As Modi visits White House, India’s reliance on Russian arms constrains him

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Joe Biden listens as India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi speaks during a ‘Quad nations’ meeting at the Leaders’ Summit of the Quadrilateral Framework held in the East Room at the White House in Washington, U.S., September 24, 2021. REUTERS/Evelyn Hockstein

NEW DELHI – One of India’s most highly regarded weapons is a supersonic cruise missile that can be launched from sea, sky and land. Its name, BrahMos, is a portmanteau of the Brahmaputra River in India and the Moskva River in Russia, which began jointly developing the missile after the fall of the Soviet Union. Indian defense officials call it their “Brahmastra” – a Hindu mythological weapon that can destroy the entire universe.

India sees the missile as an essential part of a military capability that could survive a nuclear attack and has deployed it along its tense border with China. The missile has been supplied to the Philippines, and potential sales to Vietnam and Indonesia are underway.

As President Biden welcomes Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to the White House this week, the BrahMos missile illustrates how India’s long-standing reliance on Russia for military equipment and technology constrains New Delhi’s ability to line up with the West in confronting Russia over its war in Ukraine. To Washington’s disappointment, India has not condemned the invasion.

The arms relationship is “a key driver” of India’s reluctance to vocally oppose the Russian invasion of Ukraine, said Richard Rossow, the chair of U.S.-India Policy Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Robust military trade between the countries dates back to the 1960s, and Russian equipment now makes up about 85 percent of the Indian arsenal, according to a team led by Sameer Lalwani, a senior expert at the U.S. Institute of Peace. Russia has supplied fighter aircraft, nuclear submarines, cruise missiles, battle tanks, Kalashnikov rifles and much more. Some of this, such as fighter aircraft, could stay in India’s arsenal till 2065. India will remain dependent on Moscow for spare parts and maintenance for decades to come.

Other forms of Russian influence – including support for India at the United Nations and other international forums, and, since the outbreak of the Ukraine war, discounted crude oil – have all kept India close to Moscow. But experts like Lalwani say that military dependency is the “strongest” and “most durable” bond between the two countries.

“The number of really important countries to the U.S. who have a lot of Russian stuff is small, and India is at the top of that list,” said Chris Clary, a former country director for South Asian affairs in the office of the U.S. secretary of defense and now a professor at the University at Albany. “The big picture is that you don’t end a six-decade relationship quickly. It’s not going to be easy for even a determined national leadership to overcome, and it’s not at all clear to me that the current dispensation in New Delhi is determined.”

During Modi’s visit to Washington this week, U.S. officials will be looking to cut into Russian dominance of India’s military market, with discussions underway about deals to sell 31 armed drones and to jointly produce fighter jet engines involving General Electric, and a new initiative to deepen cooperation in military innovation.

The United States has been seeking to expand its role over the past decade, as military imports from Russia to India have slowly waned. India, the largest importer of weapons in the world, obtained 45 percent of its equipment from Russia in the five years through 2022, down from nearly two-thirds from the five years prior, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

American supplies still represent only 1 percent of the Indian army’s equipment and just about 4 percent of that of the Indian navy and air force, Lalwani said. From 2018 through 2022, according to SIPRI, the estimated value of Russian weapons sold to India was four times that of American weapons.

U.S. officials may not be happy about the Russian cast of India’s military. But they recognize that it’s important these weapons remain effective given the continuing tensions between India and China, which represents the top American concern in Asia, Rossow said.

Defense analysts in India agree that Russian technology is losing any technical edge it had over other suppliers, making deals with the United States more desirable. At the same time, the Ukraine war caused delays in the supply of spare parts from Russia as well as payment issues. Rajesh Rajagopalan, a professor of international politics at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, said he suspects that Indian leaders are now “regretting” their overreliance on Russia.

Russia’s dominance of the Indian market has deep roots. “Russia historically was willing to extend sophisticated technology to India that frankly the U.S. has not,” said Lisa Curtis, director of Indo-Pacific security at the Center for a New American Security, who previously directed South Asia policy at the U.S. National Security Council.

When the Soviet Union made its first major sale of MiG-21 jets to India in the 1960s, Moscow offered sweeteners that Washington didn’t match, including allowing India to pay in rupees and produce the fighter jets domestically. For decades after, the Russians had a near-monopoly on the Indian military market, charging lower costs than competitors and offering some technology transfers. Russians began to openly extend nuclear-technology sharing in the 1980s, leasing to India a nuclear submarine and supporting India’s nuclear energy production.

Many Indian military officials and planners, especially those who came of age during the Cold War, were scarred by the American decision to side with Pakistan during its 1971 war with India. “There were a lost three decades in the India-U.S. relationship because the Americans felt we were pro-Soviet,” said D. B. Venkatesh Verma, a former Indian ambassador to Russia. “We turned to the Soviets because nothing was on offer for us.”

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, when India was eager to build new trading relationships, the United States remained reluctant to supply military equipment because of concerns over India’s ambitions to develop its nuclear weapons capacity, Verma said.

The nuclear deal finalized in 2008, which saw India and the United States coordinate on nuclear power, marked a major turning point for relations between India and the United States.

“The sentiment toward the U.S. has become a lot warmer over the last 15 years, but it still hasn’t reached the level of strategic empathy that India shared with the Soviet Union and Russia,” said Rajagopalan.

After the Russian annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014 and Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. elections, the United States became increasingly opposed to countries buying Russian equipment, adopting sanctions in 2017 that restricted the sharing of American technology with countries that bought certain Russian equipment. Despite the sanctions risk, India finalized a deal to buy Russian long-range missiles, known as S-400s, which will likely last another two decades.

The India-Russia relationship “casts a very long shadow into the future,” Verma said. “Hopefully, there is understanding from the U.S. that this is a transition that India should be allowed to make at its own pace, because India is too large and the relationship with Russia is too deep for India to make U-turns.”

Some experts in India already see it turning away from Russia. Happymon Jacob, a professor of disarmament studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University, says Indians think of the Russia relationship in “past terms” and the U.S. one in “future terms.”

Senior U.S. defense officials say India began to reduce its reliance on Russia before the Ukraine war, noting that Lockheed Martin is making F-16 wings and C-130J tails in Indian factories. “Is there still a reality that they have to manage in terms of their relationship with Russia? Yes. But the trends are in the right direction,” said one official, speaking on the condition of anonymity under ground rules set by the Pentagon.



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