How the West can drive a wedge between India and Russia

Helping India remove itself from its structural dependency on Russia is a delicate task. Decoupling must ultimately progress along two paths: providing an alternative to the deep technical cooperation India has developed with Moscow and assuring the breadth of supply necessary to meet the demands of India’s defence plan.

Russian and Indian national flags and scale model aircraft seen during Indra 2017, a joint Russian-Indian military exercise, at the Tsentralnaya Uglovaya airfield. Credit: Yuri Smityuk/TASS/Alamy Live News
Russian and Indian national flags and scale model aircraft seen during Indra 2017, a joint Russian-Indian military exercise, at the Tsentralnaya Uglovaya airfield. Credit: Yuri Smityuk/TASS/Alamy Live News

When Russia invaded Ukraine, it was condemned around the world. NATO members found their response bolstered by a range of non-aligned countries, including Kenya, whose ambassador to the United Nations denounced Russia’s imperialism. One prominent democracy however was notable by its passivity: India abstained from the UN Security Council vote censoring Russia on the 25th of February.

India’s position was to be expected. Heavily dependent upon Russia for armaments and facing two nuclear armed peer adversaries who both have claims on Indian territory, New Delhi’s interests demanded a position of neutrality. Nevertheless, with western countries seeking to isolate Russia, both politically and economically, India’s neutrality poses a challenge to those goals.

During the Cold War, India sought to balance Soviet and NATO partners. This was necessary given US and British support for Pakistan as an anti-communist power. Today the context is different, and India does not have a political need to maintain a relationship with Moscow. Instead, the relationship is founded upon a depth of technological cooperation in the military sphere, and a breadth of assured supply that New Delhi does not want to risk. Yet both India’s deepening relationship with its western partners and Russia’s own growing dependence on China mean that in the long run, this relationship is likely to become a strategic vulnerability to India. Indeed, the very existence of a single point of failure in its defence structure is contrary to India’s stated and longstanding goal of securing strategic autonomy.

Helping India remove itself from this structural dependency is a delicate task. India faces several conflicting imperatives that cause an inertial continuation of its relationship with Moscow. Decoupling must ultimately progress along two paths: providing an alternative to the deep technical cooperation India has developed with Moscow and assuring the breadth of supply necessary to meet the demands of India’s defence plan. The foremost aim of western policy should be to accelerate India’s transition away from Russia, rather than to force a clean break. This is best achieved by indirectly encouraging the centrifugal forces that will naturally cause this relationship to drift further apart rather than seeking Indian support on specific issues such as the ongoing conflict.

Jumping the canyon

Strategically India and Russia ought to be diverging. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the imposition of sweeping economic sanctions targeting its central bank and access to the international financial system will leave Moscow highly dependent upon Beijing. China will now be the primary source for investment into Russia and exports will invariably be routed through Chinese companies. In consequence, China will have an unparalleled leverage over Russian behaviour and if China were to find itself at war with India – with Indian and Chinese soldiers fighting within the last two years – then continued Chinese finance could be made dependent upon a cessation of Russian arms supplies to India.

At the same time, Pakistan has become heavily dependent upon Chinese investment and military assistance. What was a two-front challenge has in some respects become a combined threat for the Indian military. Russia is now desperate for foreign currency and there is a burgeoning defence relationship between Moscow and Islamabad, creating a growing risk that joint Indo-Russian defence projects will be compromised by India’s adversaries as Russia competes in Pakistan with Chinese products.

This divergence is becoming visible in certain areas. For example, the two countries’ positions on how to engage a Taliban led Afghanistan have differed significantly, with Russia effectively pushing to normalise the Taliban regime and draw a distinction between it and more dangerous extremists such as ISIS-K, mirroring Pakistan’s distinction between good and bad Islamists. This diverges sharply from Indian policy, which has aimed at destabilising Taliban gains by supporting opposition forces. Similarly, Russia demurred on taking a position during the 2020-21 Sino-Indian border standoff unlike, for example, the United States.

Indian policymakers have long recognised that their country’s relationship with Russia will be constrained by the Sino-Russian relationship but have held out the hope that by offering Russia an alternative partner in Asia, India could limit the degree of Sino-Russian coordination. Up until this point, this has dovetailed with Russia’s own apprehensiveness regarding the possibility of being dependent on China. Russia has been willing to provide itself optionality in this way — supporting India’s attempts at balancing China through supporting its SCO membership (partially to dilute Chinese leadership), maintaining defence partnerships with Chinese rivals that India supports (Vietnam most notably), and not vetoing Indian arms sales of Russo-Indian products such as the Brahmos anti-ship missile to the Philippines.

This strategy only worked, however, when India was one of multiple Russian partners, including western nations and Japan, which collectively offset Russian dependence on China. Going forward, Russia has only its relationship with China to depend on. With an economy roughly one fifth the size of China’s, India could not offer a meaningful alternative market if it wanted to. An approach that was viable before Ukraine will now become a liability.

