New Delhi: As the Russian onslaught against Ukraine continues drawing global criticism and economic sanctions against Moscow, the Indian defence and security establishment is keeping a close eye on the developments and calculating the immediate and long-term impact, ThePrint has learnt.
The immediate effect would be the delay in ongoing projects by Russia, especially the S-400 Triumf air defence system, the delivery of which began only in December last year, according to sources in the Indian defence establishment.
However, the long-term impact of the Russian attack is what worries Indians the most because it won’t only restrict India’s manoeuvring space for purchase of Russian equipment, but could also make China, a supporter of Russia, draw concerning lessons from this conflict amid a continuing standoff at the Line of Actual Control (LAC).
It’s not just the defence establishment that is concerned but also the finance, external affairs and commerce ministries, among others, said sources. However, they added that the sector that could take the biggest hit is defence, both in short- and long-term.
A close watch is being kept on the developments and relevant people across ministries are studying the likely impact on India, sources said.
The impact of sanctions on defence projects
According to sources, it might become tougher to circumvent the sanctions against Russia while pursuing multiple defence projects in the future.
Talking about the S-400 project, sources said there was a tactical and verbal understanding reached with the US after India had issued a “non-paper” detailing why the Russian system was important. India had also argued that the project predates the implementation of Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) and hence should be outside its purview.
The Americans have been silent so far even though the then visiting US defence secretary had said that the question of CAATSA comes only when the delivery starts. Sources believe the Americans could now create some bottlenecks for the project.
The secondary sanctions imposed on Russia, and other nations, including France, slapping new sanctions, and cutting off Moscow from the international banking system, SWIFT, has also raised India’s worries.
This will impact India’s payments to Russia, sources said, adding that one will have to wait and watch how other countries now respond to India’s ongoing defence procurement projects with Russia.
Another project that is likely to be delayed is the Indo-Russia project for manufacturing the AK 203 rifles in India for which formalities have been completed and final signatures are awaited.
Besides the S-400, the biggest deal between India and Russia is the leasing of nuclear submarines. Both countries had signed an agreement for leasing one nuclear submarine in 2019, and work is on to lease another.
The submarine, Chakra III, is expected to arrive only by end of 2025 and is a crucial element in India’s overall defence nuclear programme.
The Russian submarines are being leased to train crews for India’s own fleet of ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs). India’s first indigenously-built SSBN, INS Arihant, entered service in 2016. A second, INS Arighat, is undergoing sea trials and is expected to enter service this year.
Two more SSBNs are under construction at the Ship Building Centre in Visakhapatnam.
Another ongoing project is a naval project for the supply of two Russian-made frigates. While India did manage to send engines from Ukraine to Russia for the project, it will now likely be delayed despite Russian promises, sources said.
However, projects which are in the negotiation stage will be affected the most as India will have to adopt a wait-and-watch approach. These include the plans to order 18 additional Su-30 fighter jets, purchase of 21 mothballed MiG-29 for about Rs 6,600 crore, joint production of Kamov Ka-226 light utility helicopters, and procurement of light tanks.
ThePrint has learnt that the government is not keen on the Kamov helicopters deal as indigenous substitutes are available.
Concern over the Chinese
Besides the impact on defence projects, another concern is how China will draw lessons here and react in the future, given that it is already in a standoff with India at the LAC.
“There is no doubt that China and Russia are closely linked and look at each other as partners. The Chinese who have territorial ambitions just like the Russian will be closely following how the US and other countries are reacting to this Ukraine crisis,” a source explained.
The Chinese have realised that the Western powers haven’t really come to Ukraine’s aid in fighting and Russia has managed to call out their bluff, sources said. This will act as a boost to the Chinese who will become more aggressive given their plans for unification of Taiwan, sources said.
“The US had wanted to focus their full might on China but this Ukraine crisis has opened two fronts for Washington. They will have to deal with China on one part and Russia on the other,” a second source said.
In case of any conflict between India and China, it is now a foregone conclusion that Russia is not going to side with India and might end up being neutral even, if not openly supporting Beijing, a third source said.
“One will have to wait and see how the Chinese will react with us. Will they try to be more aggressive or will they now further stall any de-escalation at the LAC,” a fourth source said.
However, sources highlighted that India has always planned operational strategy on its own and not taken into account any other country coming to its aid.
Given that the Western powers have left Ukraine to fight its own battle — other than slapping sanctions and giving some military equipment — India’s policy of not taking into account any possible outside help was the right way, they added.