Asia Defense

The Indian Ocean Is Witnessing a Surge in Russian Military Exercises

Recent Features

Asia Defense | Security | South Asia

The Indian Ocean Is Witnessing a Surge in Russian Military Exercises

Russia is looking to shore up military partnerships in a critical region, from India to Myanmar.

The Indian Ocean Is Witnessing a Surge in Russian Military Exercises

The Admiral Tributs (564), an Udaloy-class destroyer of the Russian Navy, docked at the Manila South Harbor.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons/ Rhk111

Russia’s military has been unusually active in the Indian Ocean in the past month. First, from November 7-9, Russia conducted its largest exercise with Myanmar. Russia’s Defense Ministry called the naval drills held with Myanmar in the Andaman Sea “the first Russian-Myanmar naval exercise in modern history.” Two anti-submarine ships, Admiral Tributs and Admiral Panteleyev of the Russian Pacific Fleet, participated in the exercises with a frigate and a corvette from Myanmar’s navy. 

Just days after the Myanmar drills, the same Russian warships docked at Bangladesh’s Chittagong Port in the Bay of Bengal – the first such visit in 50 years. The Russian embassy in Dhaka called it a “huge milestone for Russia-Bangladesh relations.” 

India and Russia, too, conducted a two-day day naval drill, PASSEX, in the Bay of Bengal in November to “strengthen naval cooperation.” While all these exercises had the stated goal to develop and strengthen comprehensive naval cooperation, the exercises with India were conducted to help “two navies to jointly counter global threats and ensure the safety of civilian shipping in the Asia-Pacific region.” 

Importance of the Indian Ocean

It is noteworthy that Russia is conducting these naval exercises at a time when its ongoing war with Ukraine is in its second year. However, the Russian Navy has little role to play in the war. In 2022, Turkey refused to allow Russian naval reinforcements to pass through the Bosporus and Dardanelles Straits, which is is part of Turkey’s territorial waters in the Black Sea, because Moscow is at war with Ukraine. The Black Sea fleet has been struggling, with Ukraine successfully sinking of flagship of the fleet, the Moskva, in 2022 and two landing boats in November 2023. 

The setbacks for the Russian Navy call for more training exercises in seas elsewhere, to establish its efficiency and capabilities. 

The Indian Ocean is a geoeconomic hotspot and part of the extended Indo-Pacific geostrategic construct. Regional and extraregional countries alike seek a footprint in this region for varied reasons, from access to markets and trade routes to continuing interests in old and current territories, as well as for normative reasons such as the right of freedom of navigation and overflight exercises. However, the uptick in interest has brought a larger military presence of various countries to the Indian Ocean.

Russia has long been present in the Indian Ocean waters and is familiar with the region. India and Russia have been conducting bilateral biennial naval exercises, dubbed Indra, since 2008. The Russian Navy has been present in the Arabian Sea since 2005 for antipiracy patrols and multinational exercises. Russia is not a member of the internationally recognized transit corridor in Gulf of Aden, which is protected against pirates by international naval forces and instead operates on its own.

Why South Asian Countries?

Besides its joint exercises with Iran and China in the Western Indian Ocean, Russia’s focus has been on conducting bilateral exercises with Indian Ocean littorals. There are apparent reasons for this trend.

First, Russia is trying to diversify its partners in the Indian Ocean region. As military exercises underline a political and diplomatic camaraderie among countries, such exercises point toward the acceptance of Russia as a military partner. Amid its longest running war in the 21st century, Moscow doesn’t want its image tarnished to the world outside Europe and the United States. 

Opting for bilateral naval exercises with South Asian countries has its benefits for Russia, as it could prevent harming its bilateral ties with India. While Russia has undertaken joint exercises with China in the Sea of Japan and even with Iran in the Western Indian Ocean, Moscow is sensitive to India’s apprehensions toward the presence of China in the Indian Ocean region. Russia considers both China and India its friends and therefore, would not like to destabilize its ties with either of them by picking one over the other. Pursuing military exercises with countries like Myanmar and Bangladesh is less likely to trigger alarm in New Delhi, while still giving Russia a foothold in the region. 

Exercises may also help in making a case for the sale of Russian military equipment in the future. Russia has been the oldest military supplier to most South Asian countries, including India. Military supplies also remain its most important source of income besides energy trade. The Russian military industry might not be in position to sell equipment in the present times, but Moscow will not want to lose ground in South Asia, one of the fastest-growing regions for arms imports based on SIPRI reports. 

South Asian countries are also seeking diversification in their partnerships. On one hand, regional countries are seeking infrastructure development and capacity building for robust economies; on the other hand, extraregional countries are seeking to be a part of the Indian Ocean due to its trade, economic, and market relevance. This interest is presenting wide choices to the smaller states. The offers range from infrastructure development funds to building their domestic security architectures. A large number of partners providing opportunities for the small states also help them in avoiding and maneuvering through the limitations posed by regional and global power rivalries. 

For India, Russia is a long-term partner and the oldest defense supplier. India too has stood with Russia after it faced Western criticisms and even sanctions for announcing war with Ukraine. India continued to purchase Russian oil when the Western countries refused to do so. In that regard, converting this year’s edition of the Indra exercises to PASSEX was a noteworthy development in bilateral relations.

However, like every other country, Russia is a sovereign nation driven by its national interests. Seeking partnerships in this complex multipolar world order, to support its economy and geopolitical position, is important for Moscow. Russia will not be content with ties to India alone, but seeks to further expand its partners in the Indian Ocean region.

There has been no statement from India on the Myanmar-Russia exercises in the Bay of Bengal, likely because India shares warm relations with both countries. By contrast, the Indian Navy made a statement that it monitored the recently conducted China-Pakistan naval exercise in the Arabian Sea that saw the participation of Chinese diesel submarines. As maritime security issues such as piracy, trafficking, and so on remain common to the Indian Ocean, India needs to closely watch the new partnerships emerging in its backyard and even offer to collaborate for a larger benefit.