It is difficult to call into question the character of Russian-Indian relations that have withstood the test of the time, to use a cliché. The strategic value of this relationship has remained immutable both in the bipolar period of the Cold War and the global order that has been formed since then.
There is nothing to suggest anything different as a result of changes in the world order whether it’s the predicted return to bloc mentality with a couple of new antagonistic superpowers or any other configuration. Remote geographical location is a constant characteristic that eliminates at least one of the most serious risks, while the emergence of other fundamental differences seem unlikely. Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to take the current level of bilateral ties for granted without taking into account the changing conditions in the world. Well-established military-technical cooperation (MTC) is a good place to start as there is still a lot that can be achieved in this respect.
On May 15, the Valdai Discussion Club held a webinar on Russian-Indian relations
in partnership with the Observer Research Foundation (ORF). The participants focused on global issues including urgent issues like the growing confrontation between China and the US, as well as the COVID-19 pandemic and its potential consequences.
The general approach that Russia and India must take against the backdrop of a mounting conflict between China and the US could be summed up as follows: they must maintain a balance and avoid being heavily involved with either side. A justifiable question was raised in this context: can nuclear powers be involved in a conflict against their will? This question requires a separate theoretical analysis that goes beyond this discussion.
Diametrically opposite views were expressed on the impact of the pandemic on Russian-Indian relations. According to one, the coronavirus will not lead to serious changes in bilateral ties and will only provide an impetus for domestic reform, like upgrading healthcare systems. According to the other view, the pandemic will directly affect relations between Russia and India and will compel them to concentrate on the least developed areas of cooperation. Only time will tell which forecast is more realistic.
As for Russian-Indian relations, analysts unanimously see MTC as the primary area for cooperation, but they also suggest that the two countries need to develop other areas as well. The most promising areas mentioned were IT, education, production of medical equipment and medications and infrastructure projects.
It is hard not to agree with these views even as MTC issues have long been common in discussions of bilateral ties. However, there are still many assumptions surrounding this issue.
Some months back, the media and expert publications broadly presented the view that Russia was losing or had already lost the Indian arms market. Some claim that Russia was pushed out as a leading supplier by the United States and France. Indeed, from 2013 to the autumn of 2018, Russian-Indian MTC was stagnant; they had not concluded any major contracts. Moreover, Moscow had lost a number of financially and strategically important tenders. However, these facts do not justify categorical conclusions. They are based on incomplete assumptions and misapprehensions regarding world trade in arms in general and the Indian market in particular.
One of the widespread misconceptions is that the arms market is developing in a linear fashion. This is certainly not the case. Each state has its own cycles of rearmament that depend on the current requirements in military hardware and the financial capability to meet them. At the same time, practice shows that even one major contract can change a trend that seemed stable and traditional. This is what happened in Russian-Indian cooperation in October 2018 when they signed the biggest contract in the history of bilateral cooperation. It included supplying India with five regiments of S-400 Triumph air defense missiles worth over $5 billion. Later, Russia and India signed several new important agreements. Their successful implementation will help Russia restore its status quo which had been upset in the previous six years.
The next assumption concerns the political implications of MTC, whereby India is viewed only as an arena for the clash of interests between the great powers that are using arms exports as a tool for expanding their influence in the region. However, discussing MTC in this context deprives India of its identity and independence in decision-making on arms purchases, which is not quite the case. New Delhi has purposefully been diversifying its arms suppliers since at least the late 1970s. The main goal is to minimise the political and technical risk of dependence on one supplier. In addition, India gets access to the best weapons in the market. As a result, and owing to the openness of the Indian market, competition is developing naturally and the share of a single supplier is decreasing.
Another assumption suggests that a reduction in arms supplies is described as a decline in bilateral MTC. But intangible variables like trust and complementarity of interests play an important role beyond simple quantities. Importantly, in diversifying its suppliers India is striving to develop its own defence industry and move towards new formats of cooperation: licensed production, and joint development and manufacturing, and the sale of military equipment. India is eager to replace the seller-buyer pattern with a cooperative model and this transition is revealed most clearly in its cooperation with Russia.
Returning to a global context, it is necessary to point out variables that can negatively affect the dynamics of Russian-Indian MTC. One variable is the Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) that was signed into law in the US in 2017.
Even though India has managed to temporarily avoid the restrictions of this law, as distinct from China and Turkey, the US continues using the threat of imposing restrictions to pressure New Delhi and convince Indian leaders of the need to gradually reduce arms imports from Russia. Naturally, the coronavirus pandemic or the economic crisis it has caused are bound to affect the situation. Obviously, due to budget limitations India will have to cancel a number of military programmes and divert funding from foreign arms and combat hardware suppliers to local companies during the crisis. Thus, the first batch of French Dassault Rafale fighters for the Indian Air Force that was scheduled for this May, has been delayed for at least three months. Deadlines for implementing agreements with Russia are also likely to be suspended. In addition, the Indian government may adopt new rules for defence purchases with more emphasis on domestic production of arms and combat hardware.
At the same time, a window of opportunities on joint projects is opening up before Russia and India, in part, those based on the Defence Industrial Corridors that were recently established in the Indian states of Uttar Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. One of these projects was launched on March 3, 2019 with the opening of the Indo-Russia Rifles company in the Amethi district of Uttar Pradesh. It will manufacture AK-203 Kalashnikov rifles for a 7.62×39mm cartridge. As a country that is open to transferring technology to India, Russia is gaining a certain competitive advantage in this respect.
Thus, Russian-Indian relations are not likely to undergo major changes in the foreseeable future. However, to create a safety net for countering new threats, such as another pandemic or some other unpredictable event, they need to diversify their relations both through MTC and beyond it.