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Aryabhata to Gaganyaan, S-400 & nuclear energy — India’s age-old ties with Russia run deep

Majority of Indian defence equipment is currently of Soviet or Russian make, and, in scientific fields, the collaboration has included space physics and aerospace. 

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Bengaluru: As India tries to navigate its relationship with Russia against the backdrop of the war in Ukraine, the two countries’ years-old defence and scientific ties have come to the fore.

India and Russia — and its predecessor, the Soviet Union — have long maintained a strategic relationship centred on five main aspects: political, counter-terrorism, defence, civil nuclear energy, and space. 

The majority of Indian defence equipment is currently of Soviet or Russian make, and, in scientific fields, the collaboration has included space physics and aerospace. 

The partnership between the two countries developed after the 1971 Indo-Soviet Treaty of Peace, Friendship, and Cooperation, following escalating tensions with Pakistan and US support for the latter — from the Eisenhower administration’s decision to provide military aid to Islamabad in the 1950s, to President Richard Nixon’s closeness with Pakistani President Yahya Khan during the 1971 Indo-Pakistani War.

India’s dependence on Russian space technology has reduced over the past few decades, but the two countries continue to collaborate through the Indian space agency, ISRO, and its Russian counterpart, Roscosmos. 

ISRO’s first group of four astronaut candidates for the planned crewed Gaganyaan mission completed their training for spaceflight in Russia in March last year. It’s unclear how the war in Ukraine will affect ISRO’s plans.

Also read: Russia’s attack on Ukraine halts rocket launches, Venus mission, casts doubt on ISS fate

Historical space collaboration

Before its development of the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV), India relied on its ties with the erstwhile Soviet Union to launch its first two satellites, Aryabhata and Bhaskara, from the Baikonur Cosmodrome on the Kosmos rocket in 1975 and the Intercosmos vehicle in 1979, respectively.

Subsequently, Bhaskara-2 also flew on an Intercosmos in 1981. In 1988, India’s first state-of-the art, domestically built, IRS-1A remote sensing satellite was launched on a Soviet Vostok vehicle. IRS-1B followed on the same rocket in 1991. 

Following the fall of the Soviet Union, India continued to collaborate with Russia on space missions. India launched the IRS-1C on the Russian Molniya-M rocket in 1995 — the last satellite to be launched on a Russian vehicle. The PSLV had begun to become successful at this time, reducing non-heavy-lift dependence on Russia. 

Russia, originally through Glavkosmos, a subsidiary of the state space agency Roscosmos, had signed an agreement in 1991 to provide technology for the development of the GSLV (Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle), ISRO’s heaviest launch vehicle.

However, the US imposed sanctions on India and Russia in 1992, stating that the technology transfer violated a multilateral treaty. Russia then backed out of the project, leading to substantial delays to the still-ongoing development of the GSLV. 

The two nations have collaborated on interplanetary missions as well. 

Chandrayaan-2 was originally envisioned as a joint project with Roscosmos, with Russia developing the lander for the mission. However, when Russia said it would be unable to deliver the lander on time, following the failure of its Fobos-Grunt Mars mission in 2011-2012, ISRO developed the Vikram lander independently. 

Collaboration on satellite services includes ground stations in India that Russia is in the process of setting up to support its version of the American GPS, the GLONASS satellite constellation. India, too, plans to set up ground stations in Russia, for its navigational satellite support, NavIC. 

There is also an Indo-Russian joint atmospheric satellite programme called YouthSat, a scientific-educational programme with university-level students participating from both countries. The first satellite, YouthSat, and the second, Resourcesat-2, were launched in 2011 from Sriharikota on the PSLV. The satellites contained both Russian and Indian payloads.


India and Russia, as well as the former Soviet Union, have been collaborators in human spaceflight too.

The first Indian to fly to space, Rakesh Sharma, did so in 1984 on the Soyuz T-11 rocket launcher with a Russian crew. The two countries are now cooperating on Gaganyaan, India’s planned crewed space mission. 

After ISRO’s Human Space Flight Centre was set up, it was announced that an agreement had been signed in July 2019 with Glavkosmos, for cooperation in the selection, support, and training of four Indian astronauts out of a potential 12 who had completed initial tests and evaluation in Bengaluru. 

The four candidates underwent their year-long training at Gagarin Research & Test Cosmonaut Training Center (GCTC) in Moscow, beginning in February 2020. Their training continued through the pandemic, concluding in 2021. Subsequently, they returned to Russia for spacesuit prototype testing. 

In 2019, ISRO also announced a Technical Liaison Unit (ITLU) in Moscow to “enable effective technical coordination for timely interventions on diversified matters with Russia and neighbouring countries for realisation of the programmatic targets of ISRO”. ISRO ITLUs already reportedly exist in Washington DC and Paris. 

Also read: India expects West sanctions on Russia to impact key sectors, defence, engg could take big hit

Defence ties

It is estimated that nearly 70 per cent of India’s military hardware is of Russian origin. These include submarines, several Naval warships, and the latest air defence systems. India’s only aircraft carrier in service, INS Vikramaditya, is of Russian origin.

Russia also plays a critical role in India’s indigenous nuclear submarine  programme. India has been operating the Chakra series of Russian nuclear-powered attack submarines (SSNs) on lease for years 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. 

The BrahMos cruise missile, the world’s fastest cruise missile with a range of 400 km, is the product of a joint venture with Russia. 

India is in the process of inducting the Russian state-of-art S-400 Triumf air defence system, prompting concern from the West.

Of the 30 squadrons of IAF fighter jets, the majority are Russian, including the Su-30 MKI, MiG-21 Bison, and the MiG-29.

Indian defence also has ties with Tajikistan, geographically located close to Russia, and operating with Russian cooperation.

India’s first and only overseas military base — the Gissar Military Aerodrome (GMA) in Tajikistan — was secured with Russian aid in the late 1990s and developed in the early 2000s. The GMA, popularly known as the Ayni airbase after the village Ayni where it is located, is just west of the Tajik capital Dushanbe.

The GMA is often confused with a base in Farkhor city in southern Tajikistan — near the border with northern Afghanistan — where India ran a hospital in the 1990s. It is here that the powerful Afghan Tajik guerrilla leader, the late Ahmad Shah Massoud of the Northern Alliance (fighting the Soviet Union and later the Taliban) was rushed in for treatment after a suicide bomber attack in 2001, before succumbing to his injuries.

Following the 9/11 strikes, the hospital ceased operations, sources said. India runs a still-functional 50-bed hospital for Tajik military personnel at Qurgan Teppa in southern Tajikistan.

Nuclear power

The Soviet Union supplied India with nuclear reactors and fuel when India was denied technologies and was hit with sanctions from the West for its refusal to sign the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT), which New Delhi sees as discriminatory. 

In 1988, the Soviet Union agreed, allegedly without an official deal, to build two nuclear reactors at Kudankulam in Tamil Nadu. The deal was made official in 1992. In 2000, Russia and India signed another secret MoU, to cooperate on “peaceful uses” of nuclear energy, and for Russia to supply India with low-enriched uranium fuel for the Tarapur reactor in Maharashtra. 

In 2009, the two countries entered into a major nuclear deal, with Russia agreeing to install four nuclear reactors at Kudankulam in Tamil Nadu, and one in West Bengal. Two units at Kudankulam are currently operational, and the third and fourth units are being prepared for installation. Russia is also aiding with the ongoing construction of the fifth and sixth units.

(Edited by Rohan Manoj)

Also read: India defence exhibition DefExpo postponed due to ‘logistics problems’ amid Russia-Ukraine war


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