India-Russia Defence Ties Amid COVID-19

The pandemic appears not to have had much impact on India-Russia relations. The relationship was showing signs of strain even before to the pandemic, mainly because both countries are drifting toward different sides in the emerging competition between the United States and China.

India’s concerns about China’s behavior have made it inch closer to the U.S. and the Indo-Pacific coalition. While increasing tensions between Russia and the West appear to be driving Moscow toward a deeper partnership with Beijing. Neither side seems particularly happy with the effect of these tendencies on their bilateral relations and both have tried to insulate their ties from these larger movements.

The India-Russia relationship continues to be dependent on some level of residual diplomatic empathy toward each other. Beyond this, the arms transfer relationship is the primary driver and despite the pandemic this aspect continues apace.

The S-400 long-range air defense system is the most visible recent indicator of the arms transfer relationship. There have been some concerns about possible delays, but Indian Ambassador to Russia Bala Venkatesh Varma stated that there will be no significant delays in the supply of the S-400s.

India is buying five batteries of the S-400 system in a deal worth more than $5 billion despite the threat of U.S. sanctions. That India went ahead with the system regardless of the threat of sanctions is an indicator of both India’s desire to maintain this aspect of its relationship with Russia but also India’s vulnerability to Pakistan’s missile forces. The S-400 is claimed to have some level of anti-ballistic capability.

In addition, Russia recently offered India three more Kilo-class submarines. These refurbished Kilos will join the nine other Kilo-class submarines in the Indian Navy. This should be welcome because India has just 15 submarines, according to the latest Military Balance published by the IISS, against a projected requirement of 24. India’s declining submarine fleet has been a concern especially as the Chinese PLA Navy gets more active in the waters around India.

Last month, India decided to purchase an additional 400 T-90S battle tanks from Russia, according to reports. These will join the more than 1,000 T-90S that India already has, part of India’s 3,500-strong Main Battle Tank inventory.

With the exception of the 100-plus Arjun tanks, everything else in the inventory are Russian T-72s or T-90Ss, which is an indicator of the close historical Indo-Russian military relations.

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