Press play to listen to this article
LONDON — Britain and its closest security allies want to wean India off Russian weapons. But Boris Johnson will find New Delhi’s relationship with Moscow difficult to untangle.
Johnson’s two-day trip to India, which begins Thursday after being twice postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic, is expected to focus largely on politics, particularly defence, energy security and trade. No trade delegation will travel with the British leader and his schedule is light on engagements with Indian companies.
On Thursday, Johnson will travel to Ahmedabad in Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s home state of Gujarat, where he is expected to announce investments in key industries in Britain and India, including a new partnership spanning science , health and technology.
But Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has added a new dimension to the trip, which was previously aimed at strengthening relations between the UK and India after Brexit.
The West has a number of demands for India: not to increase its imports of Russian fossil fuels or strike new arms deals with Russian producers; failing to signal a strategic alignment with Moscow; and not to fill the void left by Western companies that left Russia as a result of international sanctions following the Kremlin’s decision to invade Ukraine.
Johnson highlighted the geopolitics in remarks published in the media ahead of his trip: India is “a much-valued strategic partner for the UK in these uncertain times”, the statement said. “As we face threats to our peace and prosperity from autocratic states, it is vital that democracies and friends remain united.”
New Delhi has sought to maintain an increasingly difficult balance between the Western bloc, with which Modi wants to boost trade, and Russia, its historical ally in defense and security.
India is also heavily dependent on Russian defense equipment and it fears that a move away from Moscow could push Russian President Vladimir Putin towards China – further emboldening Beijing in the Indo-Pacific and stoking more border tensions. Chinese-Indian, said Harsh V. Pant, vice president for studies and foreign policy at the Observer Research Foundation think tank in New Delhi. This saw India abstain in UN votes condemning Russian aggression against Ukraine.
Few expect Johnson to be able to persuade Modi to drastically align with the West against Russia.
“It would be very difficult for the UK to make the case to India for reducing its dependence on Russia,” Pant said. “India argued that this was not a short-term process.”
Even if India takes a few steps towards the West, Modi will want to keep an open channel of communication with Moscow, Pant added, to prevent Russia and China from leaving India “marginalized” in Asia.
Johnson is keeping expectations low, according to a businessman familiar with the UK-India talks. “I don’t think Boris Johnson would go there expecting India to start changing the way they vote in the United Nations,” they said.
It’s all about guns
Nevertheless, over the past decade, India has diversified its arms imports, buying more from countries like the United States, France, Israel, Australia and Japan. This has enabled the Asian giant to reduce its dependence on Russian defense equipment from around 80% to just over 50%.
Last week, Indian media reported that the country had canceled plans to buy 48 Mi-17 V5 helicopters from Russia as it shifted towards domestically-made military equipment.
But what the country buys is as important as what it spends. India is still buying strategic equipment from Russia. It recently purchased five crucial S400 surface-to-air missiles in a $5 billion deal that led to the United States threatening India with sanctions after New Delhi chose Russian-made missiles over the American Patriot PAC 3.
India’s nuclear submarines are also based on Russian technology, its aircraft carrier is a former Russian aircraft carrier loaded with Russian equipment, and most of its fighter jets, tanks and guns are of Russian origin.
Since the Cold War, the Soviet Union and later the Russian Federation have been seen by many in India as greater supporters of its interests in the UN than the West. Key to this has been Moscow’s willingness to sell advanced defense equipment to India – kits that no Western country has been willing to supply.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and Britain’s post-Brexit appetite for more international trade, however, mean the conditions are ripe for a change of course.
If the United Kingdom is not in a position to offer India a replacement for the S400 missiles, Johnson has an ace up his sleeve: to boost the co-production of very sensitive defense technologies by British subsidiaries in India, and the firms eventually local.
India will not accelerate its decoupling from Russian defense technology unless Western companies allow Indian companies access to their know-how, said Dominic Ashworth, former British high commissioner to India.
Pant put it more bluntly: the West, he said, must start treating India “like a reliable partner.”
Show that you trust me
But it will take work. British companies’ mistrust of India’s intellectual property safeguards, the dominance of Indian state manufacturers in the country’s defense industry, and lengthy and problematic Indian procurement processes have hampered attempts previous attempts to bring companies from both countries together in joint defense technology projects.
The Indian government has attempted to address these issues and is also promoting indigenous production through Modi’s Make in India campaign. With a defense budget of around £52bn for the financial year 2022-23 and growing production of defense equipment by Indian private companies, the scope for joint British-Indian projects is significant, according to voices Of the industry.
Aaditya Dave, research analyst at UK-based defense think tank RUSI, said India would likely prioritize bilateral cooperation with Britain and other countries, particularly Australia. , Japan and the United States – the three members which, together with India, form the Quad, an Indo-Pacific diplomatic network which China says is as dangerous as Russia claims the expansion of the NATO is.
“In terms of trust, the relationship between the UK and India is much better now than it was two or even three years ago,” Dave said.
Defense trade between the UK and India will see a “sharp increase” over the next few years, said Suresh Surana, founder of consultancy RSM India, but India will gradually move towards the purchase of critical components only from UK companies if these are manufactured in the Asian country.
Despite this, gray areas remain. An investigation by the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab research lab, released on Monday, linked India and three other countries to infecting the mobile phones of British Foreign and Commonwealth Office officials with the spyware Pegasus in 2020 and 2021. NSO, the Israeli company behind the software, claims it only sells it to state organizations.
Although Johnson’s trip is security-focused, Ashworth said it would be important for the British PM to ‘maintain momentum’ on bilateral trade talks between the UK and India, which are set to resume next week, advancing non-tariff barriers such as intellectual property and investment protection.
Fresh off a round of state elections, which saw Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) win in the biggest state of Uttar Pradesh, India’s prime minister is focusing on other races later this year, including in his home state of Gujarat in December.
“Confronting Russia or supporting the West doesn’t resonate much with the electorate,” Ashworth said. “There are some in the political elite and in parts of the military where there is sympathy for Russia. There is no doubt that for most Indians Ukraine feels quite far away and they do not don’t feel as emotionally connected to what’s going on there as Europeans.
Modi will also focus on protecting India’s economy first. Since early March, India has increased its imports of heavily discounted Russian oil. It also imported more Russian coal last month, hitting highs not seen in more than two years, according to data from commodity intelligence firm Kpler.
Europe’s heavy reliance on Russian fossil fuels is undermining Western calls for India on the energy front, Indian External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar has said. Earlier this month, Jaishankar told a news conference in Washington that his country’s total purchase of Russian oil for April would be less than what Europe buys in an afternoon.
“If you are considering energy purchases from Russia, I would suggest that your attention be focused on Europe,” he said.
This article is part of POLITICO Pro
The one-stop solution for policy professionals fusing the depth of POLITICO journalism with the power of technology
Exclusive and never-before-seen scoops and ideas
Personalized Policy Intelligence Platform
A high-level public affairs network