A major Asian power courted by both Washington and Moscow, Russian President Vladimir Putin's recent whirlwind visit to India has served to strengthen the strategic, security, technological and all-round bilateral ties that have existed between New Delhi and Moscow since the Cold War.
The significance of the Kremlin's round-trip foray is underscored by the fact that it is Putin's first official trip outside Russian territory since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. The exception was last June, when the Russian president met with US President Joe Biden in Geneva.
The new Tsar of all the Russias arrived in New Delhi last week to coordinate with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi the two countries' relationship with the Taliban authorities in Afghanistan, which they want to be "peaceful, secure and stable", according to their joint statement. But, above all, to initial no less than 28 agreements of different kinds, preferably those related to the framework of security, defence and space cooperation, which for New Delhi are key to improving its position vis-à-vis Beijing.
The two governments are committed to closer cooperation in the development of launchers and orbital infrastructure and in the peaceful uses of outer space, especially in satellite navigation and positioning. Russia's equivalent to the US GPS is GLONASS, which consists of 31 satellites, while India's is the NavIC system, which covers only the region and consists of only eight satellites. But New Delhi's main focus is on human spaceflight.
India's space bid to reach low Earth orbit is serious. With in-house technology in both launchers and manned capsules, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) aims to put its nationals into space in the first half of this decade. Four Indian Air Force pilots have trained in Moscow between February 2020 and March 2021 and only need to reach orbit to become full-fledged astronauts.
ISRO will select three of them to fly into space in 2023 on the Gaganyaan mission and stay in orbit for seven days. And by the 2030s, India has plans to build a space station, as confirmed a few hours ago by the minister responsible for space activities, Jitendra Singh. Narendra Modi does not want to be less than Xi Jinping, his neighbour and antagonist, who is decades ahead of him in space. The first module of the Chinese orbital complex has been in orbit since 29 April this year, with three astronauts on board.
But the centrepiece of the Putin-Modi summit was to strengthen and expand the Military Technical Cooperation Agreement between the two countries, a key pillar of the 1971 Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Cooperation and the India-Russia Declaration of Strategic Partnership signed in October 2000. Its validity had expired in 2020 and needed to be updated, as they have done, while extending it until 2030, which will prompt an early reaction from Beijing.
With an armed forces comprising almost 1.5 million soldiers, India's arsenal has been plagued for more than five decades by Russian weapons systems, many of them manufactured under licence on the Indian subcontinent itself. In short, New Delhi is Moscow's main military customer, Russia is India's main supplier of weapons systems and wants to remain so.
The Kremlin has favoured defence industrial cooperation with India as with no other nation. From strict seller-buyer relations, it has moved on to joint development and production programmes for weapons systems. Bilateral projects currently underway include domestic production of T-90 S/SK Bheeshma battle tanks and BM-30 Smerch multiple rocket launchers on domestic Tatra 816 trucks.
On the air side, Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) produces under licence the Kamov Ka-31 naval helicopter and the Mil Mi-17 transport helicopter, as well as the Sukhoi Su-30MKI and MiG-29K fighter aircraft. And it is about to start receiving the advanced S-400 long-range surface-to-air missile defence system, which is under contract in 2018. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), around 23 per cent of Russian arms exports between 2016 and 2020 were destined for India.
But in recent decades, the Indian authorities have diversified their purchases and have land, naval and air armaments from Germany, Saudi Arabia, France, Israel, Japan, the UK and even Spain - C-295 transport aircraft - China and the US. In 2000, Washington's arms sales to India amounted to virtually nothing, a mere $200 million.
But Barack Obama's arrival in the White House and his foreign policy shift towards the Indo-Pacific prompted US arms purchases, which became multi-billion dollar under the Trump Administration. Today, India's huge armed forces have AH-64 Apache combat helicopters, C-17 Globemaster III transport aircraft, AGM-84L and UGM-84L Harpoon missiles, Mk54 torpedoes and even 155-millimetre howitzers.
As it is, "Washington has become India's second largest arms supplier", stresses Lieutenant General Charles Hooper, former director of the Pentagon's Defence Security Cooperation Agency. But Russia does not take kindly to Washington's penetration of India, much less its presence in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue - better known as Quad - an initiative led by the United States and also involving Japan and Australia to curb China's growing activity in the Indo-Pacific region.
For the moment, Russian weaponry dominates the Indian armed forces' arsenal. One example is the ratification of the agreement for the manufacture in India of 600,000 units of the advanced 7.62 x 39 millimetre Kalashnikov AK-203 assault rifle, weighing 3.8 kilograms and with a folding stock, a privilege not shared by any other country.
The weapons are produced by the Indo-Russian Rifles Private Ltd. (IRRPL) at a large factory built in the northern Indian town of Korwa. Russian Defence and Foreign Ministers General Sergei Shoigu and diplomat Sergei Lavrov accompanied Putin on his trip to New Delhi to sign off on the details of the deal with their Indian counterparts, Raj Nath Singh (Defence) and Subrahmanyam Jaishankar (Foreign), and to lay the groundwork for new areas of cooperation. The Biden Administration is expectant.