For years, Russian equipment and defence firms were the highlight of Indian Defexpo and Aero India shows. After live displays, mainly featuring Russian aircraft, helicopters and armoured vehicles, the crowds would throng the glitzy, neon-lit Russian exhibits where executives in lightweight suits and improbably long-legged lady receptionists politely fielded the buzz surrounding the next big Russian contract.
Few would have predicted how quickly change has come. On Wednesday, after opening Defexpo 2018, Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, in a swarm of subordinates and bodyguards, was touring the exhibits in Hall 1, where the big Russian exhibitors and Israeli defence vendors were arrayed opposite each other. Senior Russian officials recount that Sitharaman turned abruptly to the Israeli firms — Israel Aerospace Industries, Rafael and Elbit Systems — and strolled past without bothering to even look at a single Russian exhibit.
Russian attempts to engage her attention were blocked by the guards around her.
“This is what the India-Russia defence relationship has come to. India’s political environment is no longer that friendly to Russia”, says a top Russian executive.
He ruled out a suggestion that Sitharaman’s snub might have been inadvertent. “A defence minister prepares for an event like Defexpo. She has assistants and advisors, who guide her along. It was deliberate”, he declared.
Contacted by email for confirmation, the defence ministry has not responded.
Only later in the day were the Russians placated, when the navy chief, Admiral Sunil Lanba, and other senior admirals visited the navy-related Russian exhibits.
Russia remains India’s largest arms supplier, but its share is dwindling rapidly. A report last month from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute states that, in the five-year period 2013 to 2017, India sourced 62 per cent of its defence imports from Russia. That was down from 79 per cent in the previous five-year period.
A key reason for Russia’s decline was evident at Defexpo: India’s frustration at the low serviceability of Russian equipment and the shortage of spares. An India-Russia Military Industrial Conference held at Defexpo 2018 focused on “improvement of after-sales support of Russian-origin defence platforms being exploited by Indian defence forces and also to facilitate domestic manufacturing of some of the identified spare parts…”, India’s defence ministry announced.
The seven memoranda of understanding signed between Indian private firms and Russian OEMs were all aimed at ensuring the smooth supply of spares and assemblies for Russian-origin weaponry already in service in the Indian military.
A veteran Russian defence industry technocrat, who has supplied arms to India since Soviet Union days, says that Indian attitudes towards arms purchases had changed dramatically. In earlier times, the Soviet Union sold cheap, rugged and unsophisticated equipment — which was all India could afford anyway. “Now India has progressed. It can buy expensive and sophisticated weaponry and it is no longer content with cheap, rugged Russian arms. But, even though India’s military still has high regard for Russian arms, New Delhi’s political attitude to Moscow has changed”, he says. “Moscow sold weaponry to India on a friendship basis, at friendship prices. But India now wants Russia to compete in open global tenders. Fine! We will also deal with India on a purely commercial basis then,” says a Russian company chief executive.
In any such conversation with Russians, India’s “growing closeness with America” quickly bubbles to the surface. But when countered with the charge that Moscow too has come closer to Pakistan and China, the Russians quickly interrupt.
“There is no friendship in those relationships, like there is with India. Moscow engages Islamabad in order to have a handle on the Taliban. And China shares a long border with Russia. Every country deals with its immediate neighbours on a special basis”, claims the veteran Russian technocrat.
When we point out that India and Russia cooperate on projects that no other country does — for example, in designing and building INS Arihant, the nuclear missile submarine, and the lease of INS Chakra, a Russian nuclear propelled submarine — the Russians bitterly point at India’s “backtracking” on conventional submarines under Project 75-I.
“In 1999, India’s 30-year submarine programme decided to build six western-origin and six Russian-origin submarines. India bought the first six Scorpene submarines from France, but where is the contract for the other six? India wants Russia to compete with western shipyards in an open tender to build six boats equipped with ‘air-independent propulsion’. Why is India not giving Russia the order for the next six [submarines]?” says the Russian executive.
The Russians also point to long-standing inter-governmental agreements that have been languishing for years — specifically naming the deals to co-develop the Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft, build Kamov-226T light helicopters and buy the S-400 long range ground to air missile system.
“Countries with genuine security problems buy simple, rugged weaponry. Rich countries, which maintain ‘trophy militaries’, buy sophisticated costly kit that may or may not work in war. India faces real threats. It should not forget its longstanding Russian friendship,” he concludes.