The geopolitical landscape of the 21st century is marked by a complex interplay of alliances and rivalries, with the India-Russia relationship standing out as a particularly intriguing example. This partnership, stretching back over several decades, has navigated the tumultuous waters of international politics, adapting and evolving in response to global shifts. Historically, India and Russia have shared a bond forged during the Cold War, where India’s non-aligned stance intersected with Soviet interests. Post the dissolution of the Soviet Union, this relationship underwent a significant transformation, adapting to the new realities of a unipolar world dominated by the United States. Today, the India-Russia partnership assumes renewed significance as global power dynamics undergo another seismic shift. It’s important to delve into the historical context of these relations, exploring their evolution and current dynamics. It also seeks to understand the perspective of Western nations, particularly the apprehensions and strategic calculations that this Indo-Russian partnership invokes. The relationship encompasses various interactions, from defense collaborations to energy ties and economic interdependencies. However, it also presents India with unique challenges, especially in balancing its ties with Russia and the Western world, primarily the U.S. and the European Union. In navigating these complexities, India’s foreign policy demonstrates a pragmatic approach, balancing its strategic autonomy with the realities of global interdependencies.
In the immediate aftermath of World War II, the geopolitical landscape was dominated by the emerging Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. India, having gained independence in 1947, adopted a non-aligned stance, seeking to maintain strategic autonomy without aligning with either bloc. Despite this non-alignment, India found a natural ally in the Soviet Union, which supported its stance on various international issues, including its position on Kashmir and its quest for economic development. The Indo-Soviet Treaty of Peace, Friendship, and Cooperation, signed in 1971, marked a significant milestone, deepening the two nations’ military, economic, and political ties. This period saw substantial Soviet assistance in India’s industrial development, including in the steel, energy, and space technology sectors. Moreover, the Soviet Union emerged as a key supplier of defense equipment to India, a trend that has persisted over the decades. The dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 presented a critical juncture for India-Russia relations. The emergence of the Russian Federation and the end of the Cold War necessitated reevaluating this bilateral relationship. India, facing its own economic challenges, initiated economic reforms and began diversifying its foreign relations. Despite these changes, the relationship with Russia remained a cornerstone of India’s foreign policy.
In the post-Soviet era, India and Russia have continued to build upon their historical ties, adapting to the new international order. The annual India-Russia summit, established in 2000, has been instrumental in providing a platform for continuous high-level engagement.
The defense sector remains a key pillar of India-Russia relations. Russia accounts for a significant portion of India’s defense imports, providing advanced military technology that India has historically relied on. Joint military exercises, such as INDRA, and agreements on the transfer of military technology illustrate the depth of this defense partnership. Beyond defense, energy is a critical area of cooperation. Russia is a significant partner for India in nuclear energy, with the Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant being a prominent example of this collaboration. Additionally, Russia’s role as a major oil and gas exporter aligns with India’s growing energy needs. Though not as robust as defense or energy ties, economic relations have shown growth potential, with both nations committed to increasing bilateral trade. India and Russia often find common ground in their approach to global and regional issues. Russia’s support for India’s permanent membership in the United Nations Security Council and India’s backing of Russia in international forums exemplify this alignment. However, there are areas of divergence as well, especially concerning China and the dynamics of the Indo-Pacific region.
Western nations view the close relationship between India and Russia with varying degrees of concern, particularly in the context of the evolving global order. One of the primary concerns for the West, especially the United States, is India’s significant reliance on Russian military hardware. This dependence poses challenges for Western countries seeking to deepen defense ties with India. The Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) by the U.S., which targets countries dealing with Russian defense and intelligence sectors, has been a point of contention, with India seeking a waiver for its defense deals with Russia. Western countries, notably the EU and the U.S., are also apprehensive about the strategic implications of the India-Russia partnership. In the context of Russia’s global stance, including its actions in Ukraine and Syria, the West is cautious about India’s position. India’s balancing act between its traditional relationship with Russia and its growing ties with Western countries is closely watched, particularly in the backdrop of the Indo-Pacific strategy. In response to these concerns, there have been concerted diplomatic efforts by Western countries to engage with India.
This includes dialogues to understand India’s strategic priorities and attempts to offer alternatives to Russian military hardware. The U.S.-India 2+2 Dialogue and the Quad (Quadrilateral Security Dialogue involving the U.S., India, Japan, and Australia) are such engagements.
Another point of interest for the West is India’s stance on Russian policies in global conflicts. India’s balanced or neutral approach to issues like the annexation of Crimea and the Syrian conflict has been noted by Western nations. While India maintains its strategic autonomy, its decisions in these scenarios are often seen as indirect support for Russia, creating diplomatic nuances in its relations with Western countries. The West is also mindful of India’s diplomatic balancing act. India’s approach, characterized by strategic autonomy and non-alignment, involves maintaining robust relations with all major powers. This approach is particularly evident in India’s participation in various international groupings, such as BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa), the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, and the G20, where it interacts closely with Western and non-Western powers.
While robust and multifaceted, the India-Russia relationship presents a unique set of challenges and opportunities for India in the current global scenario. One of the primary challenges for India is navigating the geopolitical shifts and tensions between major powers. As the U.S.-China rivalry intensifies and Russia-West relations remain strained, India finds itself in a complex position. Its strategic partnerships with Russia and Western nations need careful handling to avoid any diplomatic fallout. Despite these challenges, there are significant opportunities.
The defense sector, a longstanding pillar of the India-Russia relationship, offers prospects for co-development and technology transfer, contributing to India’s goal of self-reliance in defense production.
India’s engagement with Russia in the energy sector can help diversify its energy sources, reducing dependence on Middle Eastern oil. The economic domain presents untapped potential. Both nations have expressed interest in expanding trade and investment. Sectors such as pharmaceuticals, information technology, and agriculture offer avenues for growth. The International North-South Transport Corridor, a multi-modal network of ship, rail, and road routes for moving freight, is an example of initiatives that can boost economic ties.
The India-Russia relationship is a testament to enduring ties that have adapted to global changes. This partnership, underpinned by historical linkages and mutual strategic interests, is a significant factor in both countries’ foreign policies. For India, navigating this relationship amidst the complexities of modern geopolitics presents challenges and opportunities. In the face of evolving global dynamics, India’s relationship with Russia has implications beyond bilateral ties. It affects India’s relations with other major powers, especially Western nations. While concerns about dependence on Russian military equipment and diplomatic stances exist, India has managed to maintain a degree of strategic autonomy that has served its national interests well. The India-Russia relationship is likely to remain a significant aspect of global geopolitics. The partnership’s future will be shaped by how both nations address emerging global challenges and leverage their relationship for mutual benefit. For India, the key lies in balancing its historical ties with Russia with its growing engagements with the West while navigating an increasingly multipolar world. This complex interplay of historical ties, strategic interests, and global dynamics makes the India-Russia relationship a fascinating subject in the study of international relations. As global power structures continue to evolve, the decisions made by India and Russia will have significant implications for the international order.
Ph.D. completed at Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna, Pisa (SSSUP)