Are Indo-Russian Ties the Next Casualty of Great Power Shifts?

C. Raja Mohan | 08 September 2021
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The fall of Kabul may have widened the rift between New Delhi and Moscow.

On his first trip abroad in 2014, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi traveled to Fortaleza, Brazil, to join a BRICS summit bringing together the leaders of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa. Meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin on the sidelines, Modi emphasized the depth of Indians’ goodwill toward Russia. Modi told Putin that “even a child in India, if asked to say who is India’s best friend, will reply it is Russia because Russia has been with India in times of crisis.”

That BRICS summit was a long time ago. Today, Modi has drawn India more closely than ever to the United States and the West and is locked in a deepening conflict with China under its President Xi Jinping. That also means Modi now has to manage a more complex relationship with Russia.

All these shifts will be on full view this month. On Wednesday, Modi will host Putin and Xi at the BRICS summit, where the mood is likely to be a lot tenser than it was in 2014. Modi is also preparing to join U.S. President Joe Biden for an in-person meeting at the White House later this month.

But while New Delhi’s ongoing conflict with Beijing and its growing closeness to Washington have attracted much attention, its third great power relationship with Moscow is undergoing a more complex yet less noted shift. That shift has accelerated in recent weeks amid an increasing political divergence over Afghanistan. At a meeting of the United Nations Security Council last week, India teamed up with the three Western powers—the United States, Britain, and France—to lay out some tough demands for the Taliban. Russia, in contrast, joined China in seeking to dilute the language of the resolution on Afghanistan and abstained in the vote on it.

That kind of divergence between New Delhi and Moscow used to be virtually unthinkable. India has long had a warm relationship with Russia, and the Soviet Union before it, rooted in a sense of enduring convergence of interests at both the global and regional levels. When the United States and Britain allied with India’s archrival Pakistan starting in the 1950s, New Delhi deeply appreciated Moscow’s support, including arms deliveries and its veto on Kashmir-related issues in the Security Council. Even after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia remained India’s main international political partner. As that much celebrated convergence breaks down, New Delhi is now learning to live with growing divergence with Moscow on key regional and global issues.

The old ties between New Delhi and Moscow have become the geopolitical equivalent of a square peg trying to fit into a round hole.

Modi, however, is not willing simply to abandon the longstanding partnership with Russia, despite the grumbling in Washington. But he also isn’t ready to let Russia have a veto over India’s relations with the United States, which a relationship as close as it was in the past might have demanded. Modi is also aware that he has no veto over Russia’s growing strategic partnership with China, which is driven by the threats Moscow and Beijing perceive from Washington.

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.

Russia, too, recognizes it can’t limit Modi’s deepening strategic collaboration with the United States, which is no longer just bilateral. Moscow is certainly dismayed by New Delhi’s growing role in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, known as the Quad, that is binding India to the United States and its major Pacific allies, Japan and Australia.

Moscow also notes India’s increasing cooperation with the United States and Europe in a range of multilateral forums, from the Security Council to the World Health Organization. Although India continues to participate in forums that exclude Western countries, like the BRICS, the Quad has acquired greater prominence in India’s international relations.

Moscow is aware that sharpening conflict between New Delhi and Beijing is nudging India toward the United States and hopes to use the BRICS forum to promote productive Indo-Chinese interaction and confidence building. But the conflict between New Delhi and Beijing is now deeply structural; diplomatic Band-Aids are not going to fix the problem. That leaves Russia with the challenge of trying to balance its ties with India and China while keeping them both on its side.

Even as Russia deepens its partnership with China, which has