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ISSN 2816-1971

  • Andrea Benvenuti

The Enduring Ties of Self-Interest: India's Relations with Russia

Despite Russia's increasing isolation from the rest of the world after its invasion of Ukraine, the Indian-Russian relationship shows no signs of disintegrating, in a large part due to the history that underpins the relationship.

Photo credits: Manish Swamp/AP

One of the consequences of the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 has been to call attention to India’s relations with Russia. India’s reluctance to publicly condemn Russian behaviour and join Western sanctions raised significant eyebrows in the West. As India-US ties have significantly improved over the past decade because of growing mutual concerns over China, policymakers in the West hoped—or perhaps even expected—that India would distance itself from Russia. Alas, this was not the case. The ties of self-interest that have brought India and (Soviet) Russia close to each other for the past seven decades have proven to be remarkably resilient.

This is not to suggest that the ongoing conflict in Ukraine will not harm the Indo-Russian relationship. Indeed it will. At the same time, however, Western policymakers should not be overly optimistic in this regard, for collaboration between Moscow and New Delhi is unlikely to crumble—if the past is any guide to the future. To appreciate this point, one must consider the origins and evolution of Indo-(Soviet) Russian cooperation during and after the Cold War.

Three major factors drew New Delhi and Moscow closer to each other during the Cold War. The first was unquestionably the political benefits that Indian and Soviet leaderships believed would flow from closer ties.

In the early 1950s, India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, showed a growing desire to improve relations with the USSR to give full meaning to his non-alignment policy, which he felt was somewhat imbalanced towards the West up to that point. Nehru lacked animosity towards communism and perceived the USSR as a potentially valuable anti-imperialist partner of the postcolonial Afro-Asian world. He did not view the USSR as a direct threat to India, calculating that it had no aggressive designs on India.

In the mid-1950s, the USSR was ready to reciprocate India’s desire for better relations. Relations between the two nations had not got off to a good start under Stalin, who viewed non-communist postcolonial leaders such as Nehru as lackeys of the West. Only after he died in 1953 did Moscow seek to befriend India. The new Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, saw India as a key component of his strategy for regaining influence in the Third World.

Changing geopolitical alignments in Asia further cemented the Sino-Indian relationship. The emergence of a Washington-Beijing-Islamabad axis in the 1970s prompted Moscow and New Delhi to counterbalance such an unfavourable development. In 1971, they signed a Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Cooperation, which committed them to consult each other in case of an attack or a threat to their security. The Indo-Soviet Treaty was a quantum leap in the relationship.

The second factor was the economic benefits the Indians thought would derive from closer ties with the USSR. Nehru believed that India could learn much from the Soviet economic model. He viewed it as a template for rapid, state-led industrialisation. Moreover, Nehru believed that closer economic ties with the USSR would encourage greater competition between Moscow and the West, prompting the two superpowers to expand their technical and economic support to India. Against this backdrop, it was no surprise that Indo-Soviet trade skyrocketed from nearly US$ 12 in 1955 to approximately US$ 400 million in 1965. The USSR imported raw materials and consumer goods from India, while the latter received industrial and agricultural machinery from the former. By the early 1980s, the USSR had become India’s most important trading partner. Economic aid also contributed to strengthening economic links between the two countries. Between 1959 and 1965, New Delhi received 442 million roubles in economic aid, thus making Indiathe largest recipient of Soviet economic assistance in the Afro-Asian world.

The third, and perhaps most crucial factor, was India’s desire to differentiate its arms suppliers, which resulted in a rise in Russian arms shipments to India. In the early 1960s, India began to buy Soviet weapons—namely, Antonov-12 military transport planes and MiG-21s fighter jets. By the late 1960s, the USSR had become India’s largest supplier and Indo-Soviet defence cooperation had well and truly taken off. In 1984, the USSR provided nearly 80% of India’s weaponry. Indian-Soviet defence collaboration allowed India—a country with limited financial resources—to afford relatively modern weaponry. Soviet weapons tended to be cheaper and available on more flexible payment terms—such as payments in non-convertible Indian rupees or in Indian-made goods.

