Indian Defence Minister Rajnath Singh shakes hands with his Russian counterpart Sergey Shoigu in Moscow in November 2019

Defence Minister Rajnath Singh arrived in Moscow on the evening of June 22 to attend the victory parade scheduled for June 24. He will represent India at the grand parade in Moscow’s Red Square, which will commemorate the 75th anniversary of Russia’s victory over Germany in World War II. Defence ministry officials said the visit will “strengthen the longstanding special and privileged strategic partnership between India and Russia”.

It is Singh’s line-up of three crucial meetings on June 23 that are far more significant given the ongoing border tensions between India and China and the fact that Moscow is New Delhi’s largest arms supplier.

Singh will meet all the key people in Russia’s vast military industrial complex—defence minister general Sergei Shoygu, deputy prime minister Yury Borisov, Sergey Chemezov, CEO of Rostec Corporation, and head of Rosoboronexport Alexander Mikheev. Both sides are yet to release details of these meetings, but key purchases of arms and ammunition are believed to be on the anvil.

Border tensions with China have been rising after the June 15 incident, where 20 Indian soldiers were killed in fierce hand-to-hand combat on the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in eastern Ladakh. It now emerges that the commanding officer of the Chinese unit was also killed in the skirmish between the Indian soldiers and troopers of the People’s Liberation Army.

The Indian army and air force have moved key assets like tanks, artillery, fighter jets and helicopter gunships to the LAC with China. The government recently permitted each of the three services to buy arms and ammunition up to Rs 500 crore. Accompanying the defence minister to Russia are defence secretary Ajay Kumar and chief of integrated defence staff Vice Admiral Hari Kumar.

Nearly half of India’s present military arsenal is of Russian origin. Consequently, all three services have drawn up emergency procurement lists to immediately purchase missiles and specialised ammunition for their Russian-origin fighter jets, tanks, warships and submarines.

That there was much more to the trip than the parade was known last week. The defence ministry informed Russian authorities of Singh’s visit as late as the evening of June 19. The invitations were sent out to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the defence minister in February this year. The high-level visit comes when relations between India and China are at the worst in decades. The Indian government believes this to be a unilateral move by China to alter the LAC and is clear that the Chinese troops will have to restore status quo—move to where they were, behind the LAC, on May 5.

Singh’s high-profile visit will speed up purchases of urgently required arms. “Russia is one country in the world that will give you the arms and ammunition in the quantities that you want, virtually overnight,” says a government official.

Russia is India’s largest arms partner, with arms deals worth over $10 billion in the pipeline (see graphic). Deals signed recently include a $3 billion lease of a second Akula class nuclear-powered attack submarine from Russia, a $950 million deal for two Krivak class frigates. Of immediate interest are two big-ticket deals. The first is for 33 combat jets from Russia—12 Su-30MKIs to be built in India and 21 MiG-29 fighter airframes to be refurbished and upgraded for $1.4 billion. India also wants deliveries of five systems of the S-400 air defence missile system to be speeded up. The first units of the $5.4 billion system are slated for delivery in late 2021. The Russian side has conveyed that earlier delivery will be difficult given the need for training Indian crews to man the complex missile system.