Publication: Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 59

India has long leaned heavily on Russia to equip its armed forces with military hardware. A decision last week by Defense Minister George Fernandes to postpone a planned visit to Moscow, however, has served to highlight possible new tensions in this area. Fernandes was to have begun a four-day visit to Russia on March 24, but, on March 22, sources in New Delhi and Moscow announced that the defense chief’s presence was needed instead at a crucial meeting of the Indian parliament. Indian sources went out of their way to make it clear that the delay hinged solely domestic political developments and in no way reflected problems with Moscow. But however true that might have been, the timing of the postponement has undoubtedly raised some concerns in Moscow. It comes amid both a reshuffling of key personnel in Russia’s arms export establishment–including an apparent change of leadership in a key Indian-Russian military cooperation commission–and published reports indicating that New Delhi is, after years of dependence on Moscow, heightening its efforts to diversify its arms suppliers.

India is Russia’s second-largest arms client, and is reported to have committed itself over the past year to the purchase of some US$10 billion in Russian military hardware. Negotiations on these and other arms deals have often been arduous, however. There have been reports of dissatisfaction on the Indian side that the two countries failed earlier this year to finalize an additional package of deals that sources said could be worth in excess of US$3 billion. That failure came during a mid-February visit to New Delhi by then Russian Deputy Prime Minister Ilya Klebanov, who at that time also oversaw Russia’s defense industrial sector, played a major role in the country’s arms export business, and served as co-chair–along with Fernandes–of an Indian Russian military-technical cooperation commission (see the Monitor, February 12).

On February 18, however, Klebanov was demoted from deputy prime minister to the rank of minister of industry, science and technology, and was at the same time stripped of many of his responsibilities for Russian arms sales. Some reports suggested that Klebanov’s difficulties in New Delhi may have been one of the reasons for his demotion. That speculation appears to have been borne out last week when news sources said that Klebanov was likely to be removed as co-chair of the Indian-Russian military cooperation commission, and that his replacement was expected to be Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov. Indeed, reports prior to Fernandes’ planned departure for Moscow had indicated that the Indian defense chief would meet with Ivanov, but made no mention of Klebanov.

An Indian newspaper, moreover, appeared to suggest yesterday that even if problems with Moscow were not the direct cause of Fernandes’ decision to postpone his Moscow visit, they may have been a factor. The Hindu observed that the postponement decision would provide Moscow with a respite to reassign responsibilities for defense exports to India and other countries in the wake of Klebanov’s demotion. Quoting a Russian expert, the newspaper also suggested that the expected naming of Ivanov to the commission post might improve Indian-Russian cooperation in this area. “Ivanov is considered Russia’s top man for global security and geopolitical strategies,” the expert said. “Also, he is the most trusted friend of the president, Vladimir Putin.

This discussion about the impact that Klebanov’s demotion might have on Russian-Indian military-technical cooperation comes amid an apparently emerging conflict in New Delhi over the broader benefits of India’s defense relationship with Russia. The Times of India reported yesterday that the Parliamentary Standing Committee had issued recommendations last week urging the government to avoid overdependence on Russia for armaments and spare parts. The committee report did reportedly acknowledge that Russia has been and will remain a steadfast source of defense equipment for India, but cautioned that New Delhi’s current dependence on Moscow for as much as 80 percent of its arms imports was not a healthy situation. It likewise observed that Russia was not providing military hardware on the same beneficial financial terms that it had during the Soviet era, and urged both that New Delhi cease making advance payments for future weapons acquisitions from Russia, and that it seek in the future to put more defense contracts up for competitive tender.

India’s military leadership has apparently defended Moscow, however. According to reports out of New Delhi, an Indian Defense Ministry document circulated among lawmakers last week outlined several reasons why Russia should remain India’s primary supplier of defense hardware. The fact that India’s current hardware is primarily Russian-made was one. Another was the Defense Ministry’s contention that Moscow had proven to be a reliable supplier for India at times of critical need. And perhaps most important, the Defense Ministry argued that Russia was willing to sell India the sorts of high technology weapons systems that many Western countries were loathe to provide.

But that calculus may be challenged in the months ahead. As the Financial Times reported last week, the worsening confrontation between India and Pakistan is drawing in arms dealers from around the world who are seeking to get a piece of India’s growing defense budget. Indeed, more than 140 foreign companies were reportedly represented at an Indian defense expo held in New Delhi last month. In addition to a large Russian representation, their number included teams from the United States, Britain, Israel, France and South Africa. The expo follows closely a decision by the Indian government to open up its defense manufacturing sector to private investment after some fifty years of government control. New Delhi’s goal is to use foreign partners to develop its own defense industrial sector. It will likely try–as it has already done successfully in its dealings with Moscow–to condition future arms deals on agreements by the contracting companies to license at least some of the production in India. It has also reportedly been negotiating what could be a groundbreaking deal with Washington. General Richard B. Myers, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, announced after a visit to New Delhi last month that India intends to buy a U.S. surveillance radar. The deal is a first for Washington and New Delhi, but may not be the last, given the intentions of the two countries to intensify bilateral defense cooperation more generally.

In comments following Myers’ visit, Fernandes emphasized that New Delhi’s improving ties with Washington would not have an adverse impact on its defense relations with Russia. “We are working together [with both],” he was quoted as saying,” and I don’t think there is any conflict of interest between our relations with the United States and our relations with Russia.” According to Russian diplomatic sources, Fernandes has rescheduled his Moscow visit for April 10-13. The outcome of that visit should give a better indication of exactly where Indian-Russian defense cooperation stands at the moment. It may also provide an inkling as to the sustainability of New Delhi’s current policy of balancing its defense relations between Russia and the United States (AP, February 19; BBC, South Nexus, February 20; Financial Times, February 26; Itar-Tass/ACSNA/IRNA, March 21; Times of India, March 23, 24; AFP, March 23; The Hindu, March 24).