But Moscow is just as aggressive as Beijing against democracy

by Anders Corr

Russia is an unreliable, autocratic, and pro-China country. Yet India, the world’s biggest democracy, is aligned with the East European country due to a historical relationship and an Indian desire to maintain both Russian and American friends for any potential fight against China.

At a summit in December with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Russian leader Vladimir Putin claimed to cooperate with India on military-technical matters “like with no other country.” Putin cited the development of high-technology military equipment and production processes, most notably within India itself.

India has a long history of “friendship” with what is probably best, but rarely in contemporary times, described as an East European empire. On Aug. 9, 1971, the Soviet Union and India signed the “Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Cooperation” in New Delhi, but the relationship extends back much further into history.

Today, the old Soviet Union has crumbled. Russia is economically impoverished due in part to its territorial aggression in Ukraine and the resulting Western sanctions.

China is rising into the world’s wealthiest, most militarily powerful, and territorially-aggressive dictatorship. Russia has little of value to sell internationally, other than oil, gas, and wheat. And it has military technology developed during the Cold War, which it leverages for political power. India wants to buy in order to indigenize its own military production for the increasingly hot fight against China in India’s northern border regions.

But some cooperation with Moscow on military production will destroy existing indigenous capabilities. Moscow and New Delhi plan to produce over 600,000 Russian AK-203 assault rifles over 10 years in India, for example. But they will replace indigenously-developed and manufactured INSAS light arms, which the Indian military has used for three decades. The new Indian-Russian AKs would not initially be 100 percent Indian-produced, and some parts would be made in Russia.

Other paradoxes and fissures in the Russia-India relationship are tangible.

Former ambassador Ashok Sajjanhar noted in New Delhi’s Sunday Guardian on Jan. 15 that “India’s growing relations with the US and Russia’s expanding ties with China and Pakistan are issues on which there can be conflict of interest” between India and Russia.

Sajjanhar is also the president of New Delhi’s Institute of Global Studies. His comments appeared in a review of Achala Moulik’s latest book, “Commemorating 50 Years of India-Russia Relations.”

This relationship is important to global politics, including the U.S. conflict with China, as democracy advocates around the world should want the best for India—not a risky relationship with a territorially-aggressive Russia, aligned with an even more dangerous foe: China. If India weakens because of a Russian double-cross, for example, then democracy weakens globally.

There are plenty of opportunities for such a double-cross. In December, India and Russia pledged military cooperation, including on the new BrahMos supersonic cruise missile, for another decade. This is the latest step in highly-technical, and thus fragile, defence cooperation between the two countries, which includes India’s planned purchase of S-400 surface-to-air missiles.

America thinks such purchases are unwise. When Turkey bought the S-400 system, the U.S. sanctioned it under the 2017 Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA). Washington is threatening the same against New Delhi, along with a downgrade to U.S.-Indian cooperation more generally.

Moscow’s continued hold on India distances the South Asian country from far better opportunities for defence cooperation with the United States and Europe, with whom it shares values of democracy and freedom.

The most high profile of the Moscow-Delhi collaborations, the BrahMos missile deal, “is about India trying to become an arms exporter,” wrote Joyeeta Basu, editor at the Sunday Guardian in New Delhi. “It’s about giving a push to indigenous industry,” which is a priority for the present government.

Basu wrote in an email: “Successive governments had ignored this aspect and kept India dependent on arms imports. Things have started to change now.”

Exporting arms, such as the recent Indian sale of the BrahMos to the Philippines, would immeasurably increase India’s diplomatic and military influence globally, along with its foreign exchange reserves and economic growth.

According to Basu, “getting an order for Brahmos missiles from a foreign country is very significant for India. It’s the first big order coming from abroad.”

Basu and another Indian defence expert, Subir Bhaumik, hinted that Vietnam and Indonesia also want to buy the BrahMos system.

“The sale of Brahmos marks an important landmark for India in its effort to become an exporter of military hardware,” Bhaumik wrote in an email. “So far [India] is one of the highest importers of military hardware but the Brahmos sale to Philippines is a noteworthy game-changer.”

India’s military sales will increase the massive South Asian country’s “military diplomacy in Asia and if Vietnam and Indonesia follow the Philippines ├Čn buying Brahmos, it surely helps Delhi develop strong military relations with these countries who have given enough indication to stand up to China,” Bhaumik wrote.

“That these countries are close to China’s nightmare, the Malacca chokepoint, is significant, not … least because the Indian navy is getting a base in Sabang, Indonesia fairly soon,” he said. “It has been training Vietnamese submariners.”

Sajjanhar noted that India’s “Quad” security relationship with the United States, Japan, and Australia, along with Indo-Pacific issues more generally, and China in particular, has led to Russo-Indian tensions.

“India has tried to explain to its Russian interlocutors that India’s growing relations with the US or its membership of the Quad or Indo-Pacific are not in any way directed against Russia,” wrote Sajjanhar. “They are an insurance against the aggression and expansionist policy of China.”

That Russia has not supported India in its relationship with the United States and allies is difficult for the Russo-Indian relationship.

“It is a matter of regret that Russia has failed to fully appreciate the threat that India faces from China on its land borders, particularly because there is no lessening of China’s intimidating actions in sight,” Sajjanhar wrote.

What is more, India dislikes that Russia adopts language supportive of China. “Some Russian officials … sing paeans of praise for China’s Belt and Road Initiative, fully realising that its flagship project, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) passes through territory illegally occupied by Pakistan,” wrote Sajjanhar.

“It would be reassuring if these Russian officials were to simultaneously criticise China for its aggression against India, for unilaterally violating all the agreements signed between the two for maintaining peace and tranquillity on their border and for constructing the CPEC through territory belonging to India.”

Sanjahar argued that “Russia would not wish to see a China-dominated Asia or a China-dominated world. In pursuit of a multi polar world, India is its most viable partner.”

India is an important balancing partner against Beijing’s growing economic and military power, and its goals of global hegemony. But Moscow, aligned as it is with Beijing, poses the risk of a double-cross, and the distancing of India from true friends of democracy in Europe and North America.

Let’s hope that India can wean itself, with the help of other world democracies and allies, from reliance on an alignment with Russia’s unreliable technology and illiberal influence.