Russia`s Stance on India`s Nuclear Program

Dual Degree M.A. Program Global Security, Nuclear Policy, and WMD Nonproliferation (MGIMO-MIIS-PIR Center) graduate (2019–2021)
December 29, 2019

With a military comprised of 1.4 million people, India has the world’s second largest military force, and is estimated by Credit Suisse and the Global Firepower Index to be the fourth most powerful military in the world.[1] In addition, it is one of the four nations who are not part of the NPT who possess a nuclear arsenal. As such, it could be expected that the Russian government would have a strong public stance on this issue, either positively or negatively. However, the Russian government has generally been quiet on the issue of India’s nuclear weapons. For a number of reasons, including the historical and modern reactions on the part of the Russia and the Soviet Union to India’s nuclear development, it can be best argued that Russia’s stance is one of neutrality, with favorable overtones.

The first thing to consider when attempting to analyze Russia’s attitude about India’s nuclear program is the relationship between India and the Soviet Union, and later Russia as a state. Nothing exists in a vacuum; current situations are often influenced by the events of history. It is important to at least glance at the relations between the Soviet Union and India and to analyze the Soviet attitude towards India’s nuclear program in its early stages to understand the current Russian stance. While India remained neutral in the early days of the Cold War, the beginnings of cooperation between the two countries could be seen when Khrushchev declared that he supported India’s claim to sovereignty in Kashmir on December 9, 1955[2]. The United States’ decision to sell arms to Pakistan forced to India to look towards the Soviet Union, resulting in a political shift away from total neutrality and leading to the signing of the Indo-Soviet Treaty of Peace, Friendship, and Cooperation in 1971. This in turn led to a long history of close relations between the two countries, which outlasted the fall of the Soviet Union and rather mild disagreements over India’s nuclear program.

India, a non-signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), was unsurprisingly one of its great detractors in the early days of its drafting. This was in part due to Indian fear of Chinese military superiority, as well as an inability to guarantee that China wouldn’t use nuclear weapons against them. At the time, Russia viewed the NPT as necessary to shackle a West German nuclear program, which was viewed as a massive security threat by a country that hadn’t forgotten the lessons of WWII. India’s stance on the NPT caused certain disagreements between the Soviet Union and India during the drafting meetings, with U.N representative N.A. Kuznetsov “consider(ing) it necessary to refute the arguments of his Indian counterpart point by point, though without mentioning India by name”[3] and another Soviet official describing India’s reservations about the treaty as “a shrill propaganda campaign.”[4] However, once the NPT was established and the threat from West Germany had abated, the Soviet Union seemed less concerned about India’s resistance to the nonproliferation regime. While the Soviet Union attempted to convince India to refrain from carrying out the Pokhran-I test in 1974, they also refused to criticize India after the test had been carried out.[5] One cause for that could be related to something that is still true today: a strong India limits the power of China in South Asia. It is also worth noting that, while they didn’t criticize India for the test, they did cooperate with the United States in the formation of the Nuclear Supply Group (NSG). Further strain on India-Russian relations came in 1998 with the  Pokhran-II tests. In this, Russia was forced to walk a fine line on its handling of the situation. The United States and Russia made a joint statement calling on India and Pakistan to cease the development of their weapons programs, but the Russian Prime Minister visited India to assure them of “Russian desire to continue and expand bilateral cooperation with India in the areas of peaceful nuclear energy and military technology cooperation”[6]

This friendly relationship between the governments of India and Russia has continued to this day. The Russian government has leased three nuclear submarines to India, with the latest lease of an Akula class submarine being finalized in March 2019[7]. This occurred weeks after the skirmish between India and Pakistan, which had resulted in the downing of an Indian pilot. While the deal had been two years in the making, the timing of the deal served to underscore the commitment of Russia to its Indian allies. In addition, a Russian proposal to build six non-nuclear submarines for India has recently been announced.[8] Given the recent technological advances on the part of India, which have allowed it to domestically field a nuclear submarine capable of carrying 12 SLBMs[9], this cooperation can hardly be seen as discouraging the Indian nuclear weapons program, as it would be feasible that the submarines could be later outfitted with SLBMs[10]. Furthermore, according to the Federal Service for Military and Technical Cooperation (FSVTS), arms deals between India and Russia hit 14.5 billion dollars in the last year, including 5 billion dollars set aside for ordering S-400 systems[11]. India is also closely tied to Russia on the subject of nuclear energy. On October 5th, 2018, India signed a pact to build six nuclear reactors at a site in India, although there is no firm agreement yet.

