Publication: Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 76

Indian Defense Minister George Fernandes appeared to use a visit to Russia last week to signal a vote of confidence by India’s military leadership in New Delhi’s long-standing defense relationship with Moscow. The visit came approximately three weeks after the Indian defense chief had postponed an earlier planned series of talks in Moscow. That was an unexpected move that focused new attention on reports of dissatisfaction in New Delhi over both arms negotiations with the Russians and the quality of service Russian arms suppliers have provided in recent years. Indeed, an Indian parliamentary committee issued recommendations in the run up to Fernandes’ planned departure for Moscow last month that, while acknowledging how important Russia is as an arms supplier to India, nonetheless urged New Delhi to avoid depending too much on Moscow. India’s military leadership moved to defend Russia against the lawmakers’ criticism, however, circulating a document of its own laying out the reasons why Moscow should remain India’s primary supplier of defense hardware. Defense ties between the two countries were further muddled, moreover, by a shakeup atop the Russian arms sector that some sources in Moscow reported as related to problems in Russia’s arms dealings with New Delhi (see the Monitor, March 25).

It is unclear if Fernandes’ visit put Indian-Russian arms dealings fully back on track, but in his public statements at least the Indian defense chief appeared to give that impression. In a brief statement that followed talks with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov on April 11, Fernandes said that the meeting was “highly fruitful and productive.” He also described military-technical cooperation between the two countries as resting on “very firm foundations,” and said that it is poised for further growth. Following his return to New Delhi, Fernandes was quoted telling top Indian military commanders that his Moscow talks had produced “forward movement” on several key arms agreements. He assured them that India’s defense preparedness would soon get a boost, thanks to a trio of arms deals New Delhi has recently concluded with Moscow. The context of Fernandes’ comments to the military leadership–and indeed of its arms trade more generally with Russia–was an important one. It is the continuing tensions on the Indian-Pakistan border, where some 1 million troops are now deployed, and New Delhi’s apparent determination to maintain superiority in the military forces that it fields there.

Indeed, while no agreements were scheduled to be signed during the Fernandes visit to Moscow, the Indian defense chief appeared to get satisfaction on what several sources suggested was one of his chief goals for the trip: to win a Russian commitment to accelerate the delivery schedule for a batch of T-90 main battle tanks that India has purchased from Moscow. According to reports out of Moscow, those tanks could begin arriving in India as early as this month. The T-90 purchase is one of three blockbuster arms deals India has finalized with Russia over the past couple of years. It has ensured New Delhi’s position as one of the world’s two major buyers (along with China) of Russian military hardware. One was a US$3 billion deal granting India the right to produce 140 Russian Su-30MKI jet fighters. Another was the T-90 tank deal, under which New Delhi purchased 140 of the tanks off the shelf and received the right to assemble another 186 T-90s in India. Forty of the tanks have already been delivered. A third Indian-Russian deal is estimated at US$1 billion and will see New Delhi receive three Krivak-class frigates from the Russian Baltiisky shipyard in St. Petersburg. Various smaller arms deals complete a package of arms purchases from India that reportedly could earn Moscow as much as US$10 billion in the years to come.

Moscow and New Delhi have nonetheless run into problems finalizing a number of other arms deals that could greatly expand the US$10 billion figure, but comments Fernandes made in the aftermath of his latest Moscow trip suggest that the two may be creeping closer to an agreement on this additional package. The two sides failed in this task during a high-profile visit to New Delhi by then Russian Deputy Prime Minister Ilya Klebanov in February of this year. Recent reports continue to suggest that one reason for that failure was the Russian side’s decision to predicate several of the proposed arms sales upon a commitment by New Delhi to purchase the aging Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Gorshkov. Negotiations between the two countries on this particular sale have seemingly been going on for an eternity. Under Klebanov, the Russians were reportedly offering to sell the 44,500-ton vessel for the cost of its refitting–about US$750 million–while also demanding that India purchase about forty MiG-29K fighters for the carrier’s air group. Moscow was said to be asking over US$1 billion for the MiGs.

Since the failed February talks, however, Klebanov has been demoted and Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, a close ally of President Vladimir Putin, has been named to fill his post as a cochairman of a key Indian-Russian governmental commission on military-technical cooperation. The Indian side has reportedly greeted that change with approval, and it seems to have been a contributing factor to the positive assessment that Fernandes gave the latest Indian-Russian talks. But while Fernandes spoke of the two sides having made progress toward finalizing this new package of arms deals, neither he nor the Russian side provided details as to the current state of negotiations. At issue, however, are reported Indian hopes of leasing two Russian nuclear submarines and at least two Tu-22M Backfire bombers–each reportedly to help bolster India’s nuclear forces. As in the past, reports last week also pointed to India’s possible interest in Russian Amur-class diesel submarines, Smerch and Grad mobile rocket launchers, Mi-17 helicopters, long-range radars and air defense systems.

In his comments following last week’s talks Fernandes also returned to another of the themes that India has emphasized of late with regard to its arms dealings with Russia–namely, that the two countries no longer have a “buyer-seller” relationship but are instead moving toward an arrangement whereby they participate increasingly as partners in the development and manufacture of weapons systems. With that cooperation in mind, the two countries hailed their first joint project, which is to develop the BrahMos antiship cruise missile, and pointed to additional joint projects in the future. But neither side disclosed exactly what they have in mind, though Russian reports have long pointed to joint design and production work with India of a potential fifth generation fighter plane. On the eve of Fernandes’ visit, the Sukhoi design bureau did not rule out that this might be on the Indian-Russian discussion agenda.

Although arms appeared to dominate Fernandes’ talks in Moscow, they were not the only subject of discussion. Following talks with the Russian defense minister on April 11, and a meeting with Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov on April 13, the two sides emphasized what they described as the near harmony of their views on a host of key international security issues, including the situation in Afghanistan. Neither side offered many specifics in its public remarks, but they did underline what they said were similarities between Russia’s war in Chechnya and India’s troubles in Kashmir. “The interrelation between terrorists in Chechnya and Kashmir is perfectly obvious for Mr. Fernandes and me,” Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov was quoted as saying. The remark highlighted one criticism of the Bush administration’s antiterror policy that both countries have voiced in the past: Namely, that while Washington has felt free to intervene with decisive military force against Taliban and al-Qaida forces in Afghanistan, it has urged restraint on other countries–Russia and India included–which have framed conflicts on their own territories in terms of the battle against international terrorism (Asia Times, April 12-13; AP, April 11, 13; AFP, April 11; South Nexus,, April 12; Itar-Tass, April 11-12; Interfax, April 11, 15;, April 11; Times of India, April 15; Novye Izvestia, April 13).