Russia, now seen as a junior partner to China, could counter this perception by strengthening its ties with India. Designing and building a commercial airliner together would be one way of doing so

The first Chinese-built commercial airliner recently completed its maiden flight safely, to the delight of most Chinese. When state-owned China Eastern Airlines flew its first C919, built by state-backed Commercial Aviation Corp of China (COMAC), from Shanghai to Beijing, carrying a planeload of proud passengers, it broke the duopoly of Boeing and Airbus on commercial aircraft capable of carrying 130 passengers or more. This is a lucrative market which India has the capability – and the right – to enter.

China relies on foreign suppliers for vital parts of the plane, including the engine and avionics. This is what Boeing and Airbus do as well. Their strength is in designing and manufacturing the plane’s fuselage and wings so they, too, source the engine from GE, Rolls Royce or Pratt & Whitney (France’s Safran also makes engines, though mostly for military aircraft and rockets).

Indian engineers have designed and produced the light combat aircraft, and are engaged in producing other fighter planes. While the ambition of producing a passenger airline has been around for some time, it has not taken wing. But now there is a trigger following the Ukraine war.

In response to the West’s sanctions against Russia, including on its oil exports, India and China have emerged as the largest buyers of Russian crude. India pays for the oil it imports with rupees. Russian companies have been accumulating rupees, as Russian exports to India far outweigh its imports from India. These rupees can be invested in Indian companies, according to policy.

Some high-profile Russian investments in India include BrahMos Aerospace, a defence joint venture that produces the Brahmos cruise missile, and Nayara Energy, the erstwhile Essar Refinery at Vadinar, Gujarat, which was bought by Rosneft, a Russian oil major. There is every reason to set up a joint venture to design and manufacture passenger aircraft that could compete with Boeing’s 737 Max and Airbus’s A320, to start with.

Russia, in its previous avatar as the leading federation of the Soviet Union, used to produce large airliners and cargo planes besides fighter aircraft and military transport planes. The collapse of the Soviet Union resulted in the loss of aircraft maker Antonov to Ukraine. It also led to the collapse of the Russian state, which failed to build on the technological capabilities accumulated during the Soviet phase as a kleptocracy took over vital chunks of the economy.

It was only after President Vladimir Putin took over in 2000 that the Russian state shed some of its dysfunction. In 2006, Putin ordered the merger of Russia’s assorted aviation companies into the United Aviation Corporation, bringing the likes of Sukhoi, Tupalev, Mikoyan, Ilyushin and Irkut under one roof. UAC has successfully produced a regional jet and a potential competitor to the Airbus A320 and Boeing-737, but has not found many takers besides Russia’s own Aeroflot.

UAC has a joint venture with China’s COMAC, which hopes to introduce a wide-bodied airliner by 2030. With this project underway, why would Russia want to start a new venture with Indian partners? This answer lies in geopolitics.

The US has officially identified China as its systemic rival, downgrading Russia to a regional irritant. The war in Ukraine has increased Russia’s dependence on China – it now uses China’s Cross-Border Interbank Payment System (CIPS) after being barred from using SWIFT, the global financial messaging system for cross-border payments. It also relies on China’s diplomatic heft, not to mention its huge appetite for crude oil and gas. Russia is unlikely to relish the perception that it is now a junior partner to China. One way to get around that would be to strengthen its ties with India.

India is neither a passive recipient of Russian technical help with no capacity to contribute to design and technology, nor a competitor seeking to subtly undermine Russia’s role in the world. The BrahMos joint venture has been an encouraging experience for both countries. There is also the imperative to make productive use of Russia’s hoard of rupees in India. All told, there is an opportunity in building commercial airliners that Indian and Russian aviation companies should jointly explore and exploit.