Ahead of Vladimir Putin’s two-day visit to India, the Russian government confirmed that the president will oversee the signing of the $5 billion worth S-400 defence deal. The two countries had been discussing the purchase of the S-400 Triumf a mobile, surface-to-air missile system since 2015. The signing of the deal would once again reinforce ties between the two countries that dates back to the 1960s. The age old relationship of trust between the two countries had been cooling off lately, but is still sturdy when it comes to defence. Even though India’s trade with Russia is now much lower than with the US, when it comes to defence, majority of the country’s military equipment is still of Soviet or Russian origin and India still needs to look to Moscow for spares.
The military relationship between the two countries dates back to the 1960s when the world was almost neatly split into two as a result of cold war politics. As the Soviet Union broke down and the global order went from bipolar to multipolar, the defence relationship between India and Russia also evolved. In recent years, equipment from Russia is said to constitute 68 per cent of Indian defence exports.
The years immediately following Indian Independence, the Soviet Union was strongly opposed to India’s policy of non-alignment. Things improved only after the Stalinist years and the Soviet Union was seen as a major ally to India, that was seen as a stabilising factor against the developing military relations between Pakistan and the USA. Accordingly the Soviet Union first presented two Il-14 transport aircraft to India in 1955. In 1960, 24 Il-14s were sold, followed by 10 Mi-14 helicopters in 1961, eight An-12 transport aircraft, six jet engines, 16 Mi-4s and 8 An-12s.
In 1962, the MiG-21 deal was made between the two countries in a way to offset the attack aircraft that Pakistan purchased from the US. It is noteworthy that before the India-Soviet defence relations took off, India was completely dependent on its erstwhile rulers for all its military equipment. The MiG-21 deal was in fact deeply unsettling to the British who feared an erosion of Indo-British military cooperation arrangements.
After the Sino-Indian border conflict of 1962, the Indian government realised the need to strengthen its forces with further equipment. During this period, when India first turned to American assistance, the latter did not reciprocate as desired. In these circumstances the only other major arms producing nation that India could turn to was the Soviet Union. Since the early sixties to the late seventies, India was almost completely dependent on the Soviet Union for its defence requirement and it extended to spares and ancillaries as well.
In 1971, when the former East Pakistan strove to secede from West Pakistan, India entered the conflict on the side of the former and assisted it in the formation of Bangladesh. Around this time, India signed the Indo-Soviet Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation which was a marked departure from the position of non-alignment maintained by India so far and served as a strong signal to America and China. Once India secured victory in the 1971 war, Soviet interest in India increased as the geostrategic equation in the subcontinent shifted towards the latter. However, the events of the 1971 war reduced India’s dependence on the Soviet Union and it improved relations with the United States and China. Consequently, from the 1970s Indian purchase from Russia was mainly for the Navy and much lesser for the Army. However, it continue to remain one of the most important suppliers of defence equipment to India
In 1991 the Soviet Union disintegrated, but its role as the most important supplier of defence equipment to India was passed on to Russia. Over time the relationship between the two countries was no longer restricted to that between a buyer and seller, but also included joint research and development contracts. In 1997 Russia and India signed a ten-year agreement for military-technical cooperation which included production of weaponry, marketing of armaments and military technologies. The last joint naval exercise was held in 2007 in the Sea of Japan and the last joint airborne exercise was held in September 2007 in Russia.
In 1998, a joint venture was established between Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) of India and the Federal State Unitary Enterprise NPO Mashinostroyenia (NPOM) of Russia as BrahMos Aerospace. The Brahmos is a cruise missile that can be shot from aircraft, ships or land. Since 2004 multiple testings of the Brahmos have been conducted and 2016, the two countries entered an agreement to create a new generation of Brahmos with a higher missile range. In 2012, when president Putin visited India, the countries signed a defence deal for the production of 42 new Sukhoi aircraft. It was an addition to the 230 Sukhois which were already contracted from Russia.
In addition to these, India has purchased several other military hardware from Russia which includes the Akula-II nuclear submarine and the INS Vikramaditya, the INS Chakra, the T-70 and T-90 tanks.