Western policymakers seeking to encourage this transition ought to anticipate — and capitalise upon — opportunities to quicken the pace of this shift. We are likely to see divergences between Moscow’s policies and India’s preferences on a range of issues, from Afghanistan to the Sino-Indian border and the South China Sea in coming years. Preparing diplomatic positions that underscore these differences ahead of time, by drawing a sharp contrast between western and Russian responses, will underscore to India the limits of any attempt to wean Russia off China. Indeed, given India’s tacit support to Russia on the current crisis, underscoring the fact that this will have bought India little reciprocity will also undercut the sentimentality with which some in India view Russia due to the legacy of Soviet era support. In other words, encouraging the natural divergence between the two nations demands a policy planned in terms of what is likely to unfold in the years to come rather than a crisis response to the current situation.

The Russo-Indian defence partnership

Though robust, the Russo-Indian defence relationship as it currently exists need not be seen as a permanent feature of the bilateral relationship. India, seeking to diversify its defence supplies, has already moved away from Russia in some areas. For example, although Moscow wanted to collaborate on the development of the Su-57 fighter aircraft, the Indian Air Force (IAF) has been desperate to move away from increasingly obsolete Russian combat aircraft. To maintain parity with the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) the IAF has shifted to Israeli supplied weapons and western airframes, choosing to procure French Rafale aircrafts. India has similarly shifted its combat aviation fleet towards western designs, procuring AH-64E Apaches from Boeing, rather than Russian Mi-28 Havocs or Kh-52 Alligators. India recognises that Western equipment is often better quality, and where the opportunity has arisen it has made the switch. Overall, Russia’s share of Indian defence imports has fallen substantially from 69 percent of defence imports in 2012 to 46 per cent in the years 2017-2021.

There are certain areas, however, where there is an especially deep relationship that will be difficult to shift. One example can be found in nuclear submarines. Although India has been able to manufacture a ballistic missile submarine domestically, it has not managed to build a nuclear attack submarine. With the People’s Liberation Army Navy basing in Pakistan and Djibouti, as well as its growing dominance on the surface in the South China Sea, India is in need of attack submarines to protect its shipping and access to international trade in the event of conflict. Russia — a world leader in submarine manufacture — has sufficient confidence in its Indian partners to have leased Akula class attack submarines to the Indian Navy. Given that sub-surface warfare remains the one area where Russia has significant advantages over many of its adversaries at sea, this level of trust is remarkable.

Another area of trust is in the development of missile systems including both anti-ship and anti-air missile complexes. The Indians are a recipient of the S400 air defence system and have co-developed the Brahmos supersonic anti-ship cruise missile with the Russians using technology from the P-800 Oniks air missiles. The sharing of intellectual property for the development of these missiles places India into a different category from Turkey or Algeria who are mere customers for this cutting edge of the Russian defence industries.

The presence of S400 is a good example of where there is a practical limit to India’s defence engagement with the west. Indian procurement of Western systems cannot be increased as Russian systems are phased out. Instead, the presence of these key Russian capabilities makes the introduction of certain western platforms impossible. Fourth generation combat aircraft like Rafale are one thing. But fifth generation airframes, or the electronic warfare fits for fourth generation aircraft that would make NATO jets survivable against advanced Russian air defences cannot be shared, because Russian technicians would likely gain invaluable insight into how to target these planes when flying under the scrutiny of Indian S400 Gravestone defence system and Cheeseboard radar.

This leaves India in a difficult position. Stepping away from Russia means making a clean break before Western systems become available. But if there are delays in the delivery of western replacements, or the politics of exports impose frictions on the process, then India could come up short in leaping the canyon and see its defence capabilities fall into the void.

A second challenge for India is one of volume. Although NATO fields 10 Corps Headquarters only the US fields sovereign Corps and even then rarely trains at that scale. India, by contrast, does anticipate fighting with corps echelons. The assurance of sufficient ammunition, spare parts and vehicles for such large formations is a challenge. Replacing the equipment of such large formations is expensive and Western systems — while capable — are much more expensive than India can afford in the quantity relevant to its defence. In the event of a major conflict therefore, India must assure access to a consistent supply of ammunition across its formations. Since its forces are equipped with Russian vehicles and weapons this largely demands supply from Russia. Much of this is for support and spares for existing systems. Again, therefore, while the west can offer bespoke systems it cannot expect to meet the scale of demand at a cost that India can afford. India is therefore reticent to risk its access to supply from Moscow.

India’s defence posture is consequently afflicted by competing imperatives. In the long run being tied to Moscow is increasingly dangerous and the capabilities Russia offers are falling behind the systems fielded by the PLA and exported to Pakistan. On the other hand, western states will need to help India jump the capability canyon, since among key systems India cannot mix its suppliers. If the West wishes to help India break its dependence upon Russia it must also help New Delhi assure the supply of key systems at scale without offering solutions that are beyond India’s means. There is therefore a need for a multi-layered approach.

