Asia Defense | Diplomacy | South Asia

India-Russia Defense Ties Amid COVID-19

Despite kind words, cooperation, and defense ties, there are longer term difficulties in the India-Russia relationship that are unlikely to be easy to resolve. 

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India-Russia Defense Ties Amid COVID-19
Credit: Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation

The pandemic appears not to have had much impact on India-Russia relations. The relationship was showing signs of strain even before to the pandemic, mainly because both countries are drifting toward different sides in the emerging competition between the United States and China. India’s concerns about China’s behavior have made it inch closer to the U.S. and the Indo-Pacific coalition. While increasing tensions between Russia and the West appear to be driving Moscow toward a deeper partnership with Beijing. Neither side seems particularly happy with the effect of these tendencies on their bilateral relations and both have tried to insulate their ties from these larger movements. The India-Russia relationship continues to be dependent on some level of residual diplomatic empathy toward each other. Beyond this, the arms transfer relationship is the primary driver and despite the pandemic this aspect continues apace.  

The S-400 long-range air defense system is the most visible recent indicator of the arms transfer relationship. There have been some concerns about possible delays, but Indian Ambassador to Russia Bala Venkatesh Varma stated that there will be no significant delays in the supply of the S-400s. India is buying five batteries of the S-400 system in a deal worth more than $5 billion despite the threat of U.S. sanctions. That India went ahead with the system regardless of the threat of sanctions is an indicator of both India’s desire to maintain this aspect of its relationship with Russia but also India’s vulnerability to Pakistan’s missile forces. The S-400 is claimed to have some level of anti-ballistic capability.

In addition, Russia recently offered India three more Kilo-class submarines. These refurbished Kilos will join the nine other Kilo-class submarines in the Indian Navy. This should be welcome because India has just 15 submarines, according to the latest Military Balance published by the IISS, against a projected requirement of 24. India’s declining submarine fleet has been a concern especially as the Chinese PLA Navy gets more active in the waters around India.  

Last month, India decided to purchase an additional 400 T-90S battle tanks from Russia, according to reports. These will join the more than 1,000 T-90S that India already has, part of India’s 3,500-strong Main Battle Tank inventory. With the exception of the 100-plus Arjun tanks, everything else in the inventory are Russian T-72s or T-90Ss, which is an indicator of the close historical Indo-Russian military relations. 

But the relationship has not been without its hiccups. India was originally part of the next generation Su-57 fighter program but pulled out of the deal because of dissatisfaction with the jet’s performance and manufacturing quality. This highlights a problem that the defense relationship has, which is that Russia is falling behind in terms of weapons technology. More than a decade after the United States started operationally flying fifth generation combat aircraft, Russia has not been able to develop jets with comparable performance. This could mean that India will increasingly have to look elsewhere if it wants weapons with performance capabilities comparable to the top of the line platforms in the world. India’s purchase of the French Rafale fighter is just one indicator of this trend.

As regards the direct effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the bilateral relationship, Indian Foreign Minister Dr. S. Jaishankar has maintained contact with his counterparts in Russia as recently as last week. In a tweet, he said that he discussed a number of issues including the upcoming BRICS Foreign Ministers’ Meeting as well as developments in Afghanistan and cooperation in dealing with the coronavirus pandemic. Although this was part of a series of discussions that the foreign minister had with various counterparts including U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, it does indicate that the relationship is maintaining force. The virus is spreading rapidly in Russia — even Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin confirmed that he tested positive for the virus. The Indian prime minister lost no time in wishing his counterpart an early recovery and good health.

Both sides have also helped each other deal with the effects of the pandemic. Russia expressed its gratitude for India’s decision to supply key drugs to fight the pandemic, HCQ and paracetamol. Russia’s main defense export agency, Rosoboronexport also donated $2 million to the Indian prime minister’s special fund for fighting the pandemic, called the PM Cares Fund.  The pandemic has affected the training of four Indian Air Force pilots who have been selected for India’s first manned space flight and were undergoing astronaut training at the Yuri Gagarin Research and Test Cosmonaut Training Center. Nevertheless, training is likely to continue after the various lockdowns end.

But despite the kind words, emergency cooperation, and the defense relationship, there are longer term difficulties in the India-Russia relationship that are unlikely to be easy to resolve.  The pandemic has accelerated the competition between China and the region and that is likely to eventually add stress to the India-Russia relationship.