India Deepens Defense Ties with the West, But Criticism of Russia Remains Unlikely
Since the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, India has been in the spotlight of international attention, with Western countries urging Delhi to reconsider its neutral stance. Why has the world’s so-called largest democracy not condemned the Kremlin, and can New Delhi be expected to change its approach? Some analysts believe so, considering the recent deepening of defense cooperation between India and NATO partners. However, given the long-term nature of India’s foreign policy and its recent diplomatic success in adopting a G-20 Joint Declaration that avoided direct criticism of Russia, this scenario seems rather unlikely.
When U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin visited India in early June, international analysts suggested there might be more room for New Delhi to distance itself from Moscow and reconsider its foreign policy approach. During Austin’s visit, New Delhi and Washington announced a joint plan to fast-track defense technology cooperation and co-production, and ease approval mechanisms for accessing advanced air and ground mobility systems from the U.S., which are otherwise subject to strict internal regulations.
A month later, during Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to the White House, the two sides inaugurated several other contracts and initiatives in various sectors, with defense agreements at the forefront. These include the INDUS X project, aimed at fostering innovation between Indian and American private enterprises and start-ups, the production of fighter aircraft engines with the Indian state-owned Hindustan Aeronautics, and an agreement to purchase SeaGuardian anti-submarine drones (though approval by the U.S. Congress is still needed) that would be built in India. According to some analysts, a potential shift in dependence from Russian to Western technology could gradually provide India with more room to criticize Moscow regarding its invasion of Ukraine.
For now, it remains unclear how the cooperation between India and the United States will look in practical terms. India desires access to sensitive technologies, a topic long discussed even in the case of Australia, whose position toward the U.S. and foreign policy orientation is significantly less controversial than India’s.
Leader in Arms Imports
According to SIPRI, in terms of global arms imports, India was the world’s largest buyer of arms in 2018-22 (as in 2008-12 and 2013-17). At the same time, in terms of total defense spending, India ranked third after the U.S. and China in 2021 and was replaced by Russia in the top slot in 2022. India is the foremost customer for Russia (importing 31 percent of total Russian arms exports), France (30 percent of total French exports), and Israel (37 percent of total Israeli exports), and the second-largest purchaser of South Korean arms, accounting for 13 percent of overall South Korean exports.
India’s defense procurement mix is dominated by Russia, making up 45 percent of total Indian arms imports, followed by France (29 percent) and the United States (11 percent). It is worth emphasizing that Russia was the largest supplier of defense equipment to India between 2013-17, when the volume of Russian arms supplies accounted for as much as 62 percent of total Indian imports. However, the downward trend in the export of military materiel from Russia will likely continue in the coming years.
This is due to two main reasons: the ongoing war in Ukraine, which increases demand for weapons in Russia, tightens Moscow’s budget and production capabilities, and increases international isolation; and India’s own increasing arms demand. India’s military imports surpass other countries in part because its indigenous production is insufficient, especially when compared to China, which concerns the Indian government not only due to chronic disputes along Sino-Indian borders and Beijing’s “all-weather alignment” and arms exports to Pakistan.
However, the Indian government is increasingly focused on reversing this trend, not only in the defense sector but also in semiconductors and green energy, by expanding its domestic production capacities. Initiatives such as “Made in India” or “Atmanirbhar Bharat” (i.e., Self-reliant India) underline these efforts and serve as populist means toward achieving these goals.
Diversification and Strengthening India’s Position
Diversification of arms imports has been ongoing for some time in India, and the war in Ukraine has further accelerated these tendencies. The Indian Air Force stated that the war created hurdles for the Russian defense industry to produce and deliver weapons to India, leading to the suspension and even cancellation of the procurement of some additional equipment from Moscow. Western countries thus see an opportunity for greater engagement with New Delhi, potentially moving India away from Russia. Last year, the British government offered India help in building its fighter jets and granted India an open general export license to shorten the time of defense deliveries. This license has so far been granted only to the EU and the U.S., making India the first Asian country to enjoy such a provision.
