NEW DELHI --- Speculation is rife about the defence deals likely to be signed during Prime Minister Modi’s visit to Moscow. The front runners are S-400 ‘Triumf’ air defence systems, Ka-226 ‘Kamov’ helicopters, and Grigorovich-class stealth frigates. The lease of a second nuclear-powered attack submarine is also believed to be on the cards.
Considering that the Defence Acquisition Council (DAC) had accorded Acceptance of Necessity (AoN) for the procurement of five air defence systems only a few days back, it will be a great feat if the actual contract gets signed during the visit. This also applies to some of the other deals that are expected to be struck during the visit.
Quite frankly, it matters little whether the two sides sign contracts or MoUs during the visit. What really matters is the fact that the two countries are in serious talks with each other for defence purchases that are estimated to be worth around USD 10 billion. At a time when bilateral defence trade seemed to be traversing a slippery ground this turn of events should be reassuring for both countries.
Russia has been miffed by India diversifying its sources of supply of military hardware. That the United States has emerged as the largest supplier of arms and equipment to India could not have gone unnoticed in Russia, just as Russia’s reaching out to China and Pakistan with significant defence deals has not gone unnoticed in India.
Rightly or wrongly, the relationship seemed to be freezing, if not sliding down, for a long time. The then Russian envoy’s statement that “Rafale can be shot down like mosquitoes by the Chinese-made Sukhoi” following Russia’s elimination from the now-aborted Medium Multi-role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) acquisition programme was a clear indication of where bilateral relations were headed.
In a manner of speaking, Russia’s overtures to India’s neighbours have reversed that equation. The shoe now seems to be on the other foot. Sergei Ryabkov, the Deputy Foreign Minister of the Russian Federation, was right when he told the state-owned Sputnik that he did not think the contemplated sale of aircraft and attack helicopters to Pakistan will cause any jealousy in India. He was right.
Beyond a formal expression of concern, India does not seem to have taken it to heart. If US military aid to Pakistan for more than six decades did not come in the way of the current upswing in defence trade between India and the United States, there is no reason why Russia’s strategic benevolence towards China and Pakistan should be a serious factor influencing India’s defence trade with Russia.
India cannot allow that to happen. Russian-origin tanks, armoured vehicles, missiles, submarines, aircraft, helicopters, aircraft carrier, ammunition, and other assorted systems, constitute the backbone of India’s military capability. Going by the past experience, these will remain in service for the next several decades. If nothing else, Russian support will be crucial for ensuring operational serviceability of the equipment, including repair, refit and upgrades.
Even Russia cannot afford to consider scaling down its defence trade with India. Russia needs to sustain its huge military industrial base. China and Pakistan have limited potential as export markets. As an important player in contemporary international politics and anxious to regain its past glory, it will not serve Russia’s interest to pull out all the stops to align with China, which will benefit more from such an alignment, or with Pakistan, which has a dubious record of spawning extremism all over.
These imperatives will drive continued close Indian-Russian engagement into the foreseeable future, even if there is no new defence deal, which, of course, is not going to happen. Programmes such as the joint development or outright purchase of the Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft and Multi-role Transport Aircraft, as also the upgradation of Su-30 MKI aircraft, have been lurking in the background for a long time. If and when finalized, these would give a tremendous boost to defence trade between the two countries.
Seen in this background, the agenda for the present visit signifies a pragmatic willingness on the part of both countries to move on. Which is good, but it would be naive to believe that defence trade can be reinforced without any change in the way it has been conducted since the heady days following the signing of the Indo-Soviet Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Cooperation in 1971.
It might be easier for Russia to understand India’s compulsions in diversifying the sources of supply of military hardware but it will take some doing on its part to address India’s concerns about the life cycle support for the Russian-origin equipment being used by the Indian armed forces, transfer of technology, timely delivery of contracted items, quality control, inexplicable price fluctuations of equipment and spare parts, and a host of other issues which crop up regularly. It will not be surprising if these issues also form a part of the agenda of the current visit.
There is a huge potential in regard to joint development/co-production of equipment and defence research and development. This is going to be the key to closer engagement between the two countries in the backdrop of the ‘Make in India’ push by the Indian government. BrahMos is a successful example of what this potential can achieve. It will take just a few deals to be sealed, especially of co-development/co-production variety, for the present drift in the relations [to be] arrested and brought back on an even keel.
Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.