Can India & Russia Resuscitate Cyber Relationship?

Since the war started, thousands of Russian IT workers and entrepreneurs, and dozens of foreign firms have left Russia. Western sanctions have targeted Russian high-technology industries, including bans on the export of critical computing elements like microprocessors. Over the last few years, Russia has sought to develop indigenous semiconductor, cybersecurity, and networking industries. However, large-scale ‘brain drain’ and sanctions will threaten Russia’s strategic interests in cyberspace by undermining its cyber capabilities and increasing its reliance on China.

To restrict the outflow of its assets, Moscow has signed several economic measures­­ – a three-year tax holiday, subsidized loans for IT companies, approved subsidized mortgages for IT workers, and a waiver from army service to all IT experts of draft age. The Russian president has also signed a decree stating that the period from 2022 to 2031 will be the ‘Decade of Science and Technology’, aimed at attracting talented young people to the scientific field.

In the past two decades, Russia has sought to develop bilateral partnerships for cooperation in the cyber domain and has actively participated on multilateral, minilateral, and regional platforms. However, with the onset of the war, prospects for cooperation with the West appear to have evaporated. Russia now faces an accelerated Western campaign aimed at delegitimizing Moscow’s leadership credentials in the cyber domain. The West views Russian diplomatic efforts as a smokescreen to keep the international community distracted from meaningful cooperation on norm building in cyberspace and cybercrime.

As the West looks to suffocate Russia, Moscow will seek support elsewhere. A closer partnership with China seems inevitable. Both Russia and China have pushed for ‘cyber sovereignty’ and the right of states to regulate the internet in the national interest. Both have established the capacities for cyber-surveillance and can operate a splintered cyberspace, shielded from the global internet. Scrutinised and banned, Chinese firms like Huawei have expanded their operations in Russia. In this light, Western sanctions will only bring the two neighbours closer.

India and Russia have for long viewed the cyber domain as an avenue for cooperation. However, closer bilateral cyber cooperation has remained unrealized. In 2015, an official statement from the Indian Ministry of Home Affairs noted that India and Russia will form an ‘Expert Group’ on cybersecurity and counter-terrorism to counter propaganda in cyberspace from terrorist groups like the Islamic State. But without a working model in place, observers remarked it to be a ‘purely bureaucratic’ gesture. The negotiations for a cyber agreement began in early 2016, and in October, India and Russia signed their first cyber agreement. The agreement established a ‘High-Level Dialogue on Cyber Issues’, cleared the way for cooperation in tackling cybercrime, encouraged coordination on critical infrastructure protection, and indicated a desire on both sides for strengthening the bilateral relations.

Beyond efforts at the government level, cooperation between the Indian and Russian private sectors also observed an uptick. Despite the high-level competition from local IT developers, Russian IT solutions were seen as of great interest in India. However, while India’s cyber partnership grew leaps and bounds with other partners like Australia, Israel, Japan and especially the US, the Indo-Russian partnership remained limited.

In a February 2018 meeting, the Indian National Security Advisor and the Russian Deputy Secretary of the Russian Security Council emphasised broadening practical cooperation in cybersecurity. In addition to discussions on the possibility of a long-term mechanism for cooperation between authorities and agencies of the two countries, the officials underlined the significance of the UN’s role in coordinating the norms, regulations, and principles of responsible state behaviour in cyberspace.

More recently in December 2021, India and Russia agreed to facilitate collaboration between government and private sector organizations to find ways for the joint development of software platforms, services, and products. The two partners highlighted their commitment to increasing the effectiveness of countering information security threats, critical infrastructure protection, and law enforcement in cyberspace. Both sides reiterated the significance of the leading role of the UN in cyberspace governance norms, inter-agency cooperation under bilateral and multilateral platforms, and the cruciality of international cooperation against criminal use of Information and Communications Technologies (ICTs).

