India's dependence on Russian weapons tethers Modi to Putin

Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government is facing more pressure to help push Russia towards a ceasefire. PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

NEW DELHI (BLOOMBERG) - For all the success of the US-led campaign to isolate Russia on the world stage, India has stood out as one major democracy that has been reluctant to criticise President Vladimir Putin - and billions of dollars in weapon purchases mean that is unlikely to change any time soon.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government is facing more pressure from fellow members of the Quad - the United States, Japan and Australia - to help push Russia towards a ceasefire.

After meeting Mr Modi in New Delhi on Saturday (March 19), Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida called for more cooperation between democracies while noting Mr Putin's war has "shaken the global order".

Mr Modi, by contrast, spoke only on economic issues. Mr Modi is slated to hold a virtual summit later on Monday with Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, while US Undersecretary for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland - who has helped coordinate the American response to Ukraine - is expected to visit New Delhi later this week.

India, the world's largest buyer of Russian weapons, plans to push back by arguing that the purchases are necessary to counter China's growing military assertiveness and its other neighbour, Pakistan.

Mr Modi's government will also say the alternatives to Russian weapons are too expensive, according to people familiar with the situation, who asked not to be identified because they are not authorised to speak to the media.

India operates more than 250 Su-30 MKi Russian-made fighter jets, seven Kilo-class submarines and more than 1,200 Russian-made T-90 tanks - all of which are operational for another decade, the people said.

In the pipeline are weapon systems worth about US$10 billion (S$13.6 billion) that include a nuclear submarine to be leased to India and S-400 air defence system batteries. India's Ministry of Defence did not immediately reply to a request for comment outside regular business hours.

"Despite efforts at diversification, India's military hardware is still almost 70 per cent Russian," said Associate Professor Manjari Chatterjee Miller, a senior fellow for India, Pakistan and South Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of Why Nations Rise: Narratives And The path To Great Power.

"(India) has to continue to rely on Russia for parts, maintenance and upgrades," she added.

The cost for India to replace all of its Russian-origin equipment is daunting. India's entire defence budget for 2021 to 2022 is US$70 billion, and a long-delayed plan to procure 114 fighter jets to replenish its fleet and replace some older Russian fighters is estimated to cost India between US$15 billion and US$18 billion even if produced domestically, the people said.

"New Delhi also lacks options to replace military systems like air defence platforms it cannot easily get elsewhere," said Dr Ian Hall, professor of international relations at Griffith University and author of Modi And The Reinvention Of Indian Foreign Policy.

While India has supported calls for a ceasefire and a diplomatic solution, it abstained at the United Nations on votes for draft resolutions condemning Russia's invasion that were ultimately vetoed by Moscow.

Still, the US and its allies have so far sought to avoid an open rift with India: a joint statement after Quad leaders spoke in the wake of Mr Putin's invasion failed to condemn Russia.

That is largely because India remains an important partner in countering China, particularly after deadly clashes along their Himalayan border prompted Mr Modi to move more troops and Russian weapons to key hot spots.

India has also changed laws to restrict Chinese companies and investment, banned more than 300 China-affiliated mobile applications and cut back on visas for Chinese businessmen as the border stand-off escalated.

"India is a really important security partner of ours now," Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Donald Lu told a US Senate committee on March 2 when asked whether India could face sanctions for buying Russian weapons.

"We value moving ahead in that partnership," he added, noting that India had recently hit the brakes on more orders for Russian MiG-29 fighter jets, helicopters and anti-tank weapons.

"And I hope that part of what happens with the extreme criticism that Russia has faced is that India will find it's now time to further distance itself."

The cost for India to replace all of its Russian-origin equipment is daunting. PHOTO: AFP

India is also keen to avoid Russia becoming even closer to Pakistan, which is more likely if Mr Modi's government joined US allies in censuring Mr Putin. India and Pakistan have fought three wars, and their militaries remain on high alert.

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan last month led the country's first delegation to Moscow in two decades just as Mr Putin's invasion got under way. Last year, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov visited Pakistan as Moscow sought to increase its stature in the region, particularly in Afghanistan after the chaotic US withdrawal.

Pakistan was the world's eighth-largest weapons buyer in 2017 to 2021, with Russia accounting for a small fraction of imports.

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India is concerned that more acquisitions of Russian weapons could "provide Pakistan a qualitative advantage", according to Mr Richard Rossow, Wadhwani Chair in US-India policy studies at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies.

Still, India will find it hard to maintain a "truly neutral position" without alienating the US and other Quad countries, particularly because Russia has viewed New Delhi's positions as "silent support", said Prof Miller of the Council on Foreign Relations.

"The Ukraine crisis is not a geographically confined regional European crisis that does not affect India," she said. "It has implications for the future of the liberal international order."

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