If the Russian government is worried about the threat of India’s nuclear program, then they are certainly not letting it affect long-term strategic relations between the two countries. There are three possible explanations for this stance. The first is that they don’t want to negatively influence the mutually beneficial relationship between Russia and India. An apt comparison to this situation can be found in the relationship between the U.S and Israel on the subject of nuclear weapons. In much the same way that the U.S doesn’t want to let nonproliferation issues alienate it from a major ally, Russia might not want to alienate its partner in the BRICS system. Alternatively, this seeming lack of concern can stem from a simpler reason. Given their amicable relationship and lack of areas of competition, there is no real reason that Russia would be threatened by Indian nuclear weapons. Attempts to corral India’s nuclear program would lead to a lessening of Russia’s influence with them with no actual political or strategic gain on Russia’s part. With no reason to oppose the Indian nuclear program other than a moral opposition to nuclear proliferation, it can hardly be viewed as surprising that Russia wouldn’t want to waste the political capital on a losing fight with an ally. Finally, the lack of condemnation on the part of Russia during the nascent days of India’s nuclear program and beyond could almost be taken for a tacit approval. The benefits of having a strong partnership with a nuclear power, even one outside of the NPT, should not be underestimated. Russia would be unable to publicly acknowledge any positive support for India’s nuclear program, due to the associated harm this would cause to the nonproliferation regime as a whole. However, maintaining close ties to India, helping them with their military and peaceful technologies, and providing them with weaponry would prove to be a long-term benefit to Russia, especially if Russian/Chinese relations were to sour at some point in the future. If relations between Russia and China would ever deteriorate to the point of war, as they easily could have in the border conflicts of 1969, India would be perfectly positioned to strike China while they were occupied with Russia, forcing China to fight a war on two fronts.

Whatever the reason, this neutrality on the part of Russia to India’s nuclear program doesn’t necessarily mean that it believes India’s situation to be a safe one. India’s relationship with Pakistan is one of the most worrying aspects of its nuclear situation, according to Russian experts. The two countries have been regional competitors since the partitioning of the country in 1947, and relations between them have often been characterized by armed conflicts. The nuclear programs of both countries are mainly geared at balancing the other, with Pakistan hoping that nuclear weapons will help bridge the gap in size of conventional forces and capabilities between it and India, and India relying on them as a means of deterrence against Pakistan, as well as a deterrence measure against China. With recent conflicts between the two countries over Azad Jammu and Kashmir, there exists a very real possibility that a conflict between the two countries could escalate into a nuclear war. According to Dr. Alexei Arbatov, this is exacerbated by weaknesses in their nuclear facilities, namely that “their command, control, and attack-warning systems are somewhat ineffective, and their official nuclear doctrines are fluid, especially as they relate to the conditions and methods of using nuclear weapons.[12] This nuclear doctrine was, until recently, based around several concepts, including building a capacity for minimal deterrence, a no-first-use policy, and a policy of responding to a nuclear strike with a massive retaliatory strike intended to inflict irrecoverable damage. Pakistan has a similarly structured nuclear doctrine, but a more tenuous command and control structure. Dr. Petr Topychkanov agrees with Dr. Arbatov’s sentiment, expressing further concerns about India’s concept of minimal credible deterrence. He argues that India’s professed desire to only build a nuclear arsenal to the point of minimal deterrence is incompatible with its desire to have the capability of a massive nuclear retaliation. He also suggests that India will find it hard to “strictly comply with its no-first-use commitment if it faces an imminent threat of nuclear attack before it has deployed missile defense systems or developed robust retaliatory capability.”[13] This has proven to be a prophetic remark. In September, Rajnath Singh, the Indian Defense Minister, appeared to have walked back India’s NFU stance, saying “Until today, our nuclear policy was ‘no first use’. What happens in the future depends on the circumstances.”[14] It remains to be seen whether or not this was an actual change of doctrine or a show of force meant to appease Indian hawks and showcase the strength of PM Modi’s government.

Russian experts are also split on the possibility of arms control talks between India and Pakistan. Dr. Arbatov believes that Pakistan and India exist in a nearly unique relationship for the purposes of nuclear arms regimes. The two countries have similar nuclear capabilities, are involved in nuclear deterrence with each other, and have more similarities between each other than any other pair of nuclear states, with the exception of the US and Russia. He states that this similarity could possibly pave the way to bilateral arms control treaties and suggests that India and Pakistan look to the INF treaty for inspiration, allowing them to create “equal ceilings for missiles of certain range.”[15] Dr. Topychkanov, on the other hand, is less optimistic about the possibility of arms control agreements, calling attention to several aspects of the current atmosphere that make the prospect of arms control seem less than desirable for both countries. He points out that both countries are in the middle of a modernization and build-up process, and that any type of arms control treaty would only slow their progress. In addition, he highlights the fears that both countries have that the other would “cheat or circumvent the limitations in some…manner.”[16] Between these two opinions, Dr. Topychkanov has the most realistic stance for the present moment. Given the heightened state of tensions between India and Pakistan, the prospect of arms control seems to be a distant possibility. It is possible that the situation might change in the next few years, however, the conflict over Kashmir does not look like a situation that will have a clean, quick resolution. Indeed, Dr. Topychkanov states at the end of his lecture that “it goes without saying that such agreements could be attained only after the parties have settled their territorial dispute and other issues of bilateral relations.”[17] Unfortunately, at the present moment, it doesn’t appear that this cessation of disputes will happen in the near future.

