First, the facts. Geostrategic and other considerations have impinged upon Indo-Soviet relations to an extent that both countries saw each other as time-tested friends throughout the Cold War era and after. This is a fact based on mutual understanding of one anothers interests at all levels. The Soviet grand strategists never saw India as a formidable threat and that suited both.
Every fact must have evidence to back it up. Credible friendship treaties, numerous bilateral cooperation agreements, and most importantly, the military-technical relations provide sufficient examples. While the first two categories of evidence exist in the broader strategic realm, the last has indeed been justified as the most crucial element in the relationship.
There were four primary reasons for Indias move closer to the Soviet Union by the mid-1960s. First, the surge in equipment demand to the tune of eight times between 1948 and 1958, and more than ten times thereafter between 1962 and 1971, the inability of our nascent defence industrial base to fulfill the demand, relative affordability of Soviet equipment, and the Cold War politics that prevented India from sourcing equipment and technology from the West. Thus, while European systems accounted for more than 90% of the Indian arsenal till the early 1960s, within a decade from the mid-1960s to mid-1970s, Soviet systems accounted for more than 70%, a ratio that stands till date.
Second, the Indian state realised the impractical aspects of self-sufficiency and experimented with licensed production to achieve self-reliance in defence. In strategic terms, this suited the Soviets, who readily agreed to part with such responsibilities to Indians. Thus, one witnessed bustling industrial activities on Indian soil related to top-line Soviet systems spanning T-series tanks (T-55, T-72, and now T-90), MiG series fighters (21, 29 and now 35 on offer), Sukhoi-30 MKI, submarines, frigates, destroyers, patrol crafts and varieties of missiles and other smaller systemsall these assembled from completely or semi-knocked down kits.
Third, the post-Cold War global defence industrial restructuring notwithstanding, India continued to place larger procurement orders in practically all spheresland based, aerospace and naval requirementswith the Russians, which some analysts argue must have helped keep its production lines going.
Fourth, Indo-Russian bilateral relations have graduated to the next level in which important milestones with considerable strategic significance have been achievedthe Brahmos cruise missile project and announcement of projects like Pak-Fa (fifth-generation combat aircraft project) and the multi-role transport aircraft.
In sum, while India has managed to procure what it wanted from Russia to keep its arsenal relatively modern as well as affordable even at the cost of becoming almost exclusively dependent on a single source of weaponry supply, its strategic choices on military procurement give some indication of moving away from the Russians in recent times. Cracks in Indo-Russian military procurement transactions have surfaced. There are problems spanning price negotiations, modalities of license manufacture to partnerships in design and development.
If all is well, as recent statements emanating from the Indian government suggest, then why should voices of dissent emerge Why are sections of the military and other establishments miffed over price questions related to Admiral Gorshkov and other deals CNS Admiral Mehta has questioned the wisdom of putting everything in one basket. An influential elite is urging diversification as a sourcing strategy (read, move toward the West). This is where we must extract truth from facts.
If the truth is that all is not well in Indo-Russian military technical relations, then what choices must India exercise Given the fact that military-technical relations by principle are built on strong relations, reliability and mutuality in national interests, it is clear that Russia still enjoys a unique position for India. If Indias intention of achieving a degree of self-reliance through diversification of sources of supply and greater collaborative efforts is any indication, India seems inclined towards the West. While a fine balance between improving relations with the West and maintaining Indo-Russian relations is what India wants, it is not as easy as it seems. After all, the arms card may fill the void at the tactical level, but it is self-reliance in defence which must form the foundation of national power.
The author is a senior fellow in security studies at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. These are his personal views