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Photo illustration by John Lyman

If India sells supersonic cruise missiles to Russia expect the blowback to be swift and extreme.

India’s BrahMos, a medium-range supersonic cruise missile, is marked by its speed, range, accuracy, and versatility. Amid today’s geopolitical tensions, India’s arms trade doesn’t merely represent a commercial transaction but a pointed statement of its burgeoning prowess in arms manufacturing and a projection of its military might.

India’s multifaceted defense collaborations with Russia are conspicuous, encompassing the Su-30MKI aircraft, T-90S tanks, AK-203 rifles, and the prominent BrahMos missile system. Given its origins in the Russian P-800 Oniks missile, Russia’s fascination with the BrahMos is hardly unexpected. Yet, this potential acquisition transcends mere military hardware, reinforcing an age-old defense alliance. With a price tag of approximately $3.5 million ($5 million for the extended-range variant, BrahMos-ER), Russia envisages BrahMos as a formidable figure in the global arms market, rather than a mere addition to its own arsenal.

Ukraine, tragically entangled in a brutal conflict with alarming humanitarian repercussions, stands as a somber backdrop. Since Russia launched its brutal invasion of Ukraine on February 24th, 2022, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) has cataloged a harrowing 9,369 civilian deaths as of July 30th. Any escalation of the Russia-Ukraine war, possibly facilitated by India, may tip the scales in Russia’s favor—a situation complicated by India’s reluctance to openly condemn Vladimir Putin’s war of choice.

India’s BrahMos deal with Russia is more than a commercial transaction; it reflects a subtle endorsement of Russia’s actions in Ukraine. This sale also signals a pivot from India’s traditional non-alignment policy to a more nuanced diplomatic approach. Russia’s provision of over 60% of India’s arms imports stands as an enduring symbol of their deep defense alliance. India’s abstention from UN votes criticizing Russia may reveal strategy rather than indifference. Economically, the BrahMos deal undoubtedly presents an attractive opportunity for India.

Atul Dinkar Rane, CEO of BrahMos Aerospace, does not outright object to exporting BrahMos missiles to Russia, but he conveys unease about their potential use against Ukraine. His statement stresses that deployment aboard Russian ships is subject to governmental approval and hints at the potential incorporation of technology from Russia’s Tsirkon missile into BrahMos-II. He underscores that India has no jurisdiction over Russia’s use but nevertheless reveals a desire to uphold the Indo-Russian strategic alliance.

India’s international relationships, however, stretch beyond Russia. Despite robust collaboration on issues such as Kashmir, counter-terrorism, and nuclear policies, there are considerations to weigh. Supplying BrahMos to Russia in the Ukraine context might breach international protocols and could strain India’s relationship with Western allies, particularly in light of sanctions like CAATSA.

Should Russia deploy BrahMos against Ukraine, the ripple effects could be significant. Such an action might severely undermine Ukraine’s economic stability and defense capabilities, potentially exacerbating the conflict and eliciting global reproach. For India, this move might prompt a diplomatic backlash from European nations.

India’s geopolitical maneuvering regarding Ukraine is inherently complex. Its historic ties to Russia, strategic objectives, and broader diplomatic strategies all play pivotal roles. Organizations like the SCO, BRICS, and projects like the Chabahar Port Project anchor India to Russia and the greater Eurasian sphere. Balancing alignment with Russia and China’s growing influence is an intricate task.

Though India’s influence over Russia’s actions may be limited, its attention is understandably more regionally concentrated, given immediate challenges from neighbors like China and Pakistan. The war in Ukraine, while substantial, might not be India’s principal worry.

While the BrahMos deal could provide Russia with an advantage in Ukraine and affirm the Indo-Russian defense partnership, its broader ramifications, especially among European nations, are set to cast an enduring shadow on future geopolitics.

Aishwarya Sanjukta Roy Proma is a Research Associate at the BRAC Institute of Governance and Development (BIGD). She is a research analyst in security studies. She holds undergraduate and graduate degrees in International Relations from the University of Dhaka, Bangladesh.