To Fight China, India Needs to Forget Russia

The best way for New Delhi to modernize its military and protect itself from Beijing’s aggression is to forget its old relationship with Moscow and build closer ties to Washington.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo shakes hands with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi during their meeting at the prime minister's residence in New Delhi, India, on June 26, 2019.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo shakes hands with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi during their meeting at the prime minister's residence in New Delhi, India, on June 26, 2019. Jacquelyn Martin/AFP/Getty Images

In late June, just days after a deadly border skirmish between Indian and Chinese troops, Indian Defense Minister Rajnath Singh traveled to Moscow to attend the 75th Victory Day Parade that commemorated the defeat of Nazi Germany. During his visit, Singh concluded a deal to purchase fighter jets and other arms worth $2.4 billion. The accord followed an agreement reached last year for India to acquire Russia’s S-400 air defense missile system despite explicit objections from the United States.

What explains India’s continued reliance on Russian weaponry at a time when it has no dearth of other suppliers, including the United States? The answer to this question is complex. However, one of the principal reasons for India’s fondness for Russians arms stems from what institutional economists refer to as path dependence. Put simply, path dependence means that in any given arena policymakers are constrained by decisions made in the past. Even though India has sought to diversify its sources of supply, as much as 60 percent of its military arsenal is either of Soviet or Russian origin. Not surprisingly, India remains reliant on Russia for spare parts and upgrades for a disproportionate segment of its armory.

This, however, is not the sole reason that explains India’s habit of turning to Russia to replenish its military capabilities. New Delhi also looks to Moscow because unlike other suppliers—most notably Washington—few political considerations come into play when acquiring weaponry. The Russians, who are acutely cash-strapped and have few, if any, domestic institutional constraints, are only too happy to provide India with top-grade weaponry. U.S. weapons systems, while often more sophisticated, have in the past been subject to congressional oversight and vagaries.India remains reliant on Russia for spare parts and upgrades for a disproportionate segment of its armory.

There is at least one other factor that explains India’s reluctance to rely too heavily on the United States. This hesitation stems in considerable part from U.S. sales of sophisticated weaponry to Pakistan during much of the Cold War and even, on occasion, thereafter. Even though U.S.-Pakistan relations have noticeably cooled over the last several years, Indian misgivings about the past remain alive and well.

While most of these issues are understandable, it may now be time for India to recalculate its weapons acquisition strategies. During the Cold War, when India had a strategic partnership with the former Soviet Union, it made much sense to acquire military technology mostly from the Kremlin. The Soviet Union was willing to supply advanced weaponry at bargain-basement prices, it accepted Indian rupees in payment, and it shared deep misgivings about the rise of China. Most importantly, at that time, Moscow was a reliable supplier.

Practically every one of those considerations do not hold today. Moscow today has an ambivalent relationship with Beijing. India, on the other hand, sees China as its principal, long-term security threat. More than two decades ago, Mikhail Gorbachev made it amply clear that Russia no longer intended to act as a strategic bulwark against China. Subsequent leaders, including President Vladimir Putin, have hardly disavowed Gorbachev’s stance. Russia has also made it clear that it would only supply weaponry to India at commercial rates—and for hard currency. Worse still, its dependability as a supplier is now also in question: After India contracted to acquire a refurbished Soviet-era aircraft carrier, the Admiral Gorshkov, Russia not only failed to deliver it on time but dramatically raised the eventual cost of the ship. Put together, these factors underscore the fundamentally altered terms of the two countries’ arms transfer relationship.

Despite Moscow’s seeming willingness to keep supplying weaponry at short notice—as demonstrated during Singh’s recent visit—New Delhi needs to come to terms with changed global realities at multiple levels. The old Indo-Russian arms transfer nexus is a relic of the past. And despite U.S. President Donald Trump’s mercurial tendencies, the American defense establishment squarely shares India’s concerns and fears about a revanchist China. To that end, China signaled its misgivings when, in 2018, U.S. Pacific Command was renamed U.S. Indo-Pacific Command. The decision was not just a cosmetic change in nomenclature but signaled the growing significance of the Asia-Pacific region to U.S. grand strategy.

In the waning days of the Obama administration, the United States designated India as a “major defense partner,” making it eligible to acquire a range of advanced and sensitive U.S. weapons technologies. For all its unpredictability, the Trump administration has not made any moves to alter this status.India is left with one real option: To stand up to China, it needs to firm up its relationship with the United States.

It is evident that U.S. and Indian security interests are steadily converging—a phenomenon that comes at a most critical moment for the world’s largest democracy. Faced with an increasingly aggressive China and a yawning gap in economic capabilities, India can ill afford a military strategy of going it alone. Under these circumstances, it is faced with two possible choices. It can continue appeasing China in the elusive hope that its periodic incursions along the vast Himalayan border will cease. Given that there is little or no evidence that such a strategy has proved fruitful, India is left with one real option: To stand up to China, it needs to firm up its relationship with the United States.

One of the surest means to bolster the U.S.-India partnership involves slowly but surely walking away from its dependence on Russian weaponry. There are several reasons why doing so may be desirable. Continued reliance on high-tech Russian weaponry raises legitimate U.S. fears about hacking. As senior U.S. officials have made clear in congressional testimony, such purchases could also limit interoperability, thereby jeopardizing future arms sales to India. And India is no doubt aware that Russia has already sold the S-400 system to China, India’s principal adversary. Put together, these considerations make a clear case to end Indian reliance on Russia for advanced weaponry.

The United States, for nearly two decades, has sought to forge a working military-to-military relationship with India as it seeks to counter China’s growing assertiveness. To that end, a number of administrations have sought to court New Delhi, starting with the landmark U.S.-India civilian nuclear agreement of 2008. And Washington has since made a series of other overtures, most notably the creation of Indo-Pacific Command. An increased willingness to boost Indian military acquisitions from the United States would be most welcome in Washington.

Instead of dwelling on the history of past disagreements with the United States, relying on a questionable arms transfer relationship with Russia, and hoping for an end to Chinese aggressiveness, India needs to firm up the budding strategic partnership with the United States. This will not only ensure access to vital U.S. weapons technology but also secure its support in protecting India’s national security interests.

Sumit Ganguly is a columnist for Foreign Policy.

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