Like Russia, India has maintained its non-member status at the Council of Europe’s Cybercrime Convention (or the Budapest Convention) since its formation in 2001. While India argues that the convention was drafted without its participation, Russia maintains that a new global cybercrime treaty is needed as the convention violates principles of state sovereignty by allowing cross-border cybercrime operations. To this aim, Russia has led a campaign for a new framework at the UN since 2019 which India supports.

Russia has developed a niche of highly competitive high-tech products and services. While a large number of Russian cyber experts have worked for foreign firms, its own product industry has remained limited in size due to the small domestic consumption capacity. Before the war, it was argued that “Russia does not have the opportunity to scale up the training of IT specialists in universities at a pace that corresponds to the growth potential of the industry in the global market, hence there remains a shortage of IT personnel”. However, this situation will change in the aftermath of this war. As the West shuns Russia in technological space, the growth potential of the Russian tech industry will slow down in the global market. Further, Russia will have to work toward replacing the talent which has left the country.

Russia has worked towards creating its own ‘trusted environment’ by developing indigenous hardware, software, and design and programming tools. As cyber threats increasingly weigh upon national security and strategic considerations, India can benefit from Russia’s experiences in this realm.

Time and again, economic, and geographical reasons have restricted Indo-Russian partnership in infrastructural and energy sectors. But cooperation in the cyber domain is different. It requires fewer heavy investments and is geographically unrestricted.  As India’s cybersecurity market remains short on personnel as well, collaboration in this sphere can prove fruitful for both countries. 

Way Ahead

Several factors affect the Indo-Russian partnership in the cyber domain. Russia’s encirclement by the West, an increasingly warm Russia-China relationship, and India’s developing partnerships with the West in the Indo-Pacific region are some of them. As Russia relies on support beyond the UN, how BRICS and SCO engage going ahead will also be significant.

In 2021, the BRICS summit had concluded with a new pledge on cybersecurity, aimed at establishing legal frameworks of cooperation. Interestingly, Brazil joined the Budapest Convention this year in February. As Russia, India, and China have long resisted the convention, Brazil’s decision marks a divergence of interests among BRICS partners in the cyber domain. As the West increases its diplomatic efforts to draw away nations from meaningful engagements with Russia and China, Moscow’s diplomatic efforts can face difficulties. BRICS expansion can bring much-needed relief to this situation by strengthening the scope for partnerships.

Similarly, SCO dynamics are complicated. India is expected to engage with China and Pakistan – two increasingly active cyber adversaries working in tandem against India’s interests. SCO’s efforts toward counter-terrorism and intelligence-sharing will remain impractical if self-interests take precedence. China has sought to increase its digital foothold in the Central Asian region. Neither India nor Russia would be comfortable with Central Asia’s over-reliance on China in the cyber domain. However, both of them may be unable to negate this on their own. Thus, offshore cooperation can be another key avenue for the Indo-Russian cyber partnership. This can be extended to Latin America, Africa and Southeast Asia too.

With significant developments taking place in parallel for both Russia and India, the cyber domain can be a key area for strengthening the time-honoured bilateral relationship. For India, decreasing Russia’s reliance on China will be significant for the triangular power dynamic between Russia, India, and China. India will have to continue balancing its oriental and occidental partnerships as it has done for decades. India’s Western partners will leave no stone unturned to draw it away from a closer partnership with Russia. As India’s IT industry stakes remain entrenched with the West, fears of sanctions will affect the Indian industry’s desire for engagement with its Russian counterparts. For an India looking to attain strategic autonomy in global geopolitics, a stronger Indo-Russian cyber partnership can help diversify the relationship beyond defence and hydrocarbons. Meanwhile, for Russia, the situation is similar to post-2014 years. Increased diplomatic outreach to non-Western partners will ensue.

(Views are personal)

Divyanshu Jindal
Divyanshu Jindal
Divyanshu Jindal is a Researcher on Geopolitics & Tech at NatStrat, India.