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India-Russia Talks: US & China May Be the Elephants in the Room

India may seek clarity on the China-Russia relationship, while the Russians will want to know about Indo-US ties.

Updated
Opinion
5 min read
<div class="paragraphs"><p>Russian President Vladimir Putin will visit India on 6 December.&nbsp;</p></div>
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On Monday, Russian President Vladimir Putin is expected to make landfall in New Delhi for the 21st annual India-Russia summit. This will coincide with the first “two-plus-two” dialogue between their respective foreign and defence ministers patterned on a similar exercise that India has had with the United States since 2018.

This will, therefore, not be your usual summit between the two leaders, but an in-depth strategic dialogue between the two countries featuring key areas of foreign and defence policies. In the current context, besides issues relating to Russia and India, the two sides are likely to take up the developments in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran. India would seek greater clarity on the China-Russia relationship, while the Russians will, no doubt, want to get a clearer idea of the Indo-US interaction.

It is not clear whether New Delhi would like to broach the issue of Russian intentions towards Ukraine. Last month, Prime Minister Modi met President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine on the sidelines of the COP26 summit in Glasgow.

The US and western sources are alleging that Russia has imminent plans to attack Ukraine. Should that happen, it would be a tectonic event and New Delhi may find itself in an extremely awkward place between Moscow and Washington DC.

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India & Russia Still Enjoy An Identity of Views

The last annual summit took place when Prime Minister Modi visited Vladivostok in September 2019 and last year’s summit was postponed because of COVID-19. But the two leaders have had six telephone calls since the last meeting and also participated in various multilateral summits.

We are living in an era of global churning where old alliances are weakening and new emerging. But if there has been a constant of sorts, it has been the Russia-India relationship. No doubt, since the mid-2000s, as India has grown closer to the US and China to Russia, the texture of the relationship has changed.

But even now, there is an identity of views between them which doesn’t necessarily have to do with friendship, but with our respective national interests. In other words, what continues to bind us is self-interest, which somehow sees us on the same side of a number of global issues.

Indeed, when you look at trade, our ties are thin. Bilateral trade in 2019-20 was about $10 billion. Somehow, we have not been able to do justice to the potential that exists. The ambitious multimodal International North-South Transportation Corridor (INSTC), in its own way as important as the China-Europe rail corridor, has not been able to take off because of the faltering economies of India, Iran and Russia.

In the case of India, mismanagement has resulted in economic decline, but energy-rich Russia and Iran have been hit by western sanctions, the former on account of the Crimean invasion, and the latter because of its nuclear programme.

A Flourishing Arms Trade

But India has a flourishing arms trade with Russia, which goes back to the 1960s. The Russians have twice supplied us our key fighter aircraft — Mig-21s in the 1960s and the Sukhoi 30 MKI in the 1990s. They have also supplied us with submarines, frigates, destroyers, Main Battle Tanks, infantry combat vehicles, artillery, air defence missiles and so on. Even if we terminate our trade with them today, we will still be dependent on them for spare parts and components till the 2040s.

Leave alone ending, India is enhancing its defence dealings with Russia. The most visible sign of this is the S-400 Triumf surface-to-air missile system, of which India is acquiring five squadrons for the price of nearly $6 billion. India also plans a 10-year lease on another Akula nuclear-powered attack submarine for $3 billion even as it gets into building its own.

There are also other items on the agenda, like the acquisitions of short-range air defence missiles (shorads) and the IGLA-S, which is essentially an upgrade of the existing IGLA that the Army has. Another significant project is for the manufacture of 600,000 AK-203 Kalashnikov assault rifles.

However, a major project for manufacturing 200 twin-engined Kamov 226T light helicopters to replace the Cheetah and Chetak helicopters of the Air Force and the Army seems to be stuck at the technical evaluation stage.

Besides these, there are also projects to enhance and upgrade existing Russian equipment with India. As part of this, New Delhi will acquire 21 mothballed Mig-29s and also further upgrade 59 existing aircraft in its service. In addition, 12 more Sukhois will be provided with better electronic warfare capabilities.

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None Will Abandon Their Strategic Autonomy

The Indians are also likely to sign a logistics exchange agreement with the Russians, comparable to the LEMOA they signed with the US in 2016. This will enable India to quickly access certain supplies and equipment when faced with an emergency.

And then there are secretive strategic projects like the Brahmos-2, which is a ramjet-powered hypersonic cruise missile. This will be based on the Russian Zircon, which was revealed by Putin in February 2019. It has just completed its final tests. This missile can be used against both land and sea targets. In his remarks announcing the tests last month, Putin noted that “hypersonic systems, high powered lasers and robotic systems” are being developed to counter adversaries.

You can be sure that when India goes to look for such technologies, Moscow will be its first port of call. Another area where India will seek Russian help is in the development of its own nuclear-powered attack submarines, Project 75A.

In any dialogue between India and Russia, there will be two elephants in the room—the US and China. India has been developing strategic ties with the U.S. since the mid-2000s and the Russians have taken up with the Chinese in the last decade.

There was a time till the Sukhoi purchase that the Russians would offer cutting edge military technology first to India and then its other partners. A measure of the shift has been the fact that the Chinese got its S-400 batteries before India.

In turn, New Delhi has sharply enhanced its ties with the US, inking defence deals worth over $21 billion since 2007, as well as signing the four foundational agreements that will enhance the interoperability of their militaries.

But both India and Russia have signalled that they are committed to the multi-polar world order and have no intention of abandoning their strategic autonomy. One of the more important issues that will be on the front burner during the Putin visit will be coordination on an effective Afghanistan policy. Both New Delhi and Moscow are alarmed at the current developments, where the Haqqani group, which is very close to Pakistan, has emerged as the de facto Taliban government.

(The writer is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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