From Cyber to Khyber - Russia's New Footprint in South Asia, Part II

Russia has been rapidly expanding its military and political footprint across South Asia over the past several months. Simultaneously pursuing military exercises with Pakistan and signing bilateral cyber pacts with India, Moscow has found itself as the middle man between two nuclear-armed rivals. But why is this happening now? This series will examine Russia's relations with both India and Pakistan to try to identify what long-term trends are at work in the region.


Part I of this series covered Russia’s first ever joint military exercise with Pakistan and the simultaneous signing of a new cyber pact with India. Such concurrent cooperation with nuclear-armed rivals attracted some attention, but largely went under the radar. Part II of this series will delve deeper into the relationship between Moscow and New Delhi, to be followed by Part III examining Russian-Pakistani relations.

Moscow and New Delhi: All-Weather Friends (?)

The Soviet Union enjoyed positive relations with India for the duration of the Cold War. Riding the tide of anti-colonial sentiment, Moscow presented itself as the alternative to the world order developed by Great Britain and the United States – the former being India’s colonial master and the latter being the inheritor of British influence around the world. Though officially a Non-Aligned power, India did formalize its relations with Moscow in 1971 in the context of the Bangladesh War of Independence, in which New Delhi faced unwelcome American pressure (including the deployment of the USS Enterprise to the Bay of Bengal). The Indo–Soviet Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Cooperation, outlined strategic cooperation between Moscow and New Delhi and was seen by many as a sign that the USSR respected India as a great world power to an extent that Western capitals did not. In many respects. the Treaty also serves as a basis for the positive relations which Russia and India enjoy today.

This respect further manifested itself in 1962, when the Soviet Union  transferred technological components for the MiG-21 jet fighters to India, and later co-produced the system with New Delhi. This was much to the chagrin of China, which was denied the MiG-21 even prior to the Sino-Soviet Split. For the duration of the Khrushchev period, India was a recipient of significant Soviet economic and military assistance, especially as Moscow sought to contain Chinese influence following Kissinger’s visit to Beijing.

In turn, India was largely supportive of the Soviet Union’s War in Afghanistan, despite concerns that the conflict brought the Cold War too close to Indian borders. Many in the Indian establishment were happy to see Soviet opposition to both Islamist and Maoist elements in Afghanistan, especially as the former were already being used by Pakistan as proxy forces. While there were some dissenters, the geographic reality of Central Asia rendered Pakistan itself a “strategic buffer” against the Red Army should relations ever sour. The plurality of the Indian establishment was content with the Soviet presence in the country, as it served to distract Pakistan, China, and others. 

India signed a Strategic Partnership agreement with the Russian Federation in 2000. This agreement outlines a common vision for a post-Cold War multipolar world in which a “deepening of friendship and cooperation with India” would be a top Russian foreign policy priority.

The Situation Today

The Indo-Russian Inter-Governmental Commission (IRIGC) oversees most bilateral efforts. Usually co-chaired by the Indian External Affairs Minister and Russian Deputy Prime Minister, the IRIGC meets annually to discuss Trade, Economic, Scientific, Technological, Cultural, and Military cooperation (with military cooperation usually being discussed in a separate, second session). Military collaboration has yielded many tangible results for both countries, with prominent examples including:

  1. INDRA, a series of bi-annual joint naval exercises, involving “live firing drills, as well as air defence and anti-submarine operations.”
  2. Avia-Indra, annual Air Force exercises focusing on interoperability which Russia and India take turns hosting.
  3. Cooperation in the research and development of India’s BrahMos cruise missile.
  4. Joint counterterrorism drills and other military exercises (incorporating land, sea, and air assets simultaneously)
  5. An agreement for India to manufacture and improve Su-30 fighters
  6. Joint production of Ka-226T (‘Kamov’) helicopters
  7. The acquisition and joint production of four state of the art Admiral Grigorovich-class (Project 11356) guided-missile stealth frigates
  8. Possible sale of a second nuclear attack submarine to India by 2020
  9. Ongoing negotiations over the sale of S-400 air defense systems to India

Beyond the direct military sphere, Russia has also agreed to export uranium enrichment technologies to India. According to the International Panel on Fissile Materials, New Delhi plans to have 12 Russian-supplied rectors, mostly in the Kudankulam region. The “Programme of Action Agreed Between the Department of Atomic Energy of India and The Russian State Atomic Energy Corporation ‘Rosatom’ for Localization of Manufacturing in India for Russian-Designed Nuclear Reactor Units" was signed on 24 December 2014, however few details have been publicly released. It remains unclear if such exports would fall within Nuclear Suppliers Group guidelines, given that India is not party to the Nonproliferation Treaty. Nevertheless, the agreement is expected to go forward.

Despite some signs to the contrary, it is likely that Russian-Indian defense cooperation will continue for the foreseeable future. Russia’s recent move to offer India a Nuclear Aircraft Carrier, jointly develop fifth-generation stealth aircraft (although this project has fallen on hard times as of late), and support the “Make in India” campaign being evidence of this.

Russian efforts to balance its relations with both China and India should not be interpreted as an abandonment of this historic, unique partnership. Putin himself has gone out of his way to re-assure India that Moscow is not reevaluating its positions toward a Pakistani or Chinese perspective, despite some recent defense collaboration. As outlined in Part I, this likely has more to do with security concerns in Central Asia, especially Tajikistan. The Russia-India relationship is strategic and long-term, the Russia-Pakistan relationship is pragmatic and timely.  

This difference is further embodied by Russia’s cooperation with Iran and India on the North-South Transport Corridor, a major international trade initiative which bypasses Pakistan entirely.

Looking Forward

Part I ended with the following paragraph:

Russian experts have repeatedly stressed that Pakistan will not come between India and Russia in their strategic relationship. As the new cyber agreement indicates, Russia still views India as its preferred long-term political, economic, and military partner (you can’t spell BRICS without RI). Improved relations with Pakistan can offer Russia an invaluable asset in its struggles in Central Asia, but this should not be seen as some sort of geopolitical pivot.

This statement succinctly summarizes part II as well, and serves as a good launching point for the rest of this series.

To be continued in Part III

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons