India could be Russia’s regional training and maintenance partner as Moscow expands military cooperation in Southeast Asia

Russia’s Deputy Minister of Defence Alexander Fomin announced recently that cooperation agreements – including for sales of military hardware – have been signed with countries in the Middle East, Africa, the Asia Pacific region and Latin America. 

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Yet, the agreements in Southeast Asia have the potential to be particularly beneficial to Russia, as they offer fresh opportunities for collaboration with India – a long-time buyer of Soviet and, latterly, Russian military equipment – which may offer training and maintenance services in the region for Russian-made systems.

Taking a dig at the United States in particular, Fomin said countries often prefer to deal with Russia due to its record of not imposing damaging sanctions on its international partners. “The strengthening authority of the [Russian] Armed  Forces is confirmed by the increasing number of visits to our country by defense ministers of other countries,” he said.

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No2 global arms supplier

Russia overtook the United Kingdom in 2018 to become the second-largest arms producer, after the United States, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), which tracks the activities of the world’s biggest arms producers. In fact, Russian arms companies accounted for almost 10 percent of the Top 100 weapons producers, with sales of nearly €38 billion.

Russian-made military equipment enjoys a strong reputation for design and robustness, while being comparatively cheaper than Western and US-made equipment. Russia’s S-400 air defense system, which has been snapped up by the two major Asian giants – China and India – is a match for the US’s Patriot system, but costs only half as much.

Speaking to reporters last year, former deputy chief of the Indian Air Force (IAF) Kapil Kak said that in terms of tracking and scanning radars, its height parameters and the area it can cover, Russia’s S-400 system was the best in the world and“superior” to any other, including the US Patriot.

Ultimately, Washington’s efforts to pressure countries like Turkey and India to buy US-made systems instead of Russian ones haven’t yielded the desired results and have been seen by many officials as encroachments on their strategic autonomy. 

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Inroads into Southeast Asia

Russia has made major inroads into the defense markets in Southeast Asia in recent years as regional states look to beef up their armed forces in response to an increasingly assertive China. That is particularly true of nations which are engaged in long-standing territorial disputes with Beijing in the South China Sea, including Vietnam, Indonesia and the Philippines.

While Russia is the second-largest supplier of arms globally, it has emerged as the top seller in Southeast Asia, with regional states spending a massive $6.6 billion on Russian arms between 2010 and 2017. That’s as much as the US and China sold to the region combined – and accounts for more than 12 percent of Moscow’s overall sales.

Vietnam was the largest importer of Russian equipment during the period, making up 78 percent of Russia’s total arms sales in the region. Its purchases included six Kilo-class diesel-electric submarines, as well as warships and fighter jets.

India – Russia’s biggest buyer globally

India has remained a major buyer of Soviet and Russian equipment since the 1960s. It’s been estimated that about 60-70 percent of India’s current military inventory is of Soviet and Russian origin. That trend has continued as India once again emerged as Russia’s biggest customer in 2019, with arms purchases of $14.5 billion, despite the threat of US sanctions. India’s purchase of the S-400 surface-to-air missile system alone accounted for nearly $5 billion.

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Fortunately for Moscow, the Indian armed forces, which are known for their professionalism, have a long record of efficiently operating and maintaining their Russian-made equipment. Over the years, India has built sophisticated facilities for the training and repair of Russian systems and leveraged its expertise to advance its own defense cooperation with Southeast Asian states.

The Indian Navy, for instance, provided extensive training to 500 personnel from Vietnam’s Navy in operating the Kilo-class submarines before Hanoi went ahead and purchased six of the diesel-electric subs from Moscow. Earlier, in 2007, India supplied 5,000 spare parts for the maintenance of Russian-origin Petya class warships and OSA-II-class missile boats – phased out by India’s navy — for use by the Vietnamese.

Similarly, Indian air force pilots have also trained Malaysian air force pilots on the Russian Su-30 fighter aircraft, operated by both nations. The two countries have even set up an ‘Su-30 forum’ – a joint platform to exchange information on training, maintenance and technical support of the aircraft. 

India’s efforts to leverage its long-held expertise in Russian military hardware to advance its own ties with Southeast Asian states is clearly aligned with Russia’s broader global strategic objectives – and it could prove to be a mutually beneficial arrangement, as Russia expands it military partnerships in the region.

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