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Smart Bombs: Military, Defense and National Security

India’s Military Is Built on Russian Arms (The Ukraine War Makes That Hard)

India Aircraft Carrier
INS Vikramaditya (R33) with a Sea Harrier.

What’s up with India? India has been the lone voice of dissent in the Quad on the question of Russian behavior in Ukraine, or at least the only member that has not raised its voice against Moscow. Given the increasingly tight relationship between Russia and China, this has seemed to put India into the odd position of supporting the closest ally of its most formidable opponent.

As India has come to occupy an increasingly important role in US Indo-Pacific strategy, it’s surely worth asking about the implications of New Delhi’s continued relationship with Moscow. India has military, economic, socio-political, and diplomatic reasons to wade carefully into Russia’s war against Ukraine.

Military: India is also in a difficult security position with respect to Russia. India is Russia’s largest arms export target, and despite the failure of cooperation in some projects (such as the Su-57), Russia continues to supply weapons to India in enormous quantities. As India views itself in security competition with both China and Pakistan, this is hardly the best time to put that relationship at risk.

At this point, the Indian military is so dependent upon Russia for spares and other basic maintenance equipment that a cut-off of the relationship would leave India deeply vulnerable for months and even years. The United States (and presumably Western Europe and Japan) would undoubtedly be happy to fill that gap, but transitioning would take time and would stretch India’s military budget.

That said, in practical terms, India faces a dilemma even if it decides to maintain its relationship with Russia. The devastating losses suffered by the Russian armed forces in Ukraine probably mean that there are stark limits to the Russian capacity for supporting India militarily in the near future. This has already led India to re-emphasize domestic defense production, but this strategy won’t pay off in the short run.

Economic: India and Russia have a limited trade relationship, with India’s exports from and imports to Russia standing at only small fractions of the relationship with the United States.  Nevertheless, India has not taken steps to join the campaign of international economic pressure against Moscow. Indeed, the Indian government has enabled several banks to explore the possibility of ruble-rupee exchanges that would allow Russia to evade some restrictions on its currency.

Russia has also offered India crude oil at a huge discount, an offer that India will likely find hard to turn down despite American pressure. That said, India’s economic connections with the West are far more important for its future prosperity than its connections with Russia.

Social and Political: Indian students study in Ukraine in large numbers and consequently have come into danger as Russian advances and Russian attacks have put cities at risk. The presence of these students may have limited the extent to which India felt free to criticize Russian behavior; if so, Indian attitudes may sharpen in the coming weeks.

However, India and Russia also have extensive and longstanding socio-cultural connections, connections that could prove hard to break. India’s ideological position with respect to Russia is complex.

On the one hand, the Modi regime is known to have certain sympathies with the anti-liberal attitudes of the Putin government and shares many Russian concerns about America’s purportedly overzealous pursuit of human rights and democracy. On the other hand, India surely recognizes the dangers of Russia’s slide into autocracy, especially to the extent that this draws Moscow and Beijing closer together.

Diplomatic: On the diplomatic front India has, its interest in the Quad notwithstanding, maintained a longstanding commitment to principled neutrality.  This commitment carries considerable ideological weight; the experience of British colonialism colors much of Indian foreign policy, and Indians have not forgotten the decision of the United States to lean toward Pakistan’s side in the 1971 war.  That said there are quite likely limits to a doctrine that was established decades ago and that does not mesh well with the reality of 21st-century geopolitics.

India’s position with respect to China and Pakistan is also complicated because of the aforementioned military vulnerability. China and Russia have, if anything, grown closer during this crisis, which has the potential to offer Beijing leverage for limiting Moscow’s commitment to India. India most certainly wants to ward this possibility off, but it is becoming increasingly difficult to avoid the conclusion that forced to choose between China and India, Putin’s Russia will choose China.

What next for Russia-India ties?: Maintaining strong ties with Russia is quite popular with the Indian public, in part of out a need to balance with China and in part because of the history of a strong, longstanding diplomatic, military, and economic relationship. But, at the risk of telling the Indians their business… there is an enormous tension between maintaining dependence on Russia as a means of hedging against China.

It is undoubtedly true that in the short term the Indian military would suffer terribly from a disconnect with Russian producers. It’s also true that there are genuine, strongly held ideological reason for India to maintain its relationship with Russia. But Russia is at risk of becoming utterly dependent on China in the military and economic sphere, a description that increasingly applies to Pakistan as well.

This does not suggest that the Moscow-New Delhi relationship has a bright future, at least as far as India is concerned. Moreover, it is very likely that we have yet to see the worst that the Russian military can do in Ukraine. India undoubtedly does not want to find itself associated with the kinds of atrocities that Russia has committed at Bucha and Mariupol, and that it may yet commit against Kyiv and Kharkiv. Worst of all, at this moment it seems quite possible that Russia may lose this war, and it is not at all in India’s interest to have equivocated on behalf of a brutal, broken power.

Now a 1945 Contributing Editor, Dr. Robert Farley is a Senior Lecturer at the Patterson School at the University of Kentucky. Dr. Farley is the author of Grounded: The Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force (University Press of Kentucky, 2014), the Battleship Book (Wildside, 2016), and Patents for Power: Intellectual Property Law and the Diffusion of Military Technology (University of Chicago, 2020).

Written By

Dr. Robert Farley has taught security and diplomacy courses at the Patterson School since 2005. He received his BS from the University of Oregon in 1997, and his Ph.D. from the University of Washington in 2004. Dr. Farley is the author of Grounded: The Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force (University Press of Kentucky, 2014), the Battleship Book (Wildside, 2016), and Patents for Power: Intellectual Property Law and the Diffusion of Military Technology (University of Chicago, 2020). He has contributed extensively to a number of journals and magazines, including the National Interest, the Diplomat: APAC, World Politics Review, and the American Prospect. Dr. Farley is also a founder and senior editor of Lawyers, Guns and Money.