The Russian Arms Pipeline
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The Russian Arms Pipeline

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A string of new defence deals sets the stage for the forthcoming face-to-face summit between prime minister Modi and Russian President Vladimir Putin

by Sandeep Unnithan

Lord of War meets James Bond in a dimly-lit conference room in the heart of Moscow. See-through glass panels glisten with images of drones, tanks and missiles. A hologram host—a Russian-speaking woman in a little black dress—glides along minimalist concrete walls to explain cutting-edge weaponry produced by Moscow’s military industrial complex. Coiffed English-speaking executives, the public relations tip of an export-focused military enterprise, walk around the display with tablets. Welcome to the headquarters of the Federal Service of Military Technical Cooperation (FSMTC), the Russian body overseeing global arms exports worth over $50 billion (Rs 3.65 lakh crore) annually.

Lord of War meets James Bond in a dimly-lit conference room in the heart of Moscow. See-through glass panels glisten with images of drones, tanks and missiles. A hologram host—a Russian-speaking woman in a little black dress—glides along minimalist concrete walls to explain cutting-edge weaponry produced by Moscow’s military industrial complex. Coiffed English-speaking executives, the public relations tip of an export-focused military enterprise, walk around the display with tablets. Welcome to the headquarters of the Federal Service of Military Technical Cooperation (FSMTC), the Russian body overseeing global arms exports worth over $50 billion (Rs 3.65 lakh crore) annually.

In the conference room, FSMTC director Dmitry Shugaev downplays the US sanctions hanging like the sword of Damocles over Russia’s arms transactions with India. “Such sanctions have zero per cent effect,” says Shugaev. “India is interested in strengthening its military capability.” This would certainly seem to be the case. Later this year, the Indian Air Force (IAF) will take delivery of the first consignment of the Russian-built S-400 long range air defence missile system. It is part of a $5.43 billion (Rs 39,645 crore) deal for five systems signed in 2018 in the teeth of opposition from the US. The US has warned India about the provisions of CAATSA (Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act) against countries dealing with Russia, promoted by Moscow’s alleged interference in the 2016 US presidential polls and military actions in Syria and Ukraine.

No US sanctions have been imposed yet, possibly because India is not just a strategic ally but has also bought $18 billion (Rs 1.31 lakh crore) worth of US arms since 2008, with tens of billions of dollars of arms still in the pipeline. India’s defence requirements have remained unchanged by the pandemic-induced economic downturn. The aggressive nine-month deployment by the PLA (People’s Liberation Army) in Ladakh, beginning last year, underscored the fact that India’s three-decades-long peace on the boundary with China might have come to an end. This uncertainty is underwritten by weapons deals and deft diplomatic manoeuvring between the US and Russia, two of India’s strategic partners who have been waging a mini Cold War since 2017.

The rupee-rouble payment route worked out by India and Russia to avoid US sanctions and bypass SWIFT transactions has been humming for the past two years. In the pipeline are multi-billion-dollar Indo-Russian defence deals. Both countries recently initiated discussions on leasing a second Akula-class nuclear-powered attack submarine (SSN) to bolster India’s severely depleted submarine arm. It is in addition to the Russian Navy’s submarine Bratsk (now called Chakra-3) that will join the Indian Navy in 2026. India and Russia concluded a $3 billion (Rs 21,910 crore) deal for the Chakra-3 in 2019. The cost covers the vessel’s 72-month refit and 10-year lease. The second SSN will ensure that the navy’s carrier battle groups, centred around the INS Vikramaditya and the INS Vikrant, will have one attack submarine each. The two SSNs can also be used for escorting India’s fleet of four Arihant-class ballistic missile submarines.

At the other end of the technology spectrum, both countries recently inked a Rs 300 crore deal for 70,000 AK-series rifles. This comes even as they negotiate a $1.6 billion (Rs 11,690 crore) deal for joint production of over 700,000 pieces of the assault rifle in Amethi, Uttar Pradesh. The army, this April, floated a global inquiry for buying 350 light tanks which will be air transportable and, more importantly, deployed in the Himalayan mountains against China. The Russian-built Sprut light tank is a front-runner because it weighs a little more than an infantry combat vehicle but packs a heavy 125mm gun of the kind carried by the army’s T-72 and T-90 medium tanks. The army wants to buy a limited number of Sprut tanks off the shelf.

Then, there are deals worth $15 billion (Rs 1.09 lakh crore) either being executed or negotiated. The weapon buys will be foregrounded by the first in-person bilateral meeting between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Russian President Vladimir Putin in two years, scheduled in New Delhi later this year. Besides the thriving defence cooperation, there are frequent joint military exercises, and Russia is also assisting in training the four astronauts selected for India’s Gaganyaan manned space mission set for 2022.

