Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 110

Three days of talks in Moscow this week between Indian Foreign and Defense Minister Jaswant Singh and top Russian leaders appears to have greatly bolstered a “strategic partnership” agreement between the two countries that was signed during a visit last fall by President Vladimir Putin to New Delhi. Singh’s meetings in Moscow appeared to focus on two areas of policy in particular: military-technical cooperation between Russia and India, and the two countries’ respective positions on U.S. missile defense plans and the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty. Despite a recent, marked warming in ties between India and the United States–one that had raised some red flags in Russia–Moscow appeared to make progress in both areas. Singh and Russian Deputy Prime Minister Ilya Klebanov announced an impressive package of new arms deals, and the Indian minister appeared also to move New Delhi closer to Moscow on the missile defense and arms control issue.

This week’s talks on military-technical cooperation between India and Russia, which were conducted under the auspices of a recently formed joint commission devoted to dealings in this area, came against a deep background of existing arms dealings between the two countries (see the Monitor, June 1). Despite an earlier agreement outlining some US$10 billion worth of Russian arms sales to India over the next decade, however, serious disagreements over details of the cooperation plan–and over Russia’s implementation of existing agreements–has continued to dog interactions between the two countries in this area. If Singh’s rhetoric in Moscow is to be believed, many of those problems have now been surmounted. The Indian minister spoke of this week’s talks as representing a qualitative breakthrough in Russian-Indian defense cooperation. “What we have done is to lay down new charts for our military-technical cooperation till the year 2010,” he said yesterday. “It is a most significant qualitative change that we have achieved during this visit. From now on we are not dealing just like buyers and sellers, we are joint co-producers, sharers of technology.”

Singh was referring to the fact that India has previously seen itself as a relatively backward country whose arms dealings with Russia (and the former Soviet Union) went almost entirely in one direction: New Delhi’s purchase of more advanced Russian military hardware. Given Russia’s current weaknesses, however, and India’s own technological and economic advances, New Delhi has sought to make the relationship between them more equitable. It has done this by negotiating deals involving not only the purchase by India of Russian military hardware off the shelf, but also of licensing contracts by which Indian companies could produce Russian hardware in India. This emerging pattern of doing business was clearly evident in the two blockbuster arms deals finalized in the wake of Putin’s visit to India last fall: one involving Russian T-90 battle tanks and another Russian Su-30MKI multirole fighters. In the first case India is to receive about 120 T-90s off the shelf and will produce under Russian license another 180 units. With regard to the fighter aircraft, India has purchased fifty Su-30s and will produce 140 under license.

The arms agreements announced this week apparently fall within the same broader package–or within a “matrix” of Indian-Russian defense cooperation, as some sources have described it–as those two earlier deals. According to Russian and Indian sources, the new deals include agreements under which India has made a preliminary commitment to finance the joint development of both a fifth generation Sukhoi fighter jet and the Ilyushin-214 military transport plane, and another under which India would pay for the completion and procurement of two Russian nuclear submarines already under construction. In addition, the two countries are said to be considering another deal–one that may prove to be the most interesting result of this week’s talks–involving the purchase by New Delhi of various Russian air-defense systems, including S-300 missile complexes, as part of a package under which Moscow would help the Indian armed forces develop an integrated air defense system with shoot-down capabilities against both aircraft and missiles. Finally, the two sides reportedly made progress in their long negotiations over India’s purchase of Russia’s Admiral Gorshkov aircraft carrier. The deal under discussion would require India to pay for repairing and refitting the vessel, and for delivering a full complement of Russian MiG-29K shipboard fighters to deploy on the carrier.

In addition to the prospective new arms deals, the two sides reportedly reached agreements aimed at improving and regularizing the pricing and delivery of Russian spare parts for military hardware purchased earlier by New Delhi from Moscow. Russian irregularities in this area, particularly with respect to pricing, had become an irritant in bilateral relations and a point of inquiry in an Indian arms procurement corruption case that cost former Indian Defense Minister George Fernandes his job earlier this year. Separately, Singh and Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov also reached an agreement boosting contacts between the military establishments of the two countries.

All of these arms deals are of potentially great benefit to both Russia and India. For the cash-strapped Russian government, and for the country’s equally impoverished defense industrial sector, the Indian arms purchases are a potentially life-saving source of revenue. For India, the purchases represent a relatively cost-effective way of implementing a major military buildup to which the government has committed itself. In principle, New Delhi’s moves toward financing Russian arms development programs, as with the fifth generation fighter project, for example, likewise serve both countries: Russia gets the development funding that it desperately needs for weaponry that can ultimately be used by the country’s own armed forces, while India acquires both top-notch hardware and technical and manufacturing capabilities that it currently lacks (Moscow Times, June 5, 7; South Nexus, June 3, 5, June 4; Kommersant, June 5; AP, Reuters, AFP, Russian agencies, June 6; The Hindu, June 6-7; Hindustan Times, June 6; Nezavisimaya Gazeta, June 7).

What remains unanswered, however, is whether military-technical cooperation on such a massive scale can be made to work smoothly. Even the more limited projects that Russia and India have undertaken in recent years have reportedly been rife with problems and irregularities, and the negotiations between the two countries that led to these agreements were arduous and at times acrimonious. Against that background, it is worth noting that the document signed this week by Singh and Klebanov was a protocol agreement, and that further negotiation will apparently be required before these deals are finalized. That negotiation process, and implementation of those agreements that are ultimately finalized, are likely to fully test the resolve of both countries to make large-scale military-technical cooperation work in practice.