Moreover, during his visit to India in June 2023, German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius confirmed that Germany’s ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems will cooperate with the Indian state-owned Mazagon Dock in a bid worth more than $5 billion to produce submarines for the Indian Navy. New Delhi later concluded contracts with Paris for the purchase of 26 Rafale fighters and three Scorpene submarines, with the prospect of upgrading cooperation from arms transfer to joint development in the future. These deals were brokered during Modi’s visit to Paris for the celebration of the French national day, Bastille Day, in July, which traditionally includes a huge military parade on the Champs-Élysées. Modi, invited by French President Emmanuel Macron, attended as a guest of honor. The two sides are also working toward adopting a Roadmap on Defense Industrial Cooperation.
Military cooperation related to joint production, extending know-how, and expanding production capacities to India, although in smaller volumes, also takes place with Central European countries. In addition, worth mentioning is the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding on defense cooperation with Italy, marking a breakthrough after nearly a decade of diplomatic tensions between New Delhi and Rome.
More than “Atmanirbhar Bharat”
The utmost interest of the Indian government is not only a greater involvement in the transfer of advanced military products from the West but also in moving production to India, joint development, and access to know-how for modernization, leading to increased domestic procurement from local Indian producers. The signing of cooperation agreements with Western countries often includes a condition on the establishment of a joint venture between the Indian and foreign partner and the setting up of a production center in India. In addition to increasing self-sufficiency, India aims to more than triple its defense exports by 2025, from the current $1.5 billion to $5 billion, and become a defense manufacturing hub in the next 25 years.
Recipients of India’s increased arms exports would be mainly developing countries, allowing New Delhi to strengthen its position within this group of states. For many countries in the Indo-Pacific region, especially in Southeast Asia, this would present an alternative to traditional arms suppliers – the U.S., Europe, South Korea, or Israel on one side, and China and Russia on the other. As the ongoing war in Ukraine reduces Russia’s influence and capacities and the U.S.-China rivalry in the region intensifies, turning to India could be an appealing option for many of these states.
Indian arms exports in the period 2018-22 went to Myanmar (58 percent), Sri Lanka (15 percent), and Armenia (12 percent). Deliveries that haven’t yet been accounted for include BrahMos supersonic missiles (of India-Russian production) to the Philippines, and discussions on their deliveries are also underway with Vietnam and Indonesia. As evident in the case of Russia and Myanmar, India maintains partnerships across the board. In addition, currently ruling regimes in both countries are characterized by warm relations with Beijing, an important factor for Indian policymakers, motivating efforts to balance China’s influence and strengthen New Delhi’s position.
The surge in arms imports and their domestic production in India will persist, especially in the context of the rivalry with China. This relates not only to disputed Himalayan border territories (in Arunachal Pradesh and Aksai Chin) but also to competition in the Indian Ocean, constantly tense relations with neighboring Pakistan, and the consolidation of India’s hardline policy and troops stationed in Jammu and Kashmir and other border states with non-Hindu minorities.
The Foreign Policy Continuum: Pragmatism, All-Alignment, and Balancing Chinese Influence
Even if there is a certain decline in the importance of Russia (as the dominant arms supplier) for India, any value-based considerations that would lead New Delhi to turn away from Moscow seem rather unlikely. The Indian government, for a long time, especially since 2014 when the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) with Modi at the helm came to power, displays a nationalist and pragmatic thinking that aims to maximize gains and minimize risks. New Delhi’s growing foreign policy assertiveness and ambitions to increase its global influence are underlined by growing engagement with the countries of the so-called Global South, as well as the recent replacement of China by India on the pedestal of the world’s most populous country.
Communiqués with American, French, or German partners also show that, more than criticism of Russia, the incentives for cooperation with India are dominated by efforts to balance China, its growing territorial claims, as well as regional and global influence. This message is expressed implicitly through an emphasis on building a safe and peaceful Indo-Pacific.
Considering how India will navigate its relations with Russia in the future, one should also bear in mind the growing Sino-Russian rapprochement and Moscow’s growing dependence on Beijing. India’s open criticism of Russia may push it even closer to China, which would be counterproductive for New Delhi. India’s neutral position toward the war in Ukraine has been consistent for a long time, and New Delhi’s pragmatism will likely make it stay.
Moreover, trade between Moscow and New Delhi continues to flourish, especially when it comes to oil imports from Russia, which have gone up sharply since the beginning of the war. At the same time, the increase in these imports deepened India’s negative trade balance, and since trading in dollars is hindered by sanctions, Indian rupees are piling up in Russian banks. This creates significant space for the continuation of political and economic engagement between Delhi and Moscow.