As Ukraine Burns, India Must Contend With the Worrisome Prospect of a Russia-China Symbiosis

Serving and retired Indian Army personnel anticipate that Russia will gravitate swiftly towards cash-rich China for assistance as punitive sanctions and embargoes for its invasion of Ukraine begin biting.

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New Delhi: A disturbing symbiosis has emerged in recent days between military events in Ukraine and the remote Himalayan Ladakh region, over 4,100km away, where, since May 2020, the Indian Army (IA) has been locked in a standoff with China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) along their mutually disputed Line of Actual Control (LAC).

Serving and retired IA personnel expressed concern to The Wire over this burgeoning association which presages the swift gravitation of Russia – which is India’s principal military platforms and assorted defence equipment supplier – towards cash-rich China for assistance as punitive US and European sanctions and embargoes against Moscow for its Ukraine invasion begin biting.

They were of the view that China may eventually pressure Moscow to stanch, if not altogether cease, the supply of assorted materiel to India, which New Delhi had essentially been acquiring for decades to deter Beijing’s – and its military and nuclear ally Pakistan’s – militarism.

This recently included five Almaz-Antey S-400 Triumf self-propelled surface-to-air (SAM) missile systems, which New Delhi had ordered in October 2018 for $5.5 billion. Of these, one had already been delivered by sea and air late last year, and was in the process of being assembled and deployed at an Indian Air Force base in Punjab to ‘monitor’ aerial activity along the Pakistani border and the LAC.

The arrival of the remaining four S-400 systems was initially scheduled for completion by 2023, but many Indian service officers agreed that this would almost certainly be delayed or worse, possibly even curtailed under Beijing’s pressure or US sanctions, or both. There was no official indication from either Moscow or Delhi regarding the future status of either the balance S-400s or the slew of varied other Russian armaments – like assault rifles, frigates and a nuclear-powered submarine and other defence kits – intended for India’s military.

“Under the prevailing circumstances, Russia will be looking inwards, to supply equipment to its own military, rather than concentrate on exports, which, considering the harsh sanctions, will be demanding if not impossible to execute,” said military analyst Major General A.P. Singh (retired). But, he warned that the projected ties between a sanctions-beleaguered Moscow and a hegemonic Beijing could end up adversely affecting the Indian military’s operational efficiency due to resultant equipment shortages and spares and component deficiencies for in-service Russian materiel.

Other military officials concurred that despite confidence in India’s jugaad tactics in being able to somehow circumvent collective sanctions on Russia, this time around it would be difficult to bypass the vigil and determination of Western countries to punish Moscow. And even if Delhi did manage to dodge these prohibitions, it would be difficult to keep it under wraps, inviting retributory penalties in return. Under a sanctions regime, both the seller – in this instance Russia – and all its buyers would be liable to grave penalties.

Official sources, however, specified that the IA was ‘adequately outfitted’ with regard to its diverse platforms and equipment deployed in Ladakh to meet the PLA threat, once the snows melted later this month. These included imported and licence-built Russian Bhishma T-90S and Ajeya T-72M1 main battle tanks, towed and self-propelled howitzers, amongst others and varied ammunition, rockets and missiles, many supplied by Moscow.

“But all armies need constant sustenance which, for over 50% of its equipment and ordnance, the IA is helplessly dependent on Russia,” said a senior officer from Army Headquarters in Delhi. This reliance has now become worrisome, as there are no alternatives in the foreseeable future to support or replace Russian-origin materiel, he added, declining to be named.

But the greater, apocalyptic threat looming over India, Major General Singh cautioned was from the prospective China-led Quad with Russia, Pakistan and Iran as members, and with Turkey as a possible fifth constituent, and one that Beijing had speculated about constituting last July. Notably, three of this grouping’s four incipient constituents – China, Russia and Pakistan – were all nuclear-weapon states, while the former two were permanent UN Security Council members with veto power to block all and any resolutions they opposed. US-sanctioned Iran, on the other hand, is an aspiring nuclear power, closely aligned to China and with whom it had signed a 25-year agreement in mid-2020 to invest $400 billion into its economy in exchange for steady and heavily-discounted oil supplies.

