India has long been one of Russia’s most important partners in many areas, including the defense and military fields. The annual INDRA tri-services military exercise between Russian and Indian Armed Forces is a strong testament to this cooperation.
The word INDRA itself is a portmanteau of the participating countries’ names, and Indra is also the Indian celestial deity of thunder, lightning and war, so the title is quite symbolic.
The first INDRA exercises were held in 2003. Since then they have taken place in India and Russia over the course of 10 years, with the participation of both ground and naval forces. Since 2014, the exercises have been divided into two phases to involve both types of armed forces. The ground training exercises are oriented at anti-terrorism tactics. Additionally, the Air Force participated in the exercise for the first time in 2014.
In 2017, INDRA became even more diverse: the ground forces, the navies and air forces of the two countries took part in the exercises, namely the Russian Pacific Fleet and the Indian Navy, the aviation and ground units of the Eastern Military District of Russia, as well as Indian ground forces. The exercises were held in the Primorsky Krai in Russia. The participants conducted live-fire artillery practice, made sea and air landings and repelled mock enemy attacks. It is worth nothing that pilots from Indian Air Force served as co-pilots in the Russian combat aircraft and helicopters that participated in the exercises.
INDRA-2018 exercises were held in India, Uttar Pradesh, in November 2018. They were attended by 500 Russian and Indian servicemen, equipped with a variety of military tech. They practiced joint planning of a peacekeeping operation and tactical actions to eliminate illegal armed groups.
The next INDRA exercises were held on December 11-21, 2019 in the three Indian states: Goa (port Mormugao on the shore of the eponymous bay), Uttar Pradesh (Babina Military Station) and Maharashtra (Indian Air Force base in the city of Pune).
Over 700 Russian soldiers took part in the exercises, including pilots and members of the air defense forces of the Eastern Military District, as well as sailors of the Russian Baltic Fleet. Sailors arrived on their own ships, while tanks, armored personnel carriers and aviation were provided to Russian military personnel by their Indian counterparts.
On December 11, the opening ceremonies of the exercise took place in all three sites. They included ceremonial formations, performances of military bands, the presentation of military equipment and an air show.
As mentioned earlier, the naval exercises that began in the Mormugao port featured the ships of the Baltic Fleet of the Russian Federation, namely the watchman ship called Yaroslav the Wise, the sea-going tugboat Viktor Konetsky and the tanker Yelnya. Anti-terrorist units of the Baltic Fleet Marines were stationed on the ships, along with the Ka-27 deck helicopter.
Russian and Indian ships entered the Indian Ocean and ran through joint drills, including air defense tactics.
On land, Russian and Indian military engineers defused a mined highway. They also escorted convoys of military equipment, protecting them from simulated attacks, and liberating a settlement captured by mock terrorists; special forces and Russian-made T-90 tanks took part in the liberating operation.
As was mentioned above, India is one of Russia’s primary partners in military and technical cooperation, and this was also reflected during the exercises. New weapons were demonstrated at the Babina Field Firing Range, including the latest modifications of the Kalashnikov assault rifle, flamethrowers and anti-tank missile systems. It is quite possible that in the future, India will want to buy some of this equipment.
The closing ceremony of the INDRA-2019 exercises was held in Uttar Pradesh on December 20, 2019. The Russian soldiers performed a solemn formation together with their Indian brothers-in-arms, stood at attention for the playing of the national anthems of both countries and handed over the equipment borrowed for the exercises back to their Indian colleagues, after which they got ready to leave for their homeland. As for the ships of the Baltic Fleet, after the end of the exercises they immediately set off for the Arabian Gulf to participate in the joint exercise of Russia, China and Iran, which took place on December 27.
The INDRA-2019 exercises once again showcased the strength of the Russian-Indian armed forces and the strength of the countries’ military-technical cooperation, which in turn demonstrated a high level of Russian-Indian cooperation in general.
Granted, another one of India’s important partners in the field of defense is the United States, and India is the USA’s key partner in the creation of the so-called Indo-Pacific region, in which the U.S., India and their allies will stand together against the ever-growing influence of China. Relations between the US and Russia are, evidently, not at their best, and countries engaged in military-technical cooperation with Russia are under the threat of American sanctions. India is no exception; in the fall of 2018, a contract was signed for the export of Russian S-400 anti-aircraft missile systems to India. The U.S. immediately expressed its disapproval with this and threatened sanctions, but this did not affect India’s decision. The deal is being carried through as planned, and the U.S. had to quell its anger. Without India the Indo-Pacific region project is all but impossible, so Washington isn’t keen on alienating New Delhi.
On December 18, 2019, shortly before the end of the INDRA-2019 exercises, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Pentagon Chief Mark Esper met in Washington with their Indian counterparts, Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar and Defense Minister Rajnath Singh. The parties discussed the development of U.S.-Indian strategic and defense cooperation, as well as the countries’ leading roles in the Indo-Pacific region.
Topics such as India’s purchase of Russian S-400 and the Indra exercise were barely touched upon. At the same time, concerning the abovementioned joint exercises of the Russian Federation, China and Iran, the U.S. stated that it would monitor them in order to ensure the safety of regional navigation. That is to say, the presence of the Russian Navy in the Indian Ocean causes irritation to the Americans, but they decided not to express their dissatisfaction with India’s cooperation with Russia to their Indian partners.
The conclusion is obvious. India’s military cooperation with Russia remains one of New Delhi’s priorities, and it isn’t even up for discussion with Washington. The Americans can only accept this if they wish to keep India’s support, which is vital for maintaining their influence and presence in both the Indo-Pacific and Asia-Pacific Regions.
On December 26, 2019, Russian Deputy Defense Minister Alexander Fomin met with Indian Ambassador to Russia Bala Venkatesh Varma. During the meeting, the results of the Russian-Indian military-technical cooperation for 2019 were summarized. The parties expressed their intentions to continue strengthening this cooperation and the other areas of the ‘especially privileged strategic partnership’ uniting Russia and India.
Dmitry Bokarev, political observer, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”