The end of the Cold War brought some inevitable changes to the relationship. When the USSR fell apart in 1991, India was unable to procure as many weapons from Russia as it had during the Cold War. In the economic realm, India was no more successful in sustaining the same level of economic activity with Russia as before. The parlous state of the Russian economy played a major role here. Hence, trade between Russia and India remained anaemic throughout the 1990s.

These issues, however, proved to be temporary. Memories of the past were too deep for the bilateral relationship to fall into permanent disrepair. Not surprisingly, therefore, it eventually rebounded. In 2000, India and Russia signed a“Declaration of Strategic Partnership”, which established annual summits between the two governments. Since then, relations between New Delhi and Moscow have deepened significantly on the altar of their common commitment to transcend American unipolarity. Ministers and officials from Russia and India have also met regularly at the meetings or on the sidelines of various international organisations or groupings (i.e., the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, the BRICS and the “India-China-Russia trilateral forum”). In the past decade, the two governments reiterated, more than once, their commitment to their “special and privileged strategic relationship”.

As expected, defence remained the relationship's cornerstone (or engine). India and Russia were successful in reviving their bilateral cooperation in this field. After the “lean” 1990s, when India’s imports of Russian armaments totalled just about US$ 6.5 billion, purchases surged. From 2001 to 2010, India’s imports of Russian armaments soared to US$14.5 billion. In the period between 2011 to 2020, Russia then made US$21.5 billion worth of arms transfers to India. Trade between the two countries also improved during the next two decades.

However, despite mutual efforts to invigorate the relationship, Russia’s political, economic and strategic importance for India has declined compared to the Cold War. Three main reasons have contributed to this state of affairs.

The first reason is the changing geopolitical landscape. As Russia’s tensions with the West have grown, Moscow has been moving closer to China and is likely to become more dependent on China. This being the case, its political usefulness to India is diminishing. At the same time, China’s increasing assertiveness has prompted India to cultivate close ties with the United States.

The second reason is the minimal room for expansion in the economic relationship. True, Indian imports of Russian oil have dramatically increased since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, but this trend may last as long as international prices are high. In any case, apart from its commodities, Russia hasn’t got much to offer to India as a trading partner.Moreover, the lack of good logistics and poor connectivity between the two countries remain a significant impediment to increased trade. In any case, it must also be noted that the Russian and Indian business communities are not particularly interested in each other’s countries. Hence, trade remains the relationship’s weakest link. And, India’s trade with Russia remained relatively modest compared to its trade with China or the United States.

The third reason is the ongoing (and possibly accelerating) decline in the Indo-Russian defence relationship. Although Russia is still India’s largest arms supplier by far, New Delhi is seeking to reduce its dependency on Moscow and diversify its suppliers. Over the past decades, India has already diversified its sources. At the same time, it has placed increased emphasis on developing its arms industry (the “Make it in India” initiative). These trends are likely to continue. Russia will find it increasingly difficult to export its weapons in the aftermath of the Ukrainian War. Moreover, given Russia’s poor performance on the battleground, its weapon system may become less appealing. Finally, with Russia becoming increasingly dependent on China, it is not inconceivable to assume that Beijing may pressure Moscow to reduce its sales to India.

In conclusion, even though Russia is no longer as significant a partner for India as the USSR was, and its importance in Indian eyes is likely to diminish, the Indo-Russian relationship will not fade into insignificance. To begin with, it will take India years to wean itself off from Russian weapons. Even then, New Delhi will be reluctant to ditch Russian arms altogether. Right or wrong, policymakers in New Delhi view Russia as a reliable partner who stood by India in difficult times and still have misgivings towards the West. There is still a residue of goodwill in India towards Russia, which will not disappear in the foreseeable future. At the same time, India’s quest for “strategic autonomy” will ensure that New Delhi will never put all its eggs in one (read, Western) basket.

In other words, as long as New Delhi consider collaboration with Moscow beneficial despite dwindling returns, the relationship will survive. Its halcyon years may be over, but the Indo-Russian affair has yet to run its course.

DISCLAIMER: All views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent that of IIPA and this platform.


Andrea Benvenuti is Associate Professor in Politics and International Relations at the School of Social Sciences, University of New South Wales, Australia.



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