Russia Is Important to India – So is Ukraine. Can It strike a Balance?

In the upcoming talks with Russia, India will have to consider its dependence on Ukraine, too.

5 min read
Hindi Female

The Russians are coming, and it has got everyone into a tizzy. After all, Moscow is in the news for amassing troops along the Ukrainian border, and threats and counter-threats are flying fast and furious from Washington to Moscow and back. While the red carpet is being rolled out in Delhi for the visiting President, the threat of sanctions also hangs in the air, as Washington remains dead against India buying the S-400, the air and missile defence system that is to be the high point of the summit. There are barriers ahead, in a global and regional situation, which resembles nothing more than a bowl of sticky rice and noodles.


Skirting the Barriers

For India, Russia remains a steady and reliable defence source; steady because all three services are heavily dependent on Russia for equipment and spares; reliable because Moscow provides quickly and surely when the enemy is at the gates – like the emergency buys of 70,000 AK’s and air defence Igla systems – without political actors making a song and a dance out of it. But the extent of dependency is rather startling. A report notes that 71 per cent of the Indian Air Force’s (IAF) fighter ground attack fleet is Russian, as is Indian navy’s sole aircraft carrier and its complement of aircraft.

A similar situation prevails in the Army in terms of its MBT’s (Main battle tanks). But here’s a useful fact. Russia is still the second-largest arms exporter in the world, and India account’s for some 23 per cent of its exports. But India’s imports have reduced 33 per cent, which is nice for everyone, because that is one of the clauses that could enable Washington to issue a waiver of sanctions arising from CAATSA (Countering America’s Adversaries through Sanctions Act 2017), aimed at preventing anyone from buying Russian arms. A waiver can be issued if the country proves that it has reduced its dependency on Moscow. And India certainly has.


Reducing the Dependency – For a While

Imports have reduced to an extent by shifting to licensed production in India, and in recent years, insistence on technology transfer. Heavyweight projects like the Brahmos missile and the Su-30MK are both produced under licence. Then there are the T-90 tanks, which are being produced with a technology transfer, reported to have cost some $1.2 billion. The cherry on top is a $3 bn lease of a nuclear-powered submarine, a smart move by the Indian Navy in its search for a reliable deterrent against Chinese incursions. A second such lease may be in the offing.

The summit itself will see the go-ahead for the production of the AK-203 in India, which also involves a welcome transfer of technology, given the less-than-stellar performance of our Ordnance Factories. That deal took nearly two years to come through.

There’s more. The deal for joint production of the KA-226, first signed in 2015, was delayed for six years as the Hindustan Aeronautics put up its own candidate in the Light Utility Helicopter. With an urgent need for some 350 airframes to replace its ageing fleet, this deal may also materialise during the summit.


Russian Military Industry Woes

All this is big money for a Russian Defence industrial complex in serious trouble, with the President writing off a reported $11bn debt of a total of some $36 bn. That’s serious stuff. That also means Russian industry has had to stint on R&D . Unless heavily funded, the undoubted prowess of the Russian mil-industry will start fading, and soon.

That means that the state-of-the-art technology now available (and from Russia alone) may not sustain. It also means that Russia is selling to anyone who is willing to buy. That’s a problem for India, since China, and Pakistan are customers.

Pakistan is a small-time buyer; China accounts for 18 per cent of Russian exports. Meanwhile, it is shifting rapidly towards making its own arsenal. And the pathway to that is Ukraine.

Russia, Ukraine India – and China

While Ukraine is in the news for being possibly the next hot war front, few know that it was once a primary supplier and a good friend to India in the Soviet days. India remains dependent on Ukraine for gas turbines for its naval ships, which results in the rather strange situation where India orders Ukrainian engines and then sends them to Russia, as in the instance of the frigates being made in Russia’s Kaliningrad as part of a $2.5 bn deal. Ukraine also entirely owns the Antonov production lines and is responsible for periodic overhaul.

Ukraine is also responsible for the engines of most of the medium-light helicopters in the Indian fleet, including the Mi-17 and the Mi-35; Motor Sich in Ukraine is one of the worlds leading engine makers and should be India’s natural partner.


A Tough Call for India

But Moscow has been trying to sabotage such moves. There’s an additional thorn in the relationship, and that’s China. China’s Skyrizon first provided a loan to the company in its early days, and then progressively planned a takeover of the company. This was scuttled recently by a Ukrainian court on national security grounds. China has since taken Motor Sich to court. Since 1998, China has quietly stepped in to virtually take over the Ukrainian defence industry, shifting, for instance, its dependence on US engines for its ships to Ukrainian UGT 25000 gas turbine, which was then made in China and powers the new Type 055 destroyers. It purchased the Ukrainian aircraft carrier “Varyag”, which then went on to be the basis for ‘Shandong’, the first ‘indigenous’ such vessel. In other words, Ukraine has been a source for Russian technology for years. And in the war that is shaping up, India needs both. It’s a tough call.

A better relationship between Ukraine and Russia is vital for all concerned, where one strengthens the others and fights off Chinese incursions. Washington’s rage has overlooked that China is already present in Chernomorsk port since 2018, and if the past is any guide, it will be there permanently.


Time to Push Back Against China?

Russia’s determination that NATO should not push itself onto its very borders and target its very heart will not change, however much Russia is sanctioned. India needs to consider mediating a better relationship between the two. Apart from such high-level exercises, on the ground, Delhi and Moscow need to also consider ways to link R&D efforts of both, using Indian private firms to better deploy breaking technologies in defence and in energy, and industry funding major design bureaus. This could be extended to both countries.

Time to push back a little against China. A sustainable relationship also needs to be diversified. One other area that needs expansion is the renewable energy partnership with Russia, from small-scale projects to large infrastructure plans to power entire cities, given the urgent need to move away from coal as north India gasps for breath.

There’s much more, all calculated to divert Russia from China. But for that, Washington has to play ball. With Congress frothing at the mouth, there seems little chance of that happening.

(Dr Tara Kartha is a Distinguished Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies (IPCS). She tweets @kartha_tara. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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