Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 50

Recently intensified efforts by the Russian government to increase the country’s sale of military hardware abroad could face some unexpected obstacles in New Delhi. That, at least, is the conclusion of a recent Western news agency report (UPI, March 7) based on interviews with some Indian defense experts. The issue is important, considerably so, to Moscow. India remains, along with China, one of the two largest customers of Russian weaponry, having spent a reported US$3.5 billion on Russian armaments from 1990-1996 alone (IPS, February 4). Moscow now hopes to take full advantage of a recently announced plan by New Delhi to hike its military spending by some US$3billion in order to increase arms purchases from abroad.

This rise in Indian defense spending could dovetail nicely with Russian efforts to increase arms export earnings. In remarks to reporters on March 7, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Ilya Klebanov reiterated an earlier claim that Russian arms dealers are projected to bring in at least US$4.3 billion this year. That would be up from what the Kremlin claims were arms export earnings of some US$3.5 billion in 1999. Russian arms sales totaled US$2.6 billion in 1998 (see the Monitor, February 7).

According to a report carried by UPI earlier this week, however, there is growing sentiment in India to diversify its arms purchases rather than relying, as it has in the past, almost exclusively on Russian hardware. The report quoted Indian arms experts as saying that New Delhi now believes that it should shop around for weapons systems which offer more advantages than do their Russian counterparts. One senior naval officer, for example, pointed to German submarines as a better value than the diesel submarines which Moscow is now offering. A former director-general of India’s defense planning staff said that advanced jet trainers from either France or Britain, rather than from Russia, might make more sense for India. Another unnamed Indian defense expert, moreover, suggested that the Indian government had in the past bought Russian hardware at least in part for political reasons. “The Air Force did not want SU-thirty planes, but New Delhi still ordered for them from Moscow at a high price,” he said. “These planes are not up to the mark of a product that our pilots need” (UPI, March 7).

Since the accession of Vladimir Putin to the post of acting Russian president, Russian arms officials have joined in the general bluster which has marked so much public commentary by others in Russia’s defense establishment. If the recently announced figures for revenues from Russian arms exports in 1999–and the projections for 2000–prove to be correct, then perhaps the confidence is justified. Yet there have been hints of late that Russian arms dealers have suffered some significant embarrassments. One report listed a series of setbacks which included the failure of Russian T-80 tanks during testing in Greece and the failure of Russian antitank missiles during testing by the United Arab Emirates.

But the report pointed especially to Russian embarrassments in India. There, in the course of testing brand new Russian T-90 tanks, two-thirds of the missiles reportedly failed to hit their targets. New Delhi immediately suspended negotiations with Moscow over both the purchase of some 300 of the T-90s and over a license for their manufacture in India. The Russians were reportedly forced to deliver another consignment of missiles before negotiations could be resumed. In addition, the report appeared to confirm that India had indeed experienced problems with the SU-30 jets purchased from Russia. Problems with the aircraft’s engines reportedly began to appear late last year. The report suggested that the Indian and Russian sides were still trying to hash out how best to address these problems (Kommersant-VLAST, No. 4; AFP, February 8).

Under the terms of a protocol signed by Klebanov during a visit to New Delhi last November, Russia reportedly agreed to sell a range of weaponry to India that could earn Moscow up to US$4 billion over the next three years. The component pieces of that deal have apparently not yet been finalized, however, and problems in resolving India’s Soviet-era debt to Moscow have reportedly added to the tensions caused by the sub-par performance of some Russian weapons systems (IPS, February 4).

In remarks to the press on March 2, an Indian Foreign Ministry spokesman said that India and Russia will sign a strategic partnership agreement during a visit to New Delhi by Russia’s president–presumably Putin–sometime after the March 26 presidential election. Problems involving Russian-Indian military-technical cooperation will undoubtedly be discussed during that meeting (AFP, March 3).

Indeed, for all the friendly rhetoric which has passed between the two countries, the formal signing of a “strategic partnership” agreement has been a remarkably long time in coming. Former Russian President Boris Yeltsin unexpectedly and at the last minute canceled a visit to New Delhi in January of 1998 during which the two sides were expected to finalize their strategic partnership agreement. Roughly the same thing occurred in November of that year, when Yeltsin backed out of a second scheduled visit. Former Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov did travel to the Indian capital in December, and among the agreements he signed there was a long-term agreement on military-technical cooperation. But the strategic partnership was not finalized, and the Indian government continued preparations for a visit by Yeltsin. Tentative plans for Yeltsin to visit in late 1999 also apparently fell through. There were, finally, hints during Klebanov’s visit to India in November of last year that Yeltsin might at long last make the trip to New Delhi in early 2000. But Yeltsin’s resignation put those plans–and to some extent Russian-Indian relations–back in limbo.

Yeltsin’s recurrent health problems and the political turbulence within India itself undoubtedly contributed to the repeated postponements of Yeltsin’s trip to New Delhi. But behind-the-scene tensions related to the arms dealings between the two countries may also have had something to do with the postponements. Putin’s expected election later this month should give a quick indication of the current state of Indian-Russian relations. The scheduling of an early visit by Putin to New Delhi would suggest not only that Moscow continues to accord India a high priority in its foreign policy calculations, but that the two sides have worked out possible differences over both the strategic partnership and the arms sale agreements. A failure by Putin to quickly schedule a visit to India–particularly in the wake of U.S. President Bill Clinton’s own March 19-26 visit to the region–would suggest that relations between the two countries may not be quite so rosy as Russian rhetoric would suggest.