India–Russia relations have always been friendly and cordial, transcending political changes in India or the systemic transformation in the Russian Federation. “For us, Russia is a valued partner, a time-tested partner. It is a relationship from which both India and Russia have benefitted enormously,” EAM Jaishankar said during his latest visit to Russia in December 2023.
Both the countries’ similar geopolitical and strategic objectives formed the foundation of their relationship. India and Russia have a path-dependent weapons relationship, a common goal to establish a multipolar international order, a desire to counterbalance against dangerous neighbours, and a persistent mistrust of the US.
These four elements have shaped India’s relations with Russia. In particular, the first one—countering China’s and Pakistan’s threat—was crucial in the 1960s and 1970s. The fundamental tenets of neoclassical realism theory hold that nations under an anarchic, self-help international order are obligated to ensure their own security. Joining forces with another state to counterbalance against adversarial states is one method to strengthen a state’s security.
In response to China and Pakistan’s growing danger, which was exacerbated by US support for Pakistan and rapprochement with China, India explored a strategic alliance with the Soviet Union. India offered the Soviet Union a South Asian ally that might act as a counterbalance to Chinese and American influence.
In this article, we will discuss how India–Russia relations are evolving in the changing strategic environment of Eurasia and some differences have come up in their relations in the regional context. As C Raja Mohan writes, “New Delhi’s sentimental attachment to the Moscow relationship has steadily been replaced by a sense of realism in the Modi administration about the two countries’ increasingly divergent regional and global trajectories. Modi appears determined to manage this new source of dissonance with calm amid the unfolding turbulence in great power relations.”
India Russia Relations since 1947
Post-independence, India was seen by the Soviets as a stable, populated postcolonial nation that was becoming a leader among nonaligned and anticolonial nations and that might work with them to thwart American aspirations in Asia. For India, the Soviet Union was a crucial ally for its economy and defence, promoting both growth and security. Moscow and New Delhi also offered each other diplomatic assistance; during significant Cold War events, such as the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. In the United Nations, India voted with the Soviet Union or abstained from voting to denounce the Soviet Union. The Soviet government also supported India’s claim to Kashmir.
At last, China became an adversary of the Soviet Union and India. The Sino–Soviet split originated in the early 1960s and was driven by ideological disagreements, Chinese status aspirations, Mao’s personal aspirations to become the leader of the communist world, and border disputes in the Russian Far East, with a series of border clashes in 1969.
These converging interests drove negotiations for a formal treaty of friendship beginning in 1969, leading to the Indo–Soviet Treaty of Peace, Friendship, and Cooperation in 1971. The treaty remained in effect until the collapse of the Soviet Union. It was replaced in 1993 by the Treaty of Indo–Russian Friendship and Cooperation, which did not include the security features of the Indo–Soviet treaty.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia’s first foreign policy priorities were its ties with the United States and Western Europe, which led to a period of neglect for the Russia-India relationship.
The 1990s saw a change in this position as a result of growing hostilities with the US over NATO’s involvement in Kosovo and the appointment of Yevgeny Primakov as Russian foreign minister. Primakov was a sceptic of the US and an ardent advocate of diplomacy with Asian nations, particularly China and India. He replaced Russia’s pro-Western foreign minister Andrei Kozyrev. Following this, India and Russia progressively deepened their strategic ties, which were formalised in 2000 with the signing of the Indo-Russian Strategic Partnership, that has garnered significant support in India irrespective of political affiliation.
After the US and EU imposed sanctions in reaction to Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, the focus on Russian relations with China and India re-emerged. However, of late, India seems to be shifting in its approach to Russia. Indian voting patterns at the UN and public remarks made by Modi during a summit indicate a shift from India’s long-standing tradition of voting with Russia or abstaining from voting to denounce Moscow’s war in Ukraine. Modi criticised Putin’s invasion decision during the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit in Samarkand in September 2022. This was his first time publicly criticising Putin since the invasion. India also voted against Russia in favour of allowing Volodymyr Zelensky, the president of Ukraine, to address the UN General Assembly by video. This was the first wartime vote in which India did not support Russia or abstain.
Since the conclusion of the Cold War, Russia has attempted to forge stronger connections with both China and Pakistan while retaining its security ties to India, which has diminished its ability to act as a counterbalance against the threat posed by both countries. China, Russia, and India have developed a number of trilateral and multilateral institutions thanks to their shared interests in advancing a multipolar world order and countering American unipolarity. In the 2000s, two key multilateral forums—RIC (the Russia–India–China trilateral forum) and BRICS (Brazil– Russia–India–China–South Africa)—were formed with both Indian and Russian participation to advance multipolarity in the security and financial realms, respectively. A third forum, the SCO, was formed in the early 2000s without Indian participation but later expanded to include both India and Pakistan, alongside Russia, China, and the post-Soviet states of Central Asia.
