A Special and Privileged Strategic Partnership?

Rationales and Dilemmas in India-Russia Relations

Nivedita Kapoor

June 7, 2024
The position taken by a number of non-Western states on the Russia-Ukraine war - ranging from neutrality to walking a tightrope to openly backing Moscow – has generated a lot of debate and a search for answers in the West. This has also been the case regarding India’s position on Russia after 2022, which is based on New Delhi’s national interests and adherence to a multi-alignment policy. But the road ahead for India-Russia relations could be a bumpy one, with the case revealing the varied nature of challenges and motivations that shape the choices of the Global South in an unstable international system.

The response of a large part of the non-Western world to the ongoing war in Ukraine has been driven by a combination of factors – dissatisfaction with the established world order, violations by the West of the rules on which that order is based, the shift of power toward the East (which enables stronger assertion of policy positions) and inaction by the West in the past regarding concerns of the Global South. The situation of a world between orders, with a clear bipolarity or multipolarity yet to be established, has in this case been to Russia’s advantage. Moscow has tapped into the dissatisfaction of the Global South, positioning itself at the forefront of what it calls the “struggle against Western hegemony,” with the “neutral stance” of a large number of states helping Russia avoid isolation.

This, together with resistance to Western pressure over Russia, has been interpreted as a sign of the rising strength on the part of the Rest in the international arena. This is undoubtedly true, but it must also be noted that the Rest are neither as united nor as like-minded as might seem from discussions around the ongoing war in Ukraine. The emerging powers among them, despite their status, do face limitations on policy choices as middle powers, with the instability in the international system not always to their advantage.

This is evident in the case of New Delhi, which has been keen to set itself apart from the Russian narrative of “struggle against Western hegemony.” Instead, it has sought to draw a clear line between the “non-West” and the “anti-West,” with India being in the former group. External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar has noted the strengthening of relations with the West even as the country maintains a multiplicity of options in its foreign policy. As India’s concerns rise about China, including a wide gap in its capabilities to deal with the assertive major power on its border, it has looked to the US for an effective balancing strategy, with the West also seen as a key trade and investment partner.

This is not to say that New Delhi does not desire change in the global order, but that the reasons of Global South states for not aligning with the Western position on the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war vary widely. And though this is not much consolation for Ukraine, these differences are critical in this “world between orders” to understand that the alignments that have emerged in this particular case might not easily transfer to another situation. The Rest are not a homogenous, revisionist entity, meaning a more nuanced understanding of their underlying motivations should be developed.

In the case of the ongoing war, India’s motivations for continuing to maintain its strategic partnership with Russia lie in the specificity of its national circumstances, priorities, interests and capabilities – more importantly, India is driven not always by the opportunities but rather the challenges the changing world order presents to a middle power, regardless of bullish official rhetoric.

The China Dilemma in the India-Russia Relationship

One such challenge for India – the most prominent – has been the rise of China and their increasingly competitive relationship in each other's “neighborhood” given their respective “strategic ambitions.” India has seen a gradual worsening in its relations with China, with disputes over the BRI and rising tensions on the border bringing into sharper focus the competition between the two Asian giants. New Delhi worries about Chinese intentions in the Indo-Pacific and has pursued alignments to deal with the situation.

This is a much different world than in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when concerns about a unipolar world allowed India, Russia and China to come together in BRICS and the SCO, while the Russia-India-China trilateral format was also set up at the foreign minister level. Not only were all these states also actively building their own relations with the West, but Russia was pursuing its own multi-vector policy, engaging with players across the Asia-Pacific. India provided Russia with the necessary strategic space to maneuver vis-a-vis China, with the aim of preventing the emergence of a future Sino-Russian alliance or even a quasi-alliance that could circumscribe Indian options in Eurasia. Today, Russia’s multi-vector policy lies in shambles, and when combined with a weak pivot to the East in the past decades, it has now visibly left Russia more dependent on China than any other partner. This puts a significant strain on the Russia factor in India’s policy of managing China – both through bilateral and multilateral means.

So, the question has become: what is Russia’s capacity to strengthen the position of India given Moscow’s current relationship with China, and is it more beneficial to keep offering Russia a partnership in this scenario or would it be more advantageous to isolate Russia?

