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Is Russia-India Cyber Cooperation on the Horizon?

In nearly the past two decades, Moscow has sought to engage other governments in developing formal cooperation channels with respect to information security and the larger cyber issues. Since 2014, Moscow has signed more than 30cyber-related bilateral agreements with multinational regional organizations, a move to counter measures by the West to lead the efforts in establishing international cyber norms of behavior and Internet governance.  However, Moscow’s efforts of trying to create a larger global treaty has all but disappeared due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the subsequent battles taking place in cyberspace. Moscow’s state actors, as well as nationalistic and hacker gangs from its formidable cybercrime ecosystem over which it has influence, have not only conducted attacks against Ukraine, but also countries that are openly supporting Kyiv.  As are result, Moscow understands the need to establish more formal one-on-one agreements especially if Russia wants to continue to have a voice in any further international engagement on cyber issues once the conflict concludes.

For Moscow, a government of importance is New Delhi, a democratic government in a region surrounded by authoritarian regional neighbors, and a longstanding friend of Russia since the Cold War.  Since the invasion, India has been supportive of Russia in its efforts in Ukraine, abstaining from public criticism, continuing to purchase Russian oil, and serving as the primary benefactor for the Russian defense industry.  In return, Russia has often backed India on some of its key security issues as well as advocating for India to get a permanent seat on the United Nations (UN) Security Council. Further tying Russia and India together is the fact that both are members of BRICS and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), two international organizations in which both governments are influential members. The dynamic between the two is not lost on Moscow; in spite of being the largest democracy in the world, the close bilateral relationship shows that competing political ideologies do not have to be antagonistic in nature.

A formalized cyber agreement between Russia and India is a logical progression for Moscow both in appearance as well as from a practical standpoint.  After all, both countries are known for their technological sectors and experienced IT workforce, and both have adopted multistakeholder bases and scientific cooperation. Therefore, it comes as little surprise that the idea has long been in development, though moving toward a more concrete agreement up until recently has stalled. Russia-India interest in establishing a formal cyber cooperation relationship started in 2016 when both governments signed a “Memorandum of Understanding on Information Security” agreement during a BRICS summit.  Although the text wasn’t made public, the tenets paved the way for both countries to address mutual security concerns ranging from cybercrime to national security. Not only did the agreement set a way forward for high-level dialogues on cyber issues of interest, but the agreement also enabled government agencies to collaborate on counterterrorism.  The purpose of the group was to share experiences in specialized training on these issues.

Then in February 2018, Russia sought to expand its cyber cooperation with India, aiming to use the UN’s natural multistakeholder forum to serve as the focal point in driving the development of behavior norms and rules that would ultimately govern how nation states behaved in the cyber domain. In late 2021, Russia’s efforts appeared to gain headway, as both Moscow and New Delhi reached consensus on the need for government and private sector entities in both countries to find channels for joint collaboration on IT service platforms and products under the banner of an improved cybersecurity environment.  The two found common ground in other areas as well, with both maintaining their non-member status with respect to the Budapest Convention on Cybercrime, though albeit for different reasons.

While it’s evident that cyber cooperation with India is an important move for Moscow, the reality is that both may benefit from closer ties in this area.  For Russia, democratic India serves as an important counter to the democratic West, a proof-of-concept that opposing political philosophies can find common ground on cyber issues, which has long been a sticking point that has obstructed the same from happening with the United States.  For India, it receives the regional support of a powerful military and cyber actor with a global voice and a permanent spot on the UN Security Council.  Even if New Delhi doesn’t have a seat at that table, keeping positive relations with Russia provides India an alternative to the United States, enabling it to play one off the other depending on who is more willing to listen to and represent India’s interests in exchange for its support.

But security interests may even strike closer to home than that.  Despite being organizations supposed to focus on the mutual concerns of its members, both BRICS and the SCO feature states that are not always mutually supportive of one another, no less Russia and India.  For example, China has often backed Russia in many areas including its recent Ukraine invasion. Yet despite having penned an agreement not to hack one another, China recently has been exposed conducting cyber espionage in order to obtain Russian defense data, perhaps in order to ascertain the ground truth on Russian military developments in Ukraine. Equally, China has a longstanding border dispute with India, has been linked to potentially disruptive attacks on India’s energy sector, and continually conducts cyber spying activities against India.

Therefore, Russia and India may capitalize on the moment to deepen already solid relations, using a potential cyber cooperation agreement as a confidence building measure that sends a message to the region (read: China), as well as the world (read: the West).  This ultimately serves both governments’ interests.  Russia resists Western technology encroachment as well as develops an ally in the fight to codify cyber norms in the UN.  India is able to leverage this relationship as a bargaining chip to play off the West and Russia depending on the issue and its level of import to New Delhi’s strategic interests.

Regardless of if it wins or loses in Ukraine, Russia risks losing substantial economic and military influence in the world, as a result.  With China’s continued rise casting shadows over Russia, any cyber cooperation agreement will strengthen a Russo-Indian front that bookends China and helps ensure that Asia does not fall under China’s growing regional hegemony, and upsetting the dynamic check and balance in place.

Also see: The India–Russia strategic partnership is key to Indo-Pacific stability (eastasiaforum.org)

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Emilio Iasiello

Emilio Iasiello

Emilio Iasiello has nearly 20 years’ experience as a strategic cyber intelligence analyst, supporting US government civilian and military intelligence organizations, as well as the private sector. He has delivered cyber threat presentations to domestic and international audiences and has published extensively in such peer-reviewed journals as Parameters, Journal of Strategic Security, the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs, and the Cyber Defense Review, among others. All comments and opinions expressed are solely his own.