In the midst of a border crisis with China, Indian Defense Minister Rajnath Singh is away in Moscow. At the same time, India’s foreign minister joined his Russian and Chinese counterparts online for an Russia-India-China (RIC) meeting. The Sino-Indian crisis potentially puts Russia in a difficult position, having to choose between its traditional partners in India, which also represents a lucrative arms market, and its new but much more powerful friend in the east, China.
The ostensible reason for Singh’s visit to Russia was to attend the rescheduled Victory Day Parade. The annual parade commemorating the end of World War II was supposed to be held on May 9, but was postponed due to the pandemic. A 75-member tri-service Indian military contingent participated in the parade.
The Chinese defense minister was also in Moscow to attend the same parade. However, the Indian side made it clear that there would be no meeting between the two ministers. All negotiations between India and China on the border crisis are taking place bilaterally either through diplomatic channels or through local military commanders. The fact that the RIC meeting was an online affair also helps to ensure that Russia is not forced to mediate between the two sides.
Indian anger at China is palpable. In fact, Indian Foreign Minister Dr. S. Jaishankar in his speech at the RIC pointedly stated that “the challenge today is not just one of concepts and norms, but equally of their practice. The leading voices of the world must be exemplars in every way.”
India’s interests in Russia are obvious. A significant part of Indian military equipment comes from Russia. In the midst of the crisis with China, the Indian Air Force has asked for 33 new fighter aircraft including 21 MiG-29s and 12 Su-30 MKIs from Russia. This is an old acquisition plan, but it has been pushed for accelerated delivery. The deal is worth over 60 billion Indian rupees ($793 million) and is expected to be approved by the Ministry of Defense in the coming days. In addition, India had already ordered 272 Su-30 MKIs spread over a 10 to 15-year time frame.
Meanwhile, India has also asked Russia for the expedited delivery of the S-400 anti-missile system. The two sides signed a contract for the S-400s in 2019. The original delivery was scheduled for 2021. There were reports that because of COVID-19, the delivery would be delayed. Singh was expected to seek an expedited delivery of the system.
Singh was also seeking assurances that the spare parts supply for Russian equipment that India already has in its arsenal will not be delayed during any crisis with China. Specifically, he was referring to the issue of spare parts for Russian-origin fighter aircraft (including the Su-30MKIs and MiG-29s of the Air Force and the MiG29Ks of the Indian Navy), the T-90 battle tanks for the Army, and the Navy’s Kilo-class submarines.
The Sino-Indian clash puts Russia in an awkward position as a recent analysis in The Wall Street Journal by Yaroslav Trofimov and Thomas Grove pointed out. There is growing recognition in Moscow about pressure from Beijing. But as the report pointed out, Russia is also stuck with China because of pressure from the West. Russia’s difficulties in improving relations with Europe have left Moscow with few options.
In the current crisis, Russia appears to have little interest in mediating between China and India. As Konstantin Kosachev, a senior lawmaker and chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Russian Federation Council, told the Indian media that Russia should not interfere in the India-China dispute and that these should be dealt with through bilateral channels.
At the recent RIC meeting, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov also maintained that India and China do not need any help in resolving their bilateral issues. Although Russia might want to keep its head down in the current crisis, Russian reactions are also being closely watched by the Indian public. Russia has a reservoir of support in India because of its traditional support, including during the 1971 India-Pakistan War. This support glosses over the fact that Russia was neutral during the 1962 Sino-Indian War because it occurred simultaneously with the Cuban missile crisis. Russia’s relations with China had become increasingly rocky – in fact, closer Soviet relations with India were one factor in the Sino-Soviet rift – but the need for Beijing’s support during the Cuban missile crisis forced Moscow to be neutral. That removed an important leg of India’s diplomatic strategy at the time. Almost 60 years later, New Delhi is probably worried that history will repeat and Russia might lean toward China simply by staying neutral.