In the past five years, India accounted for 11% of global arms imports — more than any other country — and nearly half of them came from one source: Russia.
India buys everything from Russian armored tanks to rifles to surface-to-air missile systems.
The Indian navy’s flagship aircraft carrier, the INS Vikramaditya, is a refurbished, Soviet-era warship. Also, Russian-origin fighter jets like the Sukhoi Su-30MKI make up a significant portion of the Indian air force fleet.
For decades, India has depended on Russia for its weapons supply. It's the cornerstone of the two countries' ties, which go back to the Cold War. But the dependence can also be a liability, as New Delhi has found out in recent weeks.
In March, the Indian Air Force informed the country’s parliament that a major delivery of Russian weapons systems had fallen through because of the war in Ukraine.
Ever since it began its invasion of Ukraine, Russia has limited its arms exports in an attempt to prioritize supplying its own armed forces. Now, India is staring at an indefinite wait for critical supplies, including the S-400 Triumf air defense system.
“The mainstay of the relationship itself is beginning to crumble,” said Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan, director of the Centre for Security, Strategy and Technology (CSST) at the Delhi-based think tank Observer Research Foundation. “This will also put into question the feasibility of maintaining that relationship in the longer term.”
India’s dependence on Russian weapons also came up this week during Ukraine’s Deputy Foreign Minister Emine Dzhaparova’s visit to New Delhi.
“We only think it is crucial to diversify all of the resources, not only energy, but also military resources,” Dzhaparova told reporters. “When you are dependent [on] Russia, they always use this blackmail instrument.”
Over the past year, India has been walking a diplomatic tightrope between Russia and the West. While Prime Minister Narendra Modi has called for an end to the fighting in Ukraine, he has not criticized Russian President Vladimir Putin.
India has also abstained from voting in several United Nations resolutions condemning Russia.
“India was concerned that if India took a sort of adversarial position, or called out Russia by name, Russia would stop the supplies [of weapons] or Russia would not give out the spares or Russia would delay the maintenance,” Rajagopalan said.
To complicate matters further for India, Moscow has been getting closer to Beijing, New Delhi’s biggest rival. In March, Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Moscow, and some military experts suggest China is also supplying military equipment to Russia, although Beijing denies the claim.
As China emerges as Russia’s strongest partner, Indian policymakers may be reassessing Russia’s reliability, said Rajan Menon, director of the Grand Strategy Program at Defense Priorities, a Washington, DC-based think tank, and a scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
But Menon said he doesn’t expect India to abandon its ties with Russia altogether.
“India simply cannot afford to burn bridges with Russia, nor does it need to because of the Russia-China alignment,” he said. “It's in India’s interest to have a strong relationship with Russia.”
Russia and China’s relationship may be making India uncomfortable, but despite the national security implications, Rajagopalan said that New Delhi will want to keep Moscow close.
“Russia is getting closer to China. Unless we stay close to Russia and not isolate them, not abandon them, Russia will grow even further closer to China. We need to avoid that. I think that will still be the argument that you will hear on the Indian side,” Rajagopalan said.
At a conference in March, India’s foreign minister, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, echoed that sentiment: “India-Russia relations have remained extraordinarily stable. And I put it to you there is a deeper underlying convergence, a geopolitical convergence.”
The convergence dates back to the early years of the Cold War when Moscow emerged as the main supplier of weapons to New Delhi while the United States was backing India’s rival Pakistan.
“There's an entire cadre of people in the Indian political leadership and the foreign policy establishment that have memories of how reliable a partner Russia has been,” Menon said.
But at the same time, he said, India has also been moving closer to the West.
“The relationship with the US has transformed enormously. India has participated, for some years now, in a multilateral naval exercise, along with Australia, the US, Japan and East Asia,” Menon said.
All this shows, he said, that India is adjusting to new geopolitical circumstances.
“India will kind of play a balanced role between Russia and the West and will not put itself in a position where it'll be forced to make a choice,” Menon said, adding that such a position can also be advantageous for India.
“It can navigate between the two. It increases India's leverage and influence.”
On the defense front, the Ukraine war has been a reality check for India, Rajagopalan said. Long delays in getting vital defense supplies could leave India in a vulnerable position against neighbors like China.
India and China have been engaged in a standoff over their disputed border in the Himalayas. In 2020, tensions reached a boiling point when a violent scuffle broke out along the unmarked border and 20 Indian soldiers were killed.
“India is in the middle of an active conflict with China, and we need weapons systems and various platforms to defend against China,” Rajagopalan said. “I think this really would call for some introspection in terms of how India needs to have a fresh review of its defense capability acquisition, whether Russia would continue to be a reliable player or not.”
India had already been trying to reduce its dependence on Russian weapons. Its defense imports from Russia are down to 45% from 85% during the Soviet era, Menon said.
Russian weapons in India’s military are being replaced by equipment from new players like Israel, France and the US. The recent disruption in Russian supplies will only quicken the pace of India’s defense diversification, Pillai said.
India is also ramping up domestic manufacturing of weapons, although, Menon said, it has a long way to go to become anywhere near self-sufficient.
As India and Russia’s defense partnership erodes, the relationship itself is evolving, Menon said.
“This is a relationship that was very predictable in the Cold War. It's evolving in a different direction, but it's not evolving towards some irreparable breach between New Delhi and Moscow,” Menon said.
And that evolution is already palpable, India’s foreign minister, Jaishankar, has suggested.
“As a result of the Ukraine conflict, Russia will turn more towards Asia,” he said in March. “One part of that, a big part of that, will actually be visible in India-Russia relations, and that is already visible actually in trade.”
In the past year, trade between India and Russia has broken previous records and India has emerged as one of the largest buyers of heavily discounted Russian crude oil.
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