Why Military Relationship With Russia Still Matters For India
Geopolitics|May 2021
After the Galwan confrontation between India and China two trends have become apparent in Indian defence policy: there has been a perceptible shift towards the United States and its allies in New Delhi’s security relationships; and the country, as it usually does when it is faced by a crisis, is beginning to think proactively and creatively about weapons production and acquisition.

The danger for New Delhi lies, however, in conflating the two trends into one where the country relies principally on the United States, and its proxy weapons supplier Israel, for fulfilling its defence acquisition needs. Here, Russia, India’s principal source of defence items for many years, comes in and its importance cannot be underestimated.

The India-Russia military relationship

The India-Russia military relationship began with the Indian decision in the early 1960s to purchase what was then the advanced MiG-21 fighter from the Soviet Union. The Indian government took the decision to buy and license-produce the MiG and the last of the planes was to roll off HAL’s assembly lines in 1984. At that point of time the MiG-21 gave India an edge over both Pakistan and China although eventually, the Pakistanis would acquire the Chinese version of the MiG- 21 and China’s aviation industry would go on to make fourth and possibly fifth generation fighter aircraft.

What initially began with aircraft, led to India buying all types of weaponry from the Soviet Union and later Russia. These included tanks, ships, submarines, helicopters, artillery, anti-aircraft systems and eventually an aircraft carrier. At a time when there was no significant qualitative difference between Soviet and Western technologies, India was to get large numbers of relatively modern weapons from the Soviet Union.

There were also other advantages to the relationship. At a time when India was poor and had a serious deficit of hard currency resources, the Soviets allowed India to purchase weaponry and oil with Rupees. Ruble-Rupee trade helped India to purchase the items the West could not sell to New Delhi even though the inflated value of the Ruble worked to India’s disadvantage. Indian military modernisation in the 1960s and 1970s was largely possible because of this ability to purchase weapons from the Soviet Union.

At a time when the western powers, France being a notable exception, would place embargoes on how the weapons they had sold to other countries were to be used, the Soviets did not place restrictions on the use of their weaponry in combat situations. Thus, in the 1965 and 1971 wars, the United States put a weapons embargo on both India and Pakistan but the sanctions had a debilitating effect on Islamabad since the bulk of its weapons were of American origin. India, however, had Soviet, European, and American weaponry and, therefore, it was able to successfully prosecute its war efforts.

The relationship was not without its problems. The Indian military had a different operational philosophy than the Soviet military and, therefore, faced a problem of spare parts for its weapons. This shortage was compounded by the collapse of the Soviet Union because it led to a chronic shortage of spare parts and there are stories of Indian defence teams going from factory to factory in Eastern Europe seeking to buy spares.

After the break-up of the Soviet Union, Boris Yeltsin decided that Russia was a western country (adopting the outlook of Peter the Great) and rather foolishly turned away from India. At the same time, India’s economic reforms had begun to bear fruit and the Indian economy started to boom. Given the changes in the Indian economy, there was little that Russia could offer to India except weaponry and oil but by the early 2000s India had the hard currency to start buying western weapons systems and the technological gap between western and Russian weaponry had become apparent.

An Iraq that was armed with Russian weapons was no match for the United States and the Chinese, observing the one-sided nature of the two Gulf wars against Iraq, realised very quickly that they could no longer depend on a Mao style People’s War and, instead, they had to engage in a rapid technological modernisation of their weapons systems.

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