Addressing the depth and breadth of dependence

Though India’s nuclear submarine fleet currently relies on Russian support, the country is seeking to develop its own nuclear powered attack submarines as part of an ambitious modernisation programme. Nuclear submarine technology is necessarily exceedingly sensitive. Nevertheless, some states are more forward leaning in their preparedness to export in this area. The two most sensitive technologies in an attack submarine are its reactor and its quietening technology. Both the US and UK guard their technologies in this area carefully. The AUKUS deal with Australia is a rare example of exports in this area, and Australia is a uniquely trusted partner given its five eyes membership. 

Europe, however, has been rather more forward leaning in its export of nuclear and submarine technology. France in particular represents a potential partner for India given the relatively deep relationship of the two countries and Indian officials have been exploring the purchase of the nuclear capable Barracuda submarine from France. For reasons relating to both its willingness to export capabilities and its existing relationship with India, France may be well positioned to offer an offset to Russia in this space. Western countries, usually fierce competitors, could do well to support France in pursuing this deal.

An approach geared towards addressing the breadth of India’s dependence on Russian technology, while remaining cognisant of the bureaucratic and price based hurdles that India faces in incorporating western platforms, might take as an inspiration Israel, which has steadily increased its share of the Indian defence market. Israel has accomplished this in several ways. First, it has emphasised the rapid delivery of components rather than platforms. Examples include precision guided munitions for the IAF, components such as the Phalcon radar for Indian IL-76 based AEW aircraft and all weather targeting pods among others. Exports — especially from western nations that have handled Russian equipment for a long time — can also be geared towards providing an alternative avenue for replenishing stocks. For example, ammunition for the T-90S is an area where Israel made inroads in what might have been seen as an obvious Russian market. It accomplished this by making compatibility with Russian equipment a design priority for an explicitly export oriented product. In effect, rather than selling India platforms it may not be able to afford at scale, Israel has sought to grow its share in the market for modernising legacy platforms and replenishing stores of things like ammunition.

In principle, this is a niche that western partners could also seek to fill; where possible looking to deconflict with suppliers like Israel and instead focus on competing in modernisation and supply programmes that Russia is bidding for. To use one example, while the export of a product such as the Type-26 Frigate to India might be unlikely given its cost, an offer to integrate the highly effective sonar suite aboard the vessel on Indian ships could be offered as an alternative to the Russian state’s arms exporter, Rossoboron’s offer to modernise India’s Talwar class frigates. Similarly, the designs and specific components of the Queen Elizabeth class carrier might be offered in support of India’s carrier strike ambitions much in the way they have been to South Korea for its Amphibious Assault Ship.

Furthermore, engaging in co-production of capabilities such as the Barak-8 interceptor has both secured domestic support by aligning with India’s own indigenisation projects and generated real economies of cost and scale that has enabled the subsequent export of these interceptors by both nations. There are meaningful obstacles to co-producing platforms; many western countries legislate domestic production and India’s defence ecosystem remains sclerotic. However, a focus on specific sub-components such as radar, air defence interceptors or surface to surface missiles might yield different results. This is because of the somewhat less complex and politicised nature of these projects as compared to platform development. This might also provide opportunities to not only secure market share within India but generate export variants that reflect lower input costs in areas like labour, which can thus compete with Russian products in third markets, as the Barak-8 has in, for example, Azerbaijan.

Third, India will likely directly purchase more expensive equipment for specific relatively high priority units such as the Indian Army’s 17 Mountain Strike Corps, which will be central to a response on the Chinese border. This represents an area where western suppliers may be able to export capabilities more directly. For example, the Indian army has in recent years purchased U.S made 155mm howitzers. Though for the reasons outlined India will likely maintain a high-low capability mix, western suppliers can seek to dominate the higher end of that mix.

Finally, the Indian armed forces aspires to generate dispersed but networked integrated battle groups; a function of the need to operate under conditions where large formations may be subject to the use of battlefield nuclear weapons. The challenges of networking and C4ISR under dispersed conditions is one that western militaries are working through, and one that Russia simply cannot match. Sustained and focused defence engagement on this specific task is an offer the Russians likely cannot match.

The inception of a divorce

Ultimately, the Russo-Indian relationship is likely to be an increasingly marginal factor in both nations’ policies. This is not to say that there will never be areas of alignment between the two states. However, as Russia becomes ever more reliant on China, the Indian strategy of helping Russia hedge is likely to become effectively obsolete.

The challenge for western policymakers is weaning India off what will increasingly become a strategic liability for both India and the West, without subordinating this effort to what is currently happening in Ukraine. Given the current state of play, India is unlikely to jeopardise a vital and in some ways still very deep defence relationship with Russia. As the decade progresses, however, Russian dependence on Beijing and India’s own pursuit of strategic autonomy will lead to a natural split. The purpose of both western diplomacy and defence policy should be to bake in Russia’s isolation by accelerating this process through a consistent wedge strategy.


Jack Watling & Sidharth Kaushal