In this era of new bipolarity in international relations, both India and Russia are being forced to gravitate toward one of the poles: the United States and China. It looks like the paths of these two once-close partners are set to diverge, along with their visions of the future. Mutual suspicions have recently been creeping in over India’s relations with America, and Russia’s with China. To make the good relationship truly great, Moscow must rethink, adjust, and upgrade its approach to India. Vladimir Putin’s forthcoming visit to New Delhi could be a starting point. This step is hopefully more than mere symbolism in the traditionally warm Russo-Indian relations and not simply a signal that at a time of increasingly tense relations with the West, Russia has important friends elsewhere in the world.
The July 2021 edition of Russia’s National Security Strategy describes relations with New Delhi as a “special privileged strategic partnership,” and discusses them in the same paragraph as Russo-Chinese ties. Recently, Modi has demonstrated India’s interest in economic projects in Russia’s Far East, thus extending New Delhi’s Look East policy all the way to Vladivostok. Over Washington’s objections, India has gone ahead with the purchase of Russian-made S-400 air defense systems, due to be delivered before the end of the year.
Yet issues are piling up on many fronts, requiring both the Indian and Russian leaderships to rethink, adjust, and upgrade the relationship to make it fit for the twenty-first century environment. In global geopolitical terms, the main issue is that Moscow and New Delhi, traditional friends and longtime allies, now find themselves ever more closely linked to two rival superpowers, China and the United States. Moreover, India’s relations with China following the 2020 border clashes in the Tibets, and Russia’s with the United States since the 2014 Ukraine crisis, can be described as confrontation. The main task for both New Delhi and Moscow is to shield the Indo-Russian strategic partnership from the wider and increasingly adverse global context, and uphold mutual trust. Still, Russia remains strong in some important niches, above all military-technical cooperation.
These discussions could pave the way to engaging New Delhi in a strategic dialogue on Greater Eurasia, which is the strategic framework for Moscow’s approach. By the same token, India’s strategy, which so far has been couched predominantly in maritime terms, might get a continental dimension, starting with Afghanistan, Central Asia, and Iran. On this basis, Moscow needs to engage more closely with New Delhi as it further fleshes out the idea of a Greater Eurasian partnership. Maintaining strategic partnerships with both India and China at bilateral and trilateral levels is crucial for general geopolitical stability in Eurasia. Russia, which has neither the ambition nor the resources to dominate Greater Eurasia, could play a key role in maintaining Eurasian equilibrium, which requires Russian-Indian-Chinese understanding.
There are two fundamental problems in Indian-Russian relations right now. The first is that Moscow is incapable of expanding its relationship with New Delhi beyond the confines of cooperation in the military and energy sectors. The second problem is that Russia’s confrontation with the United States is forcing its Asia policy to tilt toward China, which cannot fail to impact its relations with India.
Much as India finds Russia’s partnership with China useful for managing its own relations with Beijing, Moscow could use its close relations with New Delhi to weigh in diplomatically on the Indian-Pacific agenda. India, which is genuinely interested in an improved relationship between Russia and the United States, might be useful here. At the global level, Russia would benefit from closer interaction with India not only within the BRICS, but also at the United Nations.
Another source of annoyance for New Delhi is Moscow’s relations with Islamabad. In 2015, Russia announced it would be supplying Pakistan with four Mi-35 attack helicopters, thereby ending its unspoken embargo on exporting military technology to that country. And since 2017, Russia and Pakistan have regularly held joint anti-terror drills dubbed “Friendship.” Russia has also expressed interest in helping to build a gas pipeline from Karachi to Lahore, and is cooperating with Pakistan on the issue of Afghanistan, bypassing India. For India, too, the burgeoning friendship between Russia and Pakistan is more of an emotional issue than anything else. The growing partnership between Russia and China has far more serious consequences. Russia’s help building China’s missile attack early warning system, their cooperation on technology and energy, the growth of trade and investment, and speculation about a military alliance between the two countries is all of great concern for India.
On a number of regional issues, from Afghanistan to the Persian Gulf and the broader Middle East, India needs to be treated as Russia’s privileged interlocutor and partner. Sidelining New Delhi, as has occasionally happened in discussions on Afghanistan, should never happen again. New global issues, from the spread of pandemics to climate change and energy transition, open up broad new areas for Russia-India cooperation, even as they require the careful management of differences.
The Indian and Russian economies remain far less complementary than those of China and Russia. The Russian and Indian business communities are largely disinterested in each other’s countries, where they see few opportunities for themselves. This can only be changed by a joint effort in creative thinking. At their upcoming meeting, President Putin and Prime Minister Modi need to stimulate such an effort by ordering an in-depth study of potential areas of cooperation to be conducted in time for their next annual get-together.