Political and Security Issues
In light of the significant events of 1991, India-Russian bilateral ties also experienced adjustments. Notwithstanding these profound shifts, Russian and Indian interests aligned around shared security concerns and the extraordinary emergence of non-traditional threats in their vicinity. Their bilateral relations were greatly aided by the 1993 Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation, the 1994 Moscow Declaration on the Protection of the Interests of Pluralist States, and the 2000 Strategic Partnership Agreement.
Following the start of “Operation Enduring Freedom” in 2001, Russian officials started to see a change in the conventional and non-conventional dynamics of regional power. These changes, in the Russian view, needed a cooperative and multilateral approach. Meanwhile, as a rising state, India prioritised in its policies the desire to have a larger role in Asia. Its policies required closer cooperation with the superpowers. As a result, a change in each other’s strategic perspectives led to a drift in their bilateral relations, especially on the political front.
During his 2010 visit to New Delhi, President Dmitry Medvedev praised India as a “Privileged Strategic Partner”. This occurred while the United States and its allies were considering how to withdraw from Afghanistan, leaving behind an undecided war and a rising insurgency. Russia has consistently backed India’s bid to be granted a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. In a same vein, it has expressed support for India’s membership in the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO). India was granted SCO membership during the Ufa Summit in July 2015.
Yet, India and Russia have had differing perspectives on counter-insurgency in Afghanistan, changing the perception of the Taliban as well as of Pakistan. The incorporation of the Crimean Peninsula in May 2014 on the basis of a ‘referendum’ caused misgivings in India. On the Ukrainian crisis, India did not express its opinion, as it has deep defence interests with both Russia and Ukraine.
Even though Russia is India’s largest security ally, their economic ties have not reached their full potential. In comparison to the more than US$100 billion between India and the US and between India and China, bilateral trade between India and Russia has stuck around $15 billion. (FY 23 being an exception where India imported most of its crude oil from Russia, taking this trade figure to US$50 billion).
Trade between India and Russia is hampered more by logistics and distance than by differences in the legal and political structures of the two countries. However, logistical challenges are not encountered by rivals like China, the US, or the EU when trading with India, which has detrimental effects on trade between India and Russia.
Russia and India are realising the need to strengthen their economic ties and are taking action in that regard. The India-Russia Intergovernmental Commission on Trade, Economic, Scientific, Technological and Cultural Cooperation (IRIGC-TEC) was established in 1994 to explore economic relations between India and Russia.
Cooperation between Russian regions and Indian states is a new characteristic meant to stimulate mutual ties. The Astrakhan and Samara regions have forged cooperative connections with the Indian states of Gujarat and Karnataka, respectively.
Negotiations on a free trade agreement (FTA) between India and the five members of the Eurasian Economic Union (EaEU), led by Russia, are about to start. This is anticipated to increase New Delhi’s exports to the region, especially in sectors like engineering goods, electronics, and agriculture, boosting trade.
Given that public sector enterprises have dominated trade between the two countries, India and Russia are also pushing their private sectors to strengthen ties in light of their long-term economic partnership. To strengthen their economic relations, Russia and India are planning a number of joint ventures. For instance, Uralmash, a Russian company, and SRB International, an Indian company, will form a joint venture to produce heavy equipment for the mining and steel industries.
With the imposition of sanctions by the West on Russia following the conflict in Ukraine, India has recognised an opportunity in the Russian market. The Indian Ministry of Commerce has identified 24 products, including livestock, machinery, plastics, cars, and pharmaceuticals, that Russia purchases from the US and the EU. The trade of food goods between India and Russia, including vegetables, milk, fruit, meat, and unprocessed food, has surged as a result of these sanctions, according to Russia’s Minister for Economic Development, Alexey Ulyukaev.
Energy is an important aspect of India–Russia’s economic engagement. India has invested over US$2.5 billion in the Sakhalin-1 project and seeks 20 per cent stakes in the Sakhalin-3 project. Further, the Government-owned ONGC Videsh Ltd. has bought a 15 per cent stake in a unit of Russia’s Rosneft in 2015. The two countries have also instituted a Joint Study Group to look into the feasibility of a hydrocarbon pipeline between Russia and India.
Russia has also played an important role in India’s civil nuclear programme. Unit 1 of the Kudankulam nuclear power plant, the largest nuclear power station in India, has started power production, while Unit 2 is about to be commissioned. Construction of Unit 3 and Unit 4 is in progress. There were some concerns over India’s nuclear liability law which placed the financial liability in case of an accident on the construction company till the plant is in use. However, these issues were resolved and Russia signed the agreement for the construction of Units 3 and 4 of the Kudankulam nuclear plant. Russia is not only providing technical assistance in this project but has also provided a loan of around US$ 1 billion.
The “strongest and most durable” factor influencing ties between Russia and India is Defence cooperation. Despite India’s efforts to diversify its armament imports and boost the indigenization of armament purchases, the relationship has persisted. Path dependence is evident in the close weapons relations, which include the need for Russian replacement parts, Indian operators’ experience with Soviet and Russian military technology, and business interests for Russian and Indian defence enterprises working on collaborative projects. In the past, India’s security greatly benefited from this weapons deal. India’s military’s growth and upkeep have been greatly aided by these arms purchases and transfers.
