Author: Joshy M Paul, CAPS
India and Russia held their first ever 2+2 dialogue in New Delhi during Russian President Vladimir Putin’s brief visit to India on 6 December. Both countries decided to strengthen bilateral economic cooperation and boost the Vladivostok–Chennai energy corridor, a gateway for Russia into the Indo-Pacific and an alternate source of energy for India, rather than relying on the volatile Middle East.
India–Russia strategic relations are unique in many ways. The 1971 Indo–Soviet treaty was binding only for the former Soviet Union, which guaranteed Soviet military protection over India. Making full use of this treaty, India has been able to maintain its ‘strategic autonomy’ and avoid entrapment in alliance formations to contain threats from Pakistan and China.
India has also received technical assistance from Moscow for some of its military programs, such as its nuclear submarine program, indigenous aircraft carrier program and licensed production of Russian-made fourth-generation fighter aircraft. In1984, an Indian astronaut travelled to space in a Soviet payload. This is in contrast to US-style partnerships that are averse to sharing critical technologies or even systems like F-22 Raptor with its close allies, except for the United Kingdom. The Indian Armed Forces’ dependence on Russian-made systems cannot be replaced any time soon.
The United States views India–Russia strategic cooperation with some concern, as Washington perceives it as incompatible with US interests in the region. During 2021, the United States raised its objections to India buying S-400 missile defence batteries from Russia but has lately toned down its position, and views the batteries as a means to protect Indian airspace from the Chinese threat, not against the United States or its allies. It would bolster India’s deterrence capability against China on the land border where both countries have been locking horns for over half a century.
With increased Chinese assertiveness in the maritime domain, the Indo-Pacific security architecture has been transforming from Cold War-style alliances and security commitments from the United States into a ‘self-help’ system, where the United States encourages regional countries to take more responsibility for their security and regional stability. The United States expects middle powers like Japan, Australia and India to do that job. Washington’s focus is to prevent any threat from reaching the homeland, and this means containing the Chinese threat locally.
The United States is thus working to equip its regional allies — especially Japan and Australia — to prevent the Chinese threat locally. In 2020, Japan and the United States agreed to build a new Japan-specific fighter jet at a cost of about US$40 billion to replace its two decades old F-2. This is in addition to Japan’s agreement with the United States to purchase 105 F-35 fighter jets (63 F-35As and 42s F-35Bs) at the total cost of US$23 billion. The new F-3 fighter jet will be made in Japan based on a design created in partnership between Lockheed Martin and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries.
AUKUS — the US–Australia–UK tripartite agreement — aims to equip Australia with nuclear powered submarines to enhance its deterrence capability. Australia is expected to work in tandem with the United States to constrain China in its neighbourhood. The United States is also building long-range defence systems under the new Pacific Deterrence Initiative (PDI) to counter the China’s presence in the region.
As for New Delhi, it seeks assistance from the United States to emerge as a preponderant power in the Indian Ocean. This is important given China’s naval expansionism in the Indian Ocean under the guise of ‘protecting’ Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) assets and anti-piracy operations. Two critical technologies that India put on the US wish list are electromagnetic aircraft launch systems (EMALS) for India’s third aircraft carrier, INS Vishal, and nuclear propulsion technology for the next generation nuclear submarines. While the Trump administration offered EMALS to India in 2017, Washington is non-committal on nuclear propulsion technology.
India faces a two-front threat from China — from the land and the ocean. It needs advanced systems and critical defence technologies to counter the land threat on the Himalayan border and the maritime threat, which is critical to India’s trade and energy security interests. India-Russia defence collaboration is critical to defending its land border, while strong India–US cooperation is key to mitigating threats from the ocean.
Moving towards a more militarily powerful India is not only in its own interest — it will also help to maintain stability by bolstering India’s active contribution to regional security. In this regard, India–Russian strategic cooperation is neither parallel nor a rival, but complementary to President Joe Biden’s Indo-Pacific strategy.
Joshy M Paul is Research Fellow at the Centre for Airpower Studies, New Delhi.