan. Marri Baloch in this interview instead blamed India for “hijacking the indigenous Baloch revolt”. He has for a long time now been one of the leading figures in the free-Baluchistan-from-Pakistan movement. In fact, according to reports Marri Baloch designed the flag for the “free Balochistan” separatist movement. With the February interview, however it now seems as though he has switched sides.

Amidst these developments, it is important to take into consideration whether a realigning of India-Russia relations may be in order. 

After the US slapped economic sanctions on Russia, its economy has been struggling to maintain its stability. This is partly why Russia has been working to improve relations with China. Since the Russia-China border dispute settled in 2004, bilateral relations with a rising and much wealthier China have been steadily improving. Meanwhile, India-China relations have not had the same luck. Not only is India incredibly wary of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s flagship Belt and Road Initiatives (BRI) but India’s relations with China are also affected by China’s continued economic, diplomatic, and military support for Pakistan, India’s arch rival.

It is then understandable how India may be tilting more in favor of strengthening its alliance with the US; Moscow may not be as dependable a partner in case India runs into problems with China.  

Regardless, India and Russia have been consistent in their efforts to develop and improve bilateral trade ties. Unfortunately, one-way trade of armaments has been the only major economic activity between the two; Russia is the largest supplier of Indian arms in the world.

Recently however, Moscow has expressed its disappointment as India has taken steps to diversify and begun looking to the United States and Israel for the purchase of its weapons. Russia did show some willingness to compete with Europe and the US for Indian arms contracts back in 2010.

During President Dmitry Medvedev visit to India, Medvedev was quoted as saying, “We are ready to compete. But it’s important that all contracts are transparent and follow the rules.”

Yet, some Russian officials have also chastised India for its procurement methods in the past.

According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, between the years 2012 and 2016, compared to the 14 percent of weapons imports from America and 8 percent from Israel, Russia supplied India with 68 percent of weapons imports. Consequently, despite competition from other states Russia continues to be the most important supplier of arms for India.

Moreover, progress on the co-development and production of the Sukhoi/HAL Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA), one of the most high-profile joint Indo-Russian defense projects, also has come to a halt due to New Delhi’s concerns regarding the project, which have so far ranged from inadequate work share to lack of technology transfer. According to reports, the Indian Air Force (IAF) has labeled the project as simply too costly to continue with. 

Irrespective of all these concerns New Delhi, while too far from becoming self-sufficient, is likely to remain the biggest market for Russian arms. Russia has played an important role in the success of the BrahMos cruise missile and nuclear submarines in India. It is important for New Delhi to perhaps reconsider its plans for expanding dependence on the US and more specifically, owing to President Trump’s eccentricities and mercurial personality, the Trump administration, considering that a quick policy change could potentially put at risk India’s defense preparedness in the future. In case of Russia too it is important to take into account that China has been decreasing its imports of Russian arms; if the Indian market is lost to Russia, it will certainly hurt the Russian industry—Pakistan’s much smaller and weaker economy can in no way fill the gap even if Islamabad were to consider buying more arms from Russia.