If the latter choice is made – which would leave Russia without any other major power partners besides China – then Moscow’s turn to Beijing would be complete (in the absence of any other relevant option). In fact, some would argue that this scenario has already materialized despite India’s decision not to isolate Russia. China has emerged as Russia's key external partner, with bilateral trade reaching $240 billion in 2023. In 2023, while Chinese exports to Russia rose 46.9%, imports from Russia went up 13% as trade in the national currencies was employed to mitigate sanctions risks. Imports of dual-use equipment from China are now critical in Russian defense production.

The value of the Chinese market for Russian oil and natural gas has also risen with the loss of European energy customers, with Beijing now exercising higher leverage in negotiations, as is visible in talks over Power of Siberia 2. Russia and China have conducted joint air and naval patrols in the Sea of Japan and East China Sea, much to the consternation of Japan and South Korea. Their coordination is also visible on North Korea, including at the UNSC. The broader price of the ongoing war in Ukraine, even Russian experts admit, is the disruption of efforts toward diversification of ties in Asia, which risks the loss of Moscow’s “neutral” status among regional actors.

The anti-US orientation of Russian foreign policy has become stronger at a time of rising US-China rivalry, bringing Moscow and Beijing closer. Despite the asymmetric nature of the Sino-Russian relationship and the relative decline in Russia’s capacities, Moscow continues to offer Beijing strategic value in its competition with Washington, given that China does not have alliances and is yet to emerge in a clearly dominant position vis-a-vis the US. The close partnership provides stability along the long border, allows for defense cooperation and assures China that Russia will not align with the West to the detriment of its interests. This has given an overarching framework to an already strong partnership, which has been nurtured since at least the 1980s, with interests increasingly converging and any possibility of driving a wedge between them being made increasingly difficult, despite the absence of a formal alliance.

And while India and Russia have also built up their strategic partnership, differences over the Indo-Pacific and the Quad have come into sharp focus in recent years. While Russia has criticized this as promoting bloc architecture in the region, aimed at containment of China, New Delhi has aligned with the US and other like-minded states in its neighborhood, driven by shifting threat perceptions regarding China and ambitions of securing its future leadership in the region.

Why Does India Avoid Isolating Russia?

Then why has India held to the policy of offering Russia the space to maneuver vis-a-vis China, if Moscow’s dependence on Beijing is already a fait accompli?

The answer lies in the same specific national circumstances, priorities, interests and capabilities of India mentioned above. Even with the external pressures on the partnership, India would argue that Russia is yet to take any direct step that would jeopardize Indian interests and, despite its closeness with China, strives to take a consistently neutral stance on Sino-Indian disputes. Another argument would be the priority of ensuring national security, given that the dependence created through decades of arms imports would be hard to shake off immediately. Even though Russia’s share in Indian arms imports has gone from 76% in 2009-13 to 36% in 2019-23, defense relations continue to be a pillar of the strategic partnership.

Some estimates suggest that the share of Russia-origin platforms and weapons across the three branches of the armed forces stands between 70-85%, which creates dependence in terms of the supply of spare parts, maintenance, upgrades, etc., directly impacting India’s defense readiness. Uninterrupted defense cooperation is thus considered vital at a time of heightened tensions with China and the constant worry of a two-front war. Meanwhile, the fact that India is an oil-importer where 80% of its supply is sourced from abroad and the population is extremely price-sensitive – with any disruption of the world energy market raising the prospect of a negative impact on the economy – has been the main driver of increased oil imports from Russia.

These are questions related to both national interests and national capabilities, leaving India with limited space to maneuver at least in the short to medium term. Here, it must be noted that despite the optimism in speeches about India’s rise, the multitude of challenges any move with regard to Russia would have on India’s policies in the Eurasian continental space, where it is in a visibly weak position, is another factor that informs India’s choices. Whether Afghanistan, Central Asia or West Asia, India has interests in each area but limited capacity on its own to present itself as a credible player. Here, a friendly Russia that continues to exercise reasonable influence forms part of its toolkit of policy measures to avoid a marginalization of Indian interests.

Given these circumstances, while recognizing the challenges posed by the growing Sino-Russian rapprochement, India realizes that it is prepared to deal with neither the consequences of a Sino-Russian alliance nor the impact of a sudden shift in sector-specific relations with Moscow. Therefore, India does not want to add to the conditions that could potentially create a rival power bloc that would hem it in across the continent, finding value in providing Moscow with alternatives so it can avoid complete dependence on China.

