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Russia and India: a split in the 21-th century

In recent years, the volume of previously active arms trade between Russia and India has decreased. Can the situation change?

A very small number of countries can boast of a partnership as long as the cooperation between Russia and India, which continues from the 60-ies of the last century. About half a century, Russia was the main importer of military goods for New Delhi. Strictly speaking, trade in this sphere became the main reason for such close strategic relations between the two states, especially in the years following the end of the Cold War. However, at the moment the share of Russian military goods in the import of arms to India is constantly decreasing. Thanks to the increased geopolitical status and the restoration of strategic relations with the United States, New Delhi found new partners in the West. And that aspect of bilateral relations, which once was decisive, now threatens to become a heavy burden for both countries.

Russia and India: a split in the 21-th century

These changes have been happening for about a decade, and their beginning can be called the Nuclear Agreement between India and the United States. Continuation of the "strategic partnership" with India is perhaps the longest surviving legacy of George W. Bush's foreign policy. Against the backdrop of growing religious extremism in South Asia, the Bush administration was convinced that India could become the anchor of political stability in the region. Being confident that the geopolitical interests of countries coincide, the United States pursued a policy that elevated India to the status of a strategic ally. It was the complete opposite of the decades-old policy of nuclear non-proliferation, and its highest point was the signing of the Nuclear Agreement in 2005. Restoring strategic relations with America has become a watershed in India's relations with other countries in the field of defense. Sanctions have been lifted from many Indian enterprises that produce military goods, and the gradual weakening of control over high-tech exports began.

Foreign defense and aerospace companies were able to expand their access to the Indian market, and since then the volume of trade in the military sphere between Israel and India reached 10 billion dollars, and trade relations between India and the US exceeded the amount of 9 billion dollars. All this adversely affected the trade with Russia in the field of armaments. Despite serious figures in absolute terms, the share of the Russian Federation in the supply of weapons to India will decline, at least in the near future. In recent years, the Kremlin has not used the opportunity to sign a considerable number of large defensive contracts for export to India. This list includes, among others, the seven billionth contract for the supply of 36 multifunctional combat aircraft (signed with France), the contract for the purchase of ten C-17 Globemaster-III strategic cargo aircraft (signed with the USA) totaling $ 4.1 billion and a contract for the purchase of eight P-81 naval patrol aircraft (also concluded with the United States) worth 2,1 billion dollars.

At the moment, Russia's defense industry maintains close ties with India due to the implementation of contracts that have already been concluded. With the exception of the 11-billion contract for the joint development and design of a fifth-generation fighter, India has no specific plans to buy Russian arms. And despite the fact that Russia takes part in various military tenders in India, open to foreign companies, it is not a favorite in any of them. Airbus A330 MRTT European Aerospace and Defense Concern turned out to be more interesting than the Russian IL-78 in the course of a tender for the purchase of six airfields for the Indian Air Force for one billion dollars. As for helicopters, Russian platforms were also less in demand than AH-64 Apache and CH-47F of Boeing in the categories of combat and cargo helicopters, respectively. Thus, after fulfilling the contracts concluded in previous years, there is a significant risk that Russia will lose its serious role in the Indian defense industry, forged for decades.


Already, clouds are gathering on the horizon: all signs indicate that Russia has transferred bilateral military-technical relations to a lower level, and India has become an exclusive partner only as the preferred partner. Such pragmatism should not come as a surprise, as New Delhi, in turn, diversified its own arms imports and no longer sees Russia as an exclusive trading partner. Attempts to export military goods to Pakistan from Russia are becoming more noticeable. A notable development in this regard was the recent decision to supply combat helicopters Mi-35 Hind to Pakistan. Before that, Russia refrained from supplying lethal weapons to Pakistan, taking into account the strained relations between New Delhi and Islamabad - such exclusivity in the Indian-Russian relationship is the legacy of the treaty of friendship, cooperation and peace signed in 1971. As a result, the deal with Pakistan caught many experts unawares, some, in particular Pavel Felgenhauer, called it "a key change in Russia's policy in the region." Realizing the intricacies of the region's politics, Russian diplomats acted quickly, perhaps too quickly, stressing that the talks are part of "continuing cooperation with Pakistan in the field of defense and countering terrorism." Nevertheless, Moscow's change of position on this issue may signal a revision of the policy on the supply of arms to the region.

This is a very significant change, and their reason is that the employee of the Institute for Defense Studies and Analysis, Giantsna Bakshi, described as "insurmountable" for Russia the need to sell weapons. One of the most important problems caused by the collapse of the USSR was the distribution of external public debt and state assets among the countries formed on its territory. Russia inherited a huge military-industrial complex, which included 1600 enterprises, where about 2 million employees worked. Now this number has grown to 2,5-3 million, which is 20% of the total number of people employed in production throughout the country. Nevertheless, the Russian economy has ceased to be healthy enough to support the expanded military-industrial complex. Defense spending in relation to GDP for the last three years, preceding the collapse of the Soviet Union, averaged 14,1%, compared to 3,8% of GDP from 1992 in 2013. In order to compensate for the deficit in defense spending and maintain the growth in efficiency from the increase in production in order to support the resource-hungry defensive industry along with R & D, Russia increasingly relied on arms exports. As Bakshi points out, former Deputy Prime Minister of the Russian Federation Ilya Klebanov once said that the export of military goods is "a lifeblood for our military industry because the defense budget is very small, and there are also few orders from the state." Thus, in addition to developing strategic interaction with other countries, Russia's sale of arms to foreign partners is motivated by the need to subsidize the defense industry in this way. Most likely, the decision to restore the export of military goods to Pakistan and other countries is highly motivated by the economic need to maintain a high volume of military exports.

The recent expansion of Sino-Russian military cooperation also did not go unnoticed in India. By selling modern Su-35 fighters to China, Russia, perhaps, independently creates a conflict of interests. With each sale of weapons to China, Russian weapons become less interesting in the Indian market; This primarily relates to the aerospace sector, since the bulk of the Indian Air Force fleet consists of Russian-imported aircraft. Some experts believe that the configuration of equipment and machinery supplied to India is more complete than the analogues supplied to China, but this statement is difficult to verify, since the aircraft and equipment of those modifications that are delivered to China do not enter the Indian market either For evaluation, nor for testing. However, the fact remains that New Delhi has the opportunity to purchase military equipment from alternative suppliers, primarily those that guarantee competitive advantages compared to analogues supplied to China.

The Chinese defense industry is known for doing "reverse engineering" of military equipment of imported models and already managed to annoy Russia in the past when, after purchasing a small amount of Su-27, it launched a similar J-11B. For comparison, the Indian-Russian trade does not have such a dubious past. If the dubious practice of China's "reverse engineering" and a highly developed industrial base played a role in Russia's decision to make arms transfers, India would be a much more convenient partner for long-term trade in defense products. Looking to the future, one can expect a period of disagreement until India and Russia adjust to the "real politics" of the present time.

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