India was able to afford a sizable and well-armed military because Soviet and Russian weaponry was less expensive than that of the West. Attempts to acquire Western weapons or develop domestic weapons systems were met with disappointing outcomes, though more recent attempts to wean Russia off of its armaments have been more successful.
India’s intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities have increased because to the export of remote sensing technology, which has also given the Indian military a dependable substitute for the US Global Positioning System.
In the past, agreements were mostly signed between governments, from which Russia benefited the most. However, this also led to an excessive reliance on Russia. This is demonstrated by the fact that, according to a 2014 SIPRI assessment, 75 percent of India’s total arms imports between 2009 and 2013 came from Russia.
However, recently Russia did not profit from the new competitive bidding, since India was unable to even shortlist the MiG 35 for the Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) contract in April 2011. Alexander M. Kadakin, Russia’s ambassador to India, expressed his country’s dismay at France’s Rafale fighter winning the bid. The Chinese Sukhoi, he claimed, “was able to shoot Rafale fighters like mosquitoes.” Additionally, he stated that “although Russia and India have collaborated to manufacture the Brahmos cruise missile, there has been no defence technology transfer from the US to India.”
The Indian Navy had already experienced some uneasiness due to the cost increase and ongoing delays in the arrival of the repaired aircraft carrier, Admiral Gorshkov thereafter dubbed INS Vikramaditya. India received the aircraft carrier after 4 years’ delay in 2013. When the delivery of Gorshkov was delayed in 2007, Navy Chief Admiral Suresh Mehta pointed the finger at Russia and said that India should consider the future of its relations with Russia.
Prior to his December 2015 visit to Moscow, Prime Minister Modi had attempted to defuse tensions in Russia by referring to it as India’s “principal defence” ally. As PM Modi and President Putin resolved to build parts of nuclear reactors and military helicopters in India, the two countries decided to strengthen their strategic alliance on the “Make in India” concept. The “BrahMos” missile, which the two nations jointly developed, is a prime example of the weaponry that Russia has already been producing in India.
The two sides are now negotiating agreements for cooperation, design and development of fifth-generation fighter aircraft, S-400 air defence missile systems, and another Akula class submarine. Given its aspirations to lead Asia, India should naturally diversify its sources of arms procurement.
While there have been many ups and downs, “at the end of the day, the logic of geopoliticscs was so compelling that we barely remember these even as minor aberrations… The paradox though is that precisely because it has held so steady, this relationship is sometimes taken for granted. The case for its constant nurturing is therefore as powerful, if not more, than with the more volatile ones.”
THE MYTH OF IDYLLIC INDO-RUSSIAN TIES. Article
It is just a myth that India-Russia relations have been too idealistic. Russia has always seen India through the prism of realism. In the 1962 war, Russia shared intelligence with China, had put the supply of Migs on hold. Again in the 1965 war, Russia pressed India to return the occupied territories.
During the Cold War, Russia saw India from the prism of geopolitical competition with the USA. After the end of the Cold War, Russia is again looking at the relations with the prism of realism. Russia looks at India from a transactional perspective as a buyer. Thus from Russia’s side, the relationship has always been based on its own interest.
According to C Rajamohan, Russia’s embrace of China, and its flirtations with Pakistan are creating unease for India. India should look at Russia with ‘clear-eyed realism’. For long, India campaigned for a multipolar world. Now multipolar world is here and India should learn how to live with it. As middle powers, there is a lot Delhi and Moscow can do with each other. In the idealistic south block, the word transactional may not appear nice but in the real world of politics, transactional is better than mere sentimental.
According to Shyam Sharan, the nostalgia of Soviet era may be useful but it cannot drive the relations at present.
The weakest aspect of India-Russia relations is that it is driven from government to govt. relations. No relationship can move forward only on a single track. There is a need to strengthen economic engagement. We have to improve people-to-people relations also.
“Every child in India knows, who is India’s best friend.”- PM Modi
“One old friend is better than the two new friends.”
“Russia is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” – Winston Churchill
“For us in Russia, communism is a dead dog, while, for many people in the West, it is still a living lion.” – Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, famous Russian writer
Russia’s and India’s foreign policies are still shaped by their joint goal of building a multipolar world. This could provide a degree of continuity in the relationship. But Russia’s credibility as a counterbalance to China is eroding, as is Pakistan’s and India’s mistrust of the United States. Although it did not start either of these trends, Russia’s intervention in Ukraine has made them worse. Russia is moving in China’s direction. It would be difficult for Russia to maintain its current security connections with India if it aligned itself with China due to its isolation from the US and Europe. Additionally, India may no longer need to retain these ties because the US may now be a trustworthy offshore balancer. Over the past few decades, US-Indian relations—including security ties—have greatly strengthened. Moreover, India is actively working to reduce its dependency on Russian weapons. Although this exists before the invasion of Ukraine, it might have been exacerbated by it.
Despite the above unfavourable developments, India’s External Affairs Minister emphasized after his most recent visit to Russia that “if there is one constant in the world politics, it has actually been the relationship between India and Russia.”