UK arms firms spy chance to wean India off Russia

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LONDON — India’s showing few signs of breaking up with Russia — but the U.K.’s arms giants hope they can cause a split.

Nearly a year on from Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, New Delhi is still doing business with Russian defense, oil and gas firms. It comes even as the rising South Asian power negotiates major trade deals with Moscow’s global opponents, and as it takes up the G20 presidency.

Yet there are hopes that deeper defense ties and a long-in-the-works free-trade pact with the U.K. could begin to help India break the habit.

The prospective U.K.-India deal, Vadym Prystaiko, Ukraine’s ambassador to the U.K. told POLITICO, offers “a window of opportunity for drastically reducing Russian influence” on New Delhi. “It will take time and effort for the world to reject toxic Russian business,” he added, pointing out that some Western companies still operate in Russia too.


Russia’s invasion of Ukraine saw the U.K., U.S., EU and their international allies slap sanctions on Russian military figures and freeze their accounts. It effectively shut them out of international trade, along with Moscow’s oil and gas firms. 

Despite this, India didn’t bring in sanctions and allowed its bilateral trade with Russia to grow to $30 billion in 2022 — a massive increase from 2021.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has called out Russian aggression and urged “diplomacy and dialogue” and an immediate end to the violence. At the same time, India continues to acquire arms and oil from Moscow.

Britain currently has just a 3 percent share of India’s defense supplies. But its defense and aerospace firms now see an opportunity to chip away at Russia’s share.

Rolls-Royce and BAE Systems are part of a delegation to Aero India, Asia’s biggest airshow which is taking place this week. The show is being held at an Air Force base in Bengaluru and was opened Monday by Modi. The show is aimed at India and international buyers in the region.

In a sign of the fierce competition for local defense deals, some 200 different pieces of Russian weaponry and military equipment — including a Russian Sukhoi Su-57 twin-engine stealth fighter — are also on sale at the gathering. 

Whittling down India’s reliance on Russia is no small job, say experts.

Russian aerospace firms have booked space in at least two halls at Aero India. India’s embassy in Moscow advertised the event on its Facebook page. New Delhi is even working with Russia to manufacture the AK-203 assault rifle — one of the latest iterations of the original Kalashnikov. Ahead of Aero India, Russian state media reported New Delhi has more than $10 billion in orders in the pipeline for weapons and military equipment from Moscow. 

Aero India is Asia’s biggest airshow, held at an Air Force base in Bengaluru. The show was opened Monday by Modi and is aimed at India and international buyers in the region | Manjunath Kiran/AFP via Getty Images

New Delhi continues to pursue military and business ties with Putin’s regime today — and human rights groups think India may never truly decouple from Russia’s war machine.

The Confederation of Indian Industry hosted Russian firms on at least three trade missions to New Delhi and Mumbai in December last year, some with the blessing and help of the Indian government. 

The business group invited Russian oil and gas, aerospace, mining, financial services, telecommunications, and cement firms to drum up business. Some of these goods could be considered “dual-use” in that they have both military and civilian applications.

Western sanctions and efforts to break the two countries’ defense ties “will only fail,” said Atul Dinkar Rane, chief of Russian-Indian hypersonic missile manufacturer BrahMos Aerospace in a piece for Russian state media last week, because the relationship is built on “trust.”


Indian officials argue that New Delhi is operating in a complex world.

“No country completely follows a values-based foreign policy,” said Vikram Doraiswami, Indian high commissioner to the U.K. in a speech last week. He likened India’s relationships with China, Russia and the West to “multi-player, multi-level chess.” In the future, he acknowledged, India will need “to be far more dexterous in dealing with nations.”

“You cannot replace hardware just like that,” Doraiswami said of Russian defense equipment. Doing so, he argued, would mean India switching up its warfighting doctrine, training and finding new spare parts — right at the same time as it faces “two hot borders” with China and Pakistan.

“India has made it clear that its ‘multi-aligned’ foreign policy requires it to walk a tightrope to balance ties between the U.S. and Russia amid the aggressiveness of its largest and more powerful neighbor China,” said Rahul Roy-Chaudhury, a senior fellow for South Asia at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS). But this strategy “has come under severe challenge and strain with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine,” he said.

“Western sanctions on Russia and Russia’s loss of military equipment in the Ukraine war have delayed or disrupted supplies to India,” Roy-Chaudhury added. “This has provided an inflection point for India, in its attempt to boost its attempt to acquire sophisticated western technology for manufacture in India.”

Spotting an opening, the U.K. should “provide technological alternatives to reduce India’s dependence on Russia,” Roy-Chaudhury said, “despite clear differences over the Ukraine war.”

It’s an idea not lost on London. 

Last year the U.K. put India on its defense equipment fast-track — the first such move offered to an Indo-Pacific nation — in a shift that will reduce red tape and shorten delivery times for defense procurement. A U.K.-India trade deal — still in the works after a year of talks — could help boost this.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and his Indian counterpart Subrahmanyam Jaishankar shake hands during a joint press conference | Pool photo by Maxim Shipenkov/AFP via Getty Images

India’s stance on Ukraine, however, has its partners concerned.

Defense ministries in Western nations worry about “the possibility of ‘leakage’ of western technology from India to Russia and liability issues for military equipment built in India with Western technology,” said Roy-Chaudhury. A report by British defense think tank RUSI last year warned that parts going through India — especially dual-use goods that can be used for civilian or defense purposes — have a good chance of ending up supporting Russian weapons.

Working with Russian firms that could support the war “entails significant legal risks, including potential civil and criminal liability under comprehensive sanctions regimes,” said Tom Wills, a project manager at the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre.

“These views have undoubtedly harmed India’s defense cooperation with the U.K.,” Roy-Chaudhury said, “and likely resulted in the abrupt cancellation last summer of the scheduled visit of India’s Cabinet minister for defense to the U.K. that would have been the first such visit in two decades.”

‘Do the moral thing’

Some human rights groups want the U.K. to take a much tougher line with New Delhi, and even abandon negotiations on the wider trade deal if it doesn’t sever its ties with Russia.

Mark Dixon, a consultant and founder of the Moral Rating Agency, an NGO scrutinizing continuing business in Russia, said Russian aerospace companies “should be barred from all international expos in civilized countries. Period.” He wants all British firms to pull their attendance at Aero India.

And he added: “It’s not surprising at all that the Chinese regime likes to undermine the West by working with Russia, but it’s disappointing that a democracy like India can’t do the moral thing.” 

A U.K. government spokesperson said it would encourage all partners to support international efforts to counter Russia’s flagrant aggression and violation of the United Nations Charter and avoid any actions which might undermine these efforts.”

Defending the U.K.’s presence at the Indian aerospace fair, the spokesperson said: “A number of department officials are attending Aero India to support U.K. companies at the event, and to reinforce mutually beneficial defense partnerships between India and the U.K.”

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