Whenever India’s position on the Russian invasion of Ukraine is discussed, a crucial factor brought up is New Delhi’s dependence on Russian military products. This is indeed the most important aspect of Indo-Russian cooperation, with Moscow’s assistance in building Indian nuclear reactors probably coming second. India’s imports of Russian oil, while given much coverage in the press, have grown only in the past few months, and it is too early to use such short-term purchases to make judgements about long-term processes. Indian purchases of Russian oil typically are comparatively very small, and Middle Eastern oil producers are much geographically closer to India than Russia is. Nevertheless, it remains a fact that New Delhi is deeply dependent on Russian military technologies.
India is increasingly sourcing more sophisticated military products from the broadly-understood West – mainly the U.S. and France, but also Israel. Certain key platforms sold to India, such as fighter jets and helicopters, won recent competitions with their Russian equivalents, or have been induced into the Indian Armed Forces to replace older Russian/Soviet products. From my perspective as a Polish commentator, it is a positive political outcome – the less Russia can sell, the better chance its aggressive foreign policy will collapse.
But two crucial comments must be added to this. First, the fact that New Delhi began to buy more from the West does not mean that India now possesses more Western gear than Russian. Second, it does not mean that the Indian government wants to switch from dependence on Russia to dependence on the West.
As for the first point, we often focus on new deals and on key strategic platforms – these are a very large part of the picture, but do not constitute the whole of it. When we read that India “bought more” from the U.S. than from Russia in recent years, this means that the value of new deals made with the U.S., as reported in the press, was bigger than the value of reported deals with Russia in the same period. Western military technologies are usually much more expensive than Russian technologies – which is one of the main reasons why New Delhi continues to depend on Moscow. One big new deal a year, or even two new deals, does not change the fact that the products currently in possession of the Indian army are still mostly Soviet-made and Russian-made, having been accumulated over decades of close defense cooperation (including in the Cold War, when India was generally not buying from the West). Many of these products are still being serviced or upgraded by Russian companies. Moreover, when media state that India bought more from the U.S. than Russia they usually quote from SIPRI reports, which, while good, need more digging to reach more accurate conclusions – for instance, the most-quoted SIPRI reports do not include small arms and light weapons.
In other words – on the Indian market, Western military products are beginning to best Russian arms in terms of strategic value and quality, but not necessarily in quantity. The value of one French fighter jet – value both in terms of its price and its strategic significance – is manifold more than the value of large numbers of Russian guns and bullets. But this does not mean that the latter are unimportant – it is just that media reports may overcloud their significance, focusing on the fighter jet deal, and thereby drive our attention away from India’s sustained defense cooperation with Russia. Even in terms of quality and newer products Moscow still has some very important technologies to offer to New Delhi – like the S-400 system, which India recently purchased despite U.S. pressure.
Second, New Delhi is increasingly selecting Western technology because overall it is better than Russian offerings, not because of a shared belief in democracy. The value that the Indian government is looking for in this context is a strategic one, rather than shared ethical values. It is a technological choice much more than a political one. But the results of such deals may become a political liability when the seller leverages the dependence on their products to create diplomatic pressure. This was exactly what happened during Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – New Delhi found itself in a difficult spot because the West and Russia are conflicted over Ukraine, while both are crucial providers of military technologies to India.
Moreover, India is buying military products because its domestic industry has been largely unable to produce indigenous versions. The Indian government would have shifted from Russian platforms to domestically produced ones if its industry had the know-how already. New Delhi’s recently-unveiled plans make it very clear that the goal is to gradually reduce imports of foreign-made military products – from anywhere, not just from Russia.
Many Indian experts, though not all of them, present similar conclusions. As Kartik Bommakanti writes for the ORF:
The government will have to figure out a way of working around the adverse effects the sanctions are likely to have on India and work towards reducing India’s excessive dependence on Russian arms. After all, since New Delhi values strategic autonomy and its pursuit is a function of its core interests, it must have a more robust domestic defence industry.
Or, as Indrani Bagchi put it in a commentary for Times of India:
For decades we have defined strategic autonomy as India-the-brave, cleaving its own path. In reality, strategic autonomy was defined as distance from the US. India never defined — or built —strategic autonomy from Russia. That has been a strategic blunder. […] Indians have repeatedly questioned the US about being a reliable defence partner. A valid question, given the history and US’ propensity to weaponise dependencies. But we never questioned Russia. […] India failed to hedge against a Russia with which there is a potential clash of interests.
Other experts and commentators think similarly about the need for India to become independent of both Russian and Western military products. These authors include Rahul Bedi, Prabol DasGupta, Shishir Gupta, Pankaj Jha, Snehesh Alex Philip and Balbir Singh Sandhu. Moreover, the media for which these commentators wrote present a wide spectrum from right-wing (Panchjanya), through right-leaning (Firstpost, News18), and centrist (The Print) to left-leaning (The Wire); this suggests there may be a largely non-partisan consensus among the Indian commentators on the need for self-reliance.
One of the voices in the dissenting minority belongs to Praveen Swami, who partially offers the same conclusions (dependence on Russia is the same as dependence on the West) but reaches a different policy conclusion – claiming that India needs to clearly ally with the West:
[W]hat New Delhi calls strategic autonomy might just be prettified language for ducking hard choices.
Three lessons are key.
First, the autonomy conferred by nonalignment was, in part, a myth. […] Second, nonalignment comes with costs, just as do alliances.
Third, there is a difference between strategic autonomy and strategic autarky. New Delhi cannot stand alone, ignoring the currents of global geopolitics. Western powers, it is true, ought not to ignore legitimate Indian concerns about its defence dependence on Russia, especially on critical nuclear and missile technologies. The sword cuts two ways, though. India cannot seek Western support against China while ignoring its partners’ concerns on Russia and the wider world.
As a new Cold War rises from the battlefields in Ukraine, India needs to revisit the foundational elements of its strategic paradigm, freeing itself from the self-delusion and sanctimony that has shackled the country for decades.
It is not the objective of this commentary to assess to which degree reaching this self-reliance, a capability to independently produce strategic platforms, is feasible – or in how many years in could be achieved. I leave that to the technology expert. While a country may produce its own platforms, it may still need to import an engine or a semiconductor used as part of the finished product. Its industry may design engines and semiconductors, but may still need to import the materials needed to produce them. Domestic companies may gain the capability to produce the entire product by themselves, but for the government, the costs of acquiring them in necessary numbers may be excessively high.
Those considerations aside, it seems clear that in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, both the government in New Delhi and a considerable group of the country’s experts want India to progress toward self-reliance in defense production. This is the goal that state policy will be attempting to achieve in the long run.