Any understanding of India’s nuclear program would be incomplete without discussing the role of China. Attempting to match China’s military superiority was one of the original driving forces behind India’s drive for nuclear weapons. General Trubnikov argues that this military superiority, combined with Beijing’s current drive for military modernization “highlights the importance of India’s nuclear status as a means of deterring its rival, China.”[18] He also points to the aspects of Indian foreign policy aimed at countering Chinese influence, and states that they could lead to a “potential direct clash of India’s and China’s political and military interests.”[19] As important as nuclear weapons are to India, though, the current gap between their comparative arsenals means that it is exceptionally unlikely that they will ever establish nuclear parity with China. While the actual number of Chinese and Indian nuclear weapons aren’t released, the general consensus is that the number of Chinese nuclear arsenal is much larger than India’s. Much less has been written by Russian experts on nuclear relations between India and China than on the India/Pakistan situation. At this particular moment, China is not an active threat to India in terms of nuclear weapons. However, the looming specter of China has an indirectly harmful impact on the potential for arms control talks between Pakistan and India. Dr. Topychkanov highlights two ways that China would have a negative impact on these talks. The first is that the threat of China would make India much less likely to enter into limiting arms control treaties with Pakistan, for fear that their position with regards to China would be weakened. The second is that India would be less likely to provide even basic information regarding their nuclear arsenal and technological capabilities to Pakistan for fear that it would be leaked to China, who has supported Pakistan in a bid to check India’s power.[20]

In conclusion, the Russian stance on India’s nuclear program is a subtle one. Its origins were in the disapproval in the drafting days of the NPT and the early days of India’s program with the Pokhran-I tests. The official statement registering Russian displeasure with the Pokhran-II tests was softened by envoys assuring India of Russia’s support in the areas of peaceful uses of nuclear energy and military technology. In the modern world, Russia remains a stalwart ally of India, supplying them with nuclear subs, S-400 systems, and nuclear reactors. While the situation between India and Pakistan is currently strained over disputed territory, and the situation between India and China is one of competition and mistrust, Russia has remained solidly on India’s side. With regards to India’s nuclear program today, Russia stops short of approval, taking a hands-off approach and maintaining a neutral stance.

[1] “2019 Military Strength Ranking.” Global Firepower – World Military Strength,

[2] Kux, Dennis. India and the United States: Estranged Democracies, 1941-1991. National Defense University Press, 1992.

[3] Szalontai, Balazs. “The Elephant in the Room: The Soviet Union and India’s Nuclear Program, 1967-1989.” Wilson Center, Nov. 2011,

[4] Ibid.

[5] Topychkanov, Petr V. “US–Soviet/Russian Dialogue on the Nuclear Weapons Programme of India.” Taylor & Francis, 8 May 2018,

[6] Ibid.

[7] Raghuvanshi, Vivek. “India Signs $3 Billion Contract with Russia for Lease of a Nuclear Submarine.” Defense News, Defense News, 8 Mar. 2019,

[8] “Russia Offers to Build Six Submarines under Inter-Government Agreement with India.” TASS, 5 Sept. 2019,

[9] “India’s Nuclear Submarine Equipped with SLBM Fully Operational.” Defense World, 16 May 2018,

[10] Buzhinskiy, Evgeny. “Lecture.”, Introduction to Arms Control. MGIMO, Moscow. 15 Nov. 2019

[11] Simonov, Nikita. “India’s Russian Arms Purchases Hit ‘Breakthrough’ $14.5Bln, Official Says.” The Moscow Times, The Moscow Times, 5 Sept. 2019,

[12] Arbatov, Alexey, et al. “Moving Beyond the India-Pakistan Nuclear Standoff.” Carnegie Moscow Center, 27 Oct. 2014,

[13] Topychkanov, Petr. “Military Strategic Relations of India and Pakistan.” The Prospects of Engaging India and Pakistan in Nuclear Arms Limitations, 18 Oct. 2012,

[14] Dalton, Toby. “Much Ado About India’s No-First-Use Nuke Policy.” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 26 Sept. 2019,

[15] Arbatov, Alexei. “Prospects of Engaging India and Pakistan in Nuclear Arms Limitations.” The Prospects of Engaging India and Pakistan in Nuclear Arms Limitations, 18 Oct. 2012,

[16] Topychkanov, Petr. “Military Strategic Relations of India and Pakistan.” The Prospects of Engaging India and Pakistan in Nuclear Arms Limitations, 18 Oct. 2012,

[17] Topychkanov, Petr. “Military Strategic Relations of India and Pakistan.” The Prospects of Engaging India and Pakistan in Nuclear Arms Limitations, 18 Oct. 2012,

[18] Trubnikov, Vyacheslav. “The Role of Nuclear Status in India’s and Pakistan’s Foreign and Domestic Policy: Russia’s Perspective.” The Prospects of Engaging India and Pakistan in Nuclear Arms Limitations, 18 Oct. 2012,

[19] Ibid.

[20] Topychkanov, Petr. “Military Strategic Relations of India and Pakistan.” The Prospects of Engaging India and Pakistan in Nuclear Arms Limitations, 18 Oct. 2012,