Maj Gen Singh further said that in addition to the stalemate along the LAC which necessitated large scale troop deployments, the IA could well face the emergence of another front on its western flank from China’s ‘willing’ affiliate Pakistan, with the aim of dividing India’s already overstretched forces and equally strained financial and equipment resources. “India’s repeated refusal to condemn Russia’s assault on Ukraine will only encourage Chinese irredentism and its claims over Arunachal Pradesh and other Himalayan regions,” the two-star officer forewarned. In the event of such a dire eventuality, it’s unlikely that many countries would step up and offer India succour, he added.

Indian Army vehicles moving towards the Line of Actual Control (LAC) amid border tension with China, in Leh. Photo: PTI

Furthermore, the inchoate and nebulous preemptive deterrent instrumentality like the naval-focused Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, initiated in 2007-08 as a China-containment strategy, and one which included Australia, Japan and the US, has, in its new avatar, proven ineffectual in discouraging Beijing’s adventurism in Ladakh. Besides, all four Quad members are now preoccupied with dealing with the fallout from Ukraine’s invasion and bracing themselves for a unified China-Russia front, in which the latter’s military technology, expertise and know-how would be more aggressively mated and advanced by a financially flush and industrially forward Beijing.

“The Beijing-Moscow axis that has been proliferating in recent years, is now poised to become firmer, posing a formidable threat to world peace as both strive to aggressively carve out a new regional and global order based arbitrarily on financial and military might,” said Brigadier Rahul Bhonsle of the Security Risks Asia consultancy in Delhi.

Nonetheless, India which had incrementally emerged as the US’s cat’s paw over the past 15 years to manage China, could well end up facing the brunt of this deadly security partnership between Moscow, Beijing and Islamabad, he ominously declared. Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan’s recent meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on February 25, within hours of the latter having ordered his army’s mobilisation against Kyiv, was ‘significant’ in this regard, Bhonsle said. It had firmly secured Putin’s eastern flank, with the exception of India, which had opted to remain neutral, he added. It is apposite to recall that Putin lifted sanctions on Pakistan in 2014, sold it Mi-35M Hind-E attack helicopters and conducted joint exercises with its army near Peshawar in October 2018.

Former foreign secretary Shyam Saran too recently talked of India’s ‘nightmare scenario’ if Washington decided that it confronted a greater threat from Russia in its European backyard than from China, and opted for and justified a strategic accommodation with Beijing. Or in blunt terms, he stated in The Tribune on February 25, this would mean the US conceding Chinese dominance in Asia to safeguard its European flank from an expansionist Russia, in a cynical calculus that bodes ill for Delhi.

Watch | ‘Nightmare Scenario for India If US Decides Russian Threat Means Easing Up On China’: Shyam Saran

Additionally, the ongoing confusion over the war in Ukraine, Saran stressed in a recent interview to The Wire, could impact the LAC situation, as sanctions could drive Moscow into a ‘Chinese embrace’. Regarding India’s position on the LAC in Ladakh, the retired diplomat reiterated his stand that India would have to deal with the PLA threat by itself. And to do so it needed to summarily and significantly augment its economic and military capabilities, which needed supplementing by an overarching environment of ‘national coherence’. Much like Ukraine, Saran added in a subtle hint to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party-led government, India needed to present itself as a ‘united country without divisions’.

Security analysts too agree that irrespective of the rapidly evolving Ukrainian situation, India would need to forge long-term alliances with advanced materiel producing countries to eventually replace Russian equipment, in addition to ‘realistically’ beefing up its domestic defence manufacturing.

“The government’s disjointed and ad hoc approach to fostering military capability development has to stop,” said Amit Cowshish, former Ministry of Defence acquisitions advisor. The MoD needs to optimise scarce financial resources and focus on immediate security threats and not on optics, like the recent strident official announcement that Indian industry had indigenised the manufacture of assorted military-grade nuts and bolts.