By Sandeep Unnithan/India Today
Russian president Vladimir Putin flies into New Delhi in his customised IL-96 jet on October 4 to participate in the 19th instalment of what will be one of the most closely watched Indo-Russian summits. Geopolitical shifts this year have fuelled such uncertainty-India’s perceived tilt towards the US after a recently concluded ‘Two Plus Two’ dialogue in New Delhi last month and the prospect of US sanctions being applied to India if it buys Russian defence equipment. This would explain why New Delhi is currently working out the modalities of what will be a vastly symbolic photo-op during President Putin’s visit-the gift to Russia of a flight-worthy Indian-built MiG-21 during the 19th Indo-Russian Summit on October 5.
The gift will evidently convey what defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman recently called India’s “time-tested relationship with Russia”. Beginning 1964, over 1,200 of these iconic jet fighters were bought from the former Soviet Union after India’s attempts to buy similar missile-armed supersonic aircraft were rebuffed by the US and UK. In a geopolitical quirk, the Russian air force never inherited any of the Soviet air force MiG-21s after the Soviet Union’s break-up in 1991 as they were stationed in the CIS countries. Russia, meanwhile, continued the Soviet Union’s legacy of being India’s largest supplier of military hardware.
India is to gift Russia an Indian-built airworthy MiG-21, a jet which the Russian air force itself has never operated
This year, India has argued hard with its new-found strategic partner, the United States, about the need to keep its Russian arms pipeline open in the face of CAATSA (Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act), the US sanctions directed against Russian arms firms. India could be the target of secondary sanctions though the US National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) passed this August gives President Donald Trump the power to grant waivers. Meanwhile, in quiet negotiations with Russia between July 2 and 5 this year, Indian ministry of defence (MoD) officials worked out a new financial arrangement to protect the existing defence contracts from US sanctions by paying for arms in rupees rather than dollars.
US officials have warned against the impending sale of the Russian S-400 air defence missile to India, which Sitharaman told media in New Delhi on September 17 was “in the final stage”. India plans to buy four S-400 missile systems for Rs 40,000 crore. Issuing a warning about the S-400 sale on August 29, Randall Schriver, US assistant secretary of state for defense in Asia and Pacific security affairs, refused to rule out sanctions being imposed against India. He said in Washington that the US would have ‘significant concerns’ if India purchased major new platforms and systems from Russia.
The Arms Pipeline
Earlier, in May, Prime Minister Narendra Modi flew down for an informal summit with President Putin in Sochi to signal just why it calls ties with Russia a ‘Special and Privileged Strategic Relationship’. The MiG-21 opened the door to half a century of arms sales, which continue till date and Russian-origin warplanes, warships, tanks and submarines continue to make up over 60 per cent of India’s arsenal. Washington’s chagrin is understandable. It is already India’s second largest supplier of military hardware, having sold over $15 billion worth of equipment over the past decade, but will not be able to displace Russia from its pole position in the Indian market.
The summit will highlight India’s interest in the North-South Corridor, for a shorter route for Indian freight originating in Mumbai and travelling via Iran and Russia, and for training astronauts in Russia’s Star City for India’s first manned spaceflight mission, Gaganyaan, slated for 2021. But defence ties will remain front and centre.
Deals worth over $10 billion will be discussed or decided in the upcoming summit and these have the potential of continuing the Russian arms pipeline for at least two more decades.
Besides the S-400 missiles, which like the 36 Rafale jets that the Indian Air Force (IAF) says it needs to address a steep decline in fighter aircraft, there are likely to be discussions on the lease of another Akula-class nuclear-powered attack submarine for over $2 billion, a $2 billion deal for four Krivak-class frigates, over 200 Ka-226 Light Utility Helicopters, which are to be built by Russian Helicopters in a joint venture with Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL), and, in what is an attractive low-cost option but like the MiG-21 of enormous symbolic value, a government to government deal for the licensed production of over 600,000 AK-103 assault rifles for the Indian Army in an Indian ordnance factory.
Further down the line are orders for two IL-78 aircraft, to be fitted out as Airborne Early Warning and Control Aircraft with Israeli ‘Phalcon’ radars and the possibility of India ordering additional Su-30 jets from Russia to make up for its depleting squadrons and keep the near-idle production lines at HAL busy. The India-Russia military relationship has weathered recent disappointments, such as India pulling out of an 11-year-old joint venture project to build a Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA) in April this year. Officials say the agreements for the S-400 missile system, frigates and helicopters are on the anvil and only await clearance by India’s apex decision-making body, the Cabinet Committee on Security.
Russian officials are calling the October 5 summit a ‘litmus test’. “The Russians are deeply suspicious and have concerns over what they see as our increasing closeness to the United States,” says G. Parthasarathy, India’s former high commissioner to Pakistan. That closeness was manifest in a range of trilateral military exercises with the US, hardware sales, and a decision to post an Indian navy attaché to the US Naval Forces Central Command in Bahrain.