G Parthasarathy, former high commissioner to Islamabad, says PM Modi’s visit to Russia is a reassertion of India’s policy of strategic autonomy. “We are part of the Quad with the US because we need to balance Chinese power in the Indo-Pacific, but this will not come at the cost of our relationship with Russia. That is the true essence of strategic autonomy,” he says.

The relationship has become particularly complicated in recent years because Russia and China also share close security cooperation and a relationship driven by arms sales and common loathing for the US. “We have glorious past, good present and a bright future,” says Ruslan Pukhov, director of the Moscow-based think tank Centre for the Analysis of Strategies and Technologies (CAST). But he adds a few caveats. “Russians are very nervous about US activity in India. Indians are suspicious about Russian-Chinese rapprochement. So there are huge risks, especially after the departure of Putin or Modi since many things are based on their personal chemistry,” says Pukhov.

There is Pakistan as well. In recent years, Moscow has sold Mi-35 helicopter gunships, Klimov RD-93 jet engines for JF-17 fighters and Pantsir air defence missile systems to Islamabad. These arms sales have violated verbal assurances to India. But it has not come in the way of the Russia-India relationship for several important reasons. Despite a renewed drive to achieve self-sufficiency in defence production launched last year, India is still years away from becoming self-reliant in critical areas of defence production.

Russian assistance is key to bridging capability gaps, such as the nuclear-powered attack submarine fleet. India’s indigenous programme to build six nuclear submarines will take at least a decade to deliver its first unit. The navy returned its only nuclear-powered attack submarine, the Chakra-2, to Russia this year after the 10-year lease ended. This is where the two Akula-class submarines come as a booster shot.

Russian Arms Deals Now Face Greater Scrutiny As India Is Insisting On Transfer Of Critical Technologies

Russia has also offered to sell four second-hand Kilo-class submarines to tide over a shortfall of conventional submarines—with India needing to pay an estimated $1 billion (Rs 7,300 crore) for refitting all four vessels in a Russian yard. These boats will be a stop-gap measure before the navy starts getting six conventional Project 75I submarines from domestic shipyards. Indian soldiers posted at high altitudes could be resupplied with the Kamov 226T helicopter, a boxy machine capable of hefting a one-tonne load. Indian infantry could soon be armed with Russian-designed AK-203 assault rifles, a modernised version of the iconic rifle which entered service over seven decades ago.

Long pending deals for spares have helped speed up the ongoing refit in Karwar of the Russian-built INS Vikramaditya. A $2.5 billion (Rs 18,250 crore) contract for four Krivak-class frigates will see two warships being built in Russia and two by the Goa Shipyard Ltd.

Significant as these may seem, Russia’s footprint in the Indian defence market has dwindled in recent years with the entry of the United States. A March 2021 report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute said that while India accounted for 23 per cent of Russia’s total arms exports in 2015-2020, this was a 22 per cent reduction in arms sales to India compared to 2011-2015.

Both countries are counting on joint ventures to knit their military industrial complexes together and deepen the defence relationship. India does not have a similar relationship with any other country. The 23-year old Indo-Russian BrahMos Corporation, which produces the eponymous supersonic cruise missile, is a model for two other projects: Indo-Russian Helicopters to produce the Ka-226 and Indo-Russian Rifles, which will produce the AK-203 assault rifles. The Ak-203 will not only replace the army’s INSAS and East European AK-type rifles, it will be the Indian infantry soldier’s main rifle for over a decade. Yet, the bonhomie has not prevented Russian deals from being subject to enhanced scrutiny by India’s ministry of defence (MoD).

The MoD wants Russia to transfer critical technologies to allow its industry to become self-sufficient. In 2018, India pulled the plug on a joint venture to produce a fifth generation fighter, the Sukhoi Su-57, because it was unhappy with the low level of technology being shared. A joint venture to manufacture 200 Kamov Ka-226 helicopters could face a similar fate. It has been held up for three years because the MoD wants Russia to boost the indigenous content in the machine to 70 per cent for all helicopters.

The deal to produce AK-203 assault rifles is held up because the Russian side insisted on a price of over $1,200 per rifle—at least $200 more than the cost of an imported US-made SiG 716 battle rifle which the army also uses. Indian officials want Russia’s Kalashnikov company to transfer both the knowhow and the know-why of the legendary weapon. The relationship with Russia will continue, but it clearly won’t be an unequal one.

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