India’s hopes also rest on Russia recognizing the perils of its growing asymmetric relations with China in the longer term and the ongoing necessity of not antagonizing any friendly non-Western powers. Russian debates do express concern about China losing interest in Russia once it reaches “self-sufficiency.” Discussions about the need to “balance” relations with China and not “alienate” close partners so as to avoid the risk of overdependence are not uncommon. The solution that is suggested is diversifying relations with other powers and bringing India-Russia relations closer to the Sino-Russian level of engagement.

Russia’s relations with China are hardly expected to undergo a sudden shift in the short or medium term, given the advantages accrued to it as a result of this partnership in the current circumstances. However, India has taken a long-term view of the situation, believing that Moscow would eventually seek to build more balanced foreign relations in light of the widening power gap with Beijing. Nevertheless, India and Russia will have to navigate a whole gamut of challenges that face this “special and privileged strategic partnership.”

The Bumpy Road Ahead

These challenges are admitted both in Indian and Russian expert circles, regardless of the official rhetoric about the “world majority” and the success of Russian policy in the Global South. The impact of steadily closer relations between Russia with China and between India and the US is the leading cause of concern, with New Delhi and Moscow potentially ending up in “opposing blocs.” There is also a recognition in expert discussions about Indian concerns over China and the fact that the India-Russia relationship needs to be rebuilt “taking into account other global realities.”

Given the shifting perceptions of Indian political elites, the positive legacy of India-Russia relations on its own is no longer enough to keep the partnership going. The differences in their positions on the BRI, the Quad, the Indo-Pacific, etc., damage mutual trust, with some openly calling for Russia to tone down its criticism of the Indo-Pacific given the “painful reaction” this causes in India. Imbalanced trade – amid the increased oil imports – and the slowing-down of military-technical cooperation – which allows India’s Western partners to step in and fill the gap – are other challenges that are yet to be addressed.

The shift of India and Russia toward rival major powers is not an issue that will be resolved either easily or any time soon. The two sides have sharply different understandings of the consequences of China’s rise and the policy prescriptions for managing this change in the international system. This will continue to impose a strain on the relationship at a time when attempts are being made to find new bases for future cooperation, suggestions regarding which include Russia’s helping India to build up its own defense industry for achieving self-sufficiency, in addition to arms exports, expanding sectors for economic cooperation, and promoting BRICS and the SCO as solutions to “security and development issues” and not as “anti-Western clubs.”

The questions facing the India-Russia relationship are not trivial. The solution to the long-term structural factors that have hindered the flourishing of economic relations between the two will not be simple amid Western sanctions pressure and risks for foreign investors. It remains to be seen how Russia will navigate its increasingly close ties to China and how it will maintain the neutrality it has so far displayed in relations with India. Questions will also be raised about Russia’s ability to exercise influence in key areas of concern to India (including Central Asia and Afghanistan). Russia is likely to retain influence, albeit reduced, in specific regional settings, which could be to India’s advantage. But if it loses the ability to be an effective power, with its resources stretched and capacity reduced due to the impact of a long war, then New Delhi will have to rethink its strategy in continental Eurasia – especially considering the growing influence of China and its own limitations.

Overall, while the Russia-Ukraine war did not directly affect the rationale behind the central arguments for the India-Russia relationship, it complicated a whole host of factors that were shaping India-Russia relations and worsened the external pressures on them. India and Russia do place a certain value on each other in their respective foreign policies, which continues to drive their bilateral engagement. Both sides hope that the pragmatic realism that has been an inherent feature of the relationship will help them to work through the differences and keep ties on an even keel while pursuing mutually beneficial ties in areas of convergence. India’s multi-alignment strategy as a middle power that does not engage in alliance relationships should support that, as does the future necessity for Russia to balance the rising power of China given the widening power differentials.

For now, one can expect India and Russia to avoid any sudden moves, instead focusing on the bilateral nature of ties where mutual cooperation can yield results within a limited agenda. In the longer term, the agenda in India-Russia relations will depend on numerous factors, including the kind of Russian policy that emerges at the end of this war, their respective relations with rival major powers and the contours of the regional and global order.

  • Nivedita Kapoor

    International Laboratory on World Order Studies and the New Regionalism,
    National Research University Higher School of Economics, Moscow
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