After India’s surgical strikes along the LoC, Moscow expressed concern “with aggravation of situation along the line of control” and called on “parties not to allow any escalation of tension”. This stood in sharp contrast to Russia’s reaction to the 2008 terror strikes, where it supported “resolute actions of the Indian government to cut short terrorist actions”. The statements capture the changing nature of India-Russia ties, also reflected in Moscow’s military relationship with Pakistan.
Back in 1967, following the Tashkent Agreement, Moscow had decided to sell military armaments to Pakistan. But Indira Gandhi objected, and the USSR, considering its special relationship with India, withdrew the proposal. The understanding continued into the 21st century — President Vladimir Putin said in Delhi in March 2010 that “unlike many other countries, Russia does not have any military cooperation with Pakistan because we bear in mind the concerns of our Indian friends”.
But by August 2015, the situation had changed, with Pakistan signing a deal with Russia for four Mi-35M attack helicopters. The Pakistani army, navy, and air force chiefs have all visited Russia in the past 15 months. The countries are conducting a 2-week-long military exercise in Pakistan, the first in their history. Reports that Moscow had decided to cancel the exercises following the Uri terror turned out to be incorrect. News about the ongoing exercise has been scarce, with no mention of the location of the joint military drill.
New Delhi believes that Russia’s relationship with Pakistan would not come at the cost of Moscow’s dealings with India. But what complicates matters is the excessive Indian dependence on Moscow for the upkeep of military hardware and transfer of high-end military technologies. Experts estimate that nearly 65% of the current inventory in the three Services is of Soviet or Russian origin. The serviceability state of some of these platforms has been abysmally low because of the poor availability of spares from Russia.
Take the case of the Sukhoi Su-30 MKIs, the mainstay of the IAF, which will have 272 Russian fighters in service by the turn of the decade. The serviceability of Sukhoi aircraft was around 46% 2 years ago, and has crossed 50% this year with great difficulty. This means that half the IAF’s Sukhoi fleet is grounded at any given time. Despite intervention at high levels, South Block has not been able to find a way to secure a regular supply of spares in India. Attempts to encourage Indian companies to manufacture spares have failed because of strict Russian conditions.
The situation with the MiG-29K naval fighters is no different. In July, the CAG pointed out that the serviceability of the Navy’s warplanes ranged from 21.30% to 47.14% — not even half the fighters were fit to fly. These 2 MiG-29K squadrons were part of Moscow’s package to transfer the aircraft carrier Admiral Gorshkov, now INS Vikramaditya, India’s sole aircraft carrier.
India’s only nuclear submarine, INS Chakra, is leased from Russia, while negotiations for leasing another Akula class nuclear submarine are in the final stages. No country other than Russia would have provided India with such critical technology.
India is now in the process of building its own nuclear submarines, and reports suggest a reasonable degree of Russian cooperation on the project. Informed sources, however, say the second and third n-submarines are 70% and nearly 90% indigenous respectively. But even as India increases its indigenous defence production capacity and diversifies its procurement sources, the military’s dependence on Russia for some critical technologies still remains.
Many government officials assert that the geostrategic moves by Moscow — whether of joint drills with Pakistan or naval exercises with China in the South China Sea — will not alter the transactional nature of its defence relationship with New Delhi. Pakistan will never be able to match India’s deep pockets to buy Russian defence equipment, and for that reason alone, a cash-strapped Moscow will continue to court India.
Meanwhile, besides buying military equipment from Washington, India has also entered into defence technology cooperation agreements with the US. Even then, the high bar for defence technology transfers means India will not get the cutting edge defence technology from Washington as it did from Moscow. Even in the best case scenario, it can be said that the “special” component of the India-Russia defence partnership is past its halcyon days.