IFS (Retd.) & Advisory Council
Any concern that the current India-China clash in Ladakh and its potential for escalation may affect Russian arms supplies to India is misplaced. India-Russia defence ties are time-tested, with both countries equally interested in nurturing them as a vital pillar of the overall relationship. Russia, unlike others, has never imposed arms sanctions on India. At critical times, such as during the Kargil conflict, Russia supplied India much-needed items from its own military reserves.
Russia has supplied advanced platforms and technologies unavailable from other countries, such as leased nuclear powered submarines and development support for our indigenous platforms. Russia will begin delivering us the S-400 air defence system by late 2021. Russia knows that this system as well as the nuclear powered submarines equipped with undersea missile launchers boost our capabilities vis-a-vis China and are Pakistan-oriented.
No doubt Russia and China have deepened their strategic partnership. This is in response to the sharply deteriorating Russia-US and Russia-EU ties and stringent western sanctions. China provides Russia an alternative market for its exports, especially of energy. With US-China ties increasingly fraught, both countries have an additional reason to join hands to counter US power. India is not a factor in the evolution of Russia-China strategic partnership, nor is it directed at India. Russia’s continued support to the Russia-India-China forum, the BRICS and India’s role in the SCO would testify to this.
The Russia-China strategic partnership is a state-level defensive arrangement without much popular appeal. Russia is very conscious of its great power status and is emotionally unwilling to accept an inferior status vis-a-vis China, as also with the US. Russia would probably resent any Chinese advice not to sell arms to India, viewing it as interference in Russia’s relations with India. It would perhaps see the irony of India not succumbing to US pressure to reduce arms purchases from Russia, and now China advising Russia to not meet India’s request for arms and Russia yielding to such a demand.
The Russia-China strategic partnership should not obfuscate certain realities. Russia’s trade with the EU ($230 billion) far exceeds that with China ($110 billion). Russia supplies much more oil and gas to the EU than to China. Russia is not indebted to China. It hasn’t gained much from China’s BRI. Russian arms sales to China, from a peak of $3.2 billion in 2005 have averaged $816 million between 2010 and 2018, with China’s share of Russian arms exports declining from 47.7 % of total sales in 2006 to 13.7% in 2018.
India, on the contrary, remains a prime market for Russian arms exports, even if from meeting 76% of Indian arms supplies during 2009-13, the figure has fallen to 56% during 2104-18. According to Russia, India has ordered $14.5 billion of Russia-made weapons last year, including the $5 billion S-400 system and frigates.
Rajnath Singh’s Moscow visit has provided the occasion to seek quicker deliveries of defence equipment and spares from Russia. While expediting the supply of large platforms like the S-400 may not be feasible, quicker delivery of smaller items and spares is, and Russia should oblige. Politically, however, Russia will strike a neutral posture between India and China, as it has major interests in both countries. The shared platforms on which all the three countries work will be undermined if Russia takes sides. Foreign minister Lavrov has clarified that India and China can solve their problems on their own and do not need the help of a third country.