Moscow’s concern has also been fuelled by the two agreements that India has signed with the United States over the past two years. The Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) in 2016, which allows for Indian warships and aircraft to refuel in US military bases and vice versa. During the ‘Two Plus Two’ dialogue on September 6, India and the US inked COMCASA or the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement, which allows Indian military platforms to access US tactical communications and purchase sensitive electronic equipment.
One Russian official says that signing BECA or the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement for geospatial intelligence, a third foundational Indo-US agreement that is in the pipeline, will seriously imperil India’s military relationship with Russia. BECA allows India access to US aeronautical, topography and nautical databanks and to the US’s vast geospatial information bank and grants the US similar data about India. Russia fears capabilities of its frontline equipment being supplied to India could be leaked to the US.
Russia has now insisted India sign similar protocols with them, hence, one of the items on the agenda of the India-Russia summit is believed to be a LEMOA-like logistics supply agreement. It will ease the refuelling and resupply of Indian warships and aircraft when they transit through Russian ports and air bases during military exercises. Signing such agreements with Russia will help the Modi government balance the relationship with Russia and the US, both of which are needed at this critical juncture. Vice Admiral A.K. Singh, former commanding-in-chief, Eastern Naval Command, says it is the rise of China and the technological constraints of its indigenous industry that are forcing India to rely on both the US and Russia. “We are confronted by a rising hegemon, China, that is adding two blue water warships to its navy every month when our scientists cannot even make a decent rifle for our troops. We need Russian weaponry like the S-400 as well as the US as a critical partner for our Indian Ocean strategy of Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA), which will allow us to track all Chinese warships, submarines and merchant ships in real time.”
There is, of course, concern over Russia’s growing proximity to China as an ally against the West, which the Indian military and diplomats believe is a marriage of convenience. There is a third partner to this Cold War-like scenario-Pakistan, which has recently fallen out of favour with the Trump administration and whom Russia wants to use to reach out to the Taliban in Afghanistan, “to perhaps do to the US what the US tried unsuccessfully to do to it in Syria”, says a government official. Parthasarathy adds, “India would be well advised to keep the Russian connection open and sustainable because we have no differences in interests. Russia has also been a good energy partner. They are now buying big companies like Essar. Russia could step in with oil and gas if India decides to move away from Iranian oil.”
The depth of the military relationship between the two sides is intense. BrahMos Aerospace, the joint venture firm set up by India and Russia 20 years ago to manufacture the BrahMos supersonic cruise missile, is working on the next generation, lighter, faster version of the missile that is currently with all three services. “Critical technologies from this missile have been imbibed into other indigenous programmes-rocket boosters for the MR-SAM missile and launch canisters for the Agni missiles,” says Sudhir Mishra, managing director and CEO, BrahMos Aerospace.
Russian assistance has been critical for India to realise the third leg of its nuclear triad of land, air and sea-based deterrents-nuclear-powered submarines armed with ballistic missiles (SSBNs). The first SSBN, the INS Arihant, was operationalised in 2016 and a second, the INS Arighat, was launched last December, with two more being built with Russian design assistance. Russian consultants will likely be on board India’s ambitious project to build six nuclear-powered attack submarines (SSNs) to patrol the Indian Ocean region. The project was approved in 2015 and the submarines are likely to be inducted a decade from now.
Signalling New Delhi’s resolve to smoothen the defence relationship in the face of US sanctions, Indian and Russian officials have in the past few months set up a new financial arrangement for India to pay for Russian military purchases in rupees and not in dollars, bypassing the SWIFT transaction route.
A protocol signed between the MoD and Russia’s state arms trading firm, Rosoboronexport, in New Delhi in August, incorporates supplementary agreements into existing defence contracts. The new agreements switching payments to rupees will cover all existing transactions between Rosoboronexport and the MoD, the army, navy, air force, coast guard, Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), Ordnance Factory Board (OFB) and all Indian Defence Public Sector Undertakings (DPSUs).
The government-owned Syndicate Bank in South Block will pay Russia’s Sberbank at New Delhi’s Connaught Place in roubles as a direct bank transfer. The first tranche of currency, equivalent to $40 million, was transferred in early September to pay for the refit of one of two Indian navy submarines currently in Russia. “The new system abandons the traditional system of Letters of Credit (LC) and going in for bank transfers. We have to now sign supplementary agreements to the original defence contracts to change the terms of payment from LCs to direct bank transfers. Otherwise, the doors have now opened to regular cash transfers in rupees. The dollar will be used only to denominate the price of the rupee and rouble on the day of the payment,” says an Indian official familiar with the developments.
While the US’s efforts appear to be to wean India away from its dependence on Russian platforms, the current state of the Indo-Russian relationship suggests that the Americans will be disappointed. The current trajectory suggests that the Russo-Indian relationship is set to continue for the near future, long after the MiG-21 has finally flown into the sunset.
(The featured image at the top shows Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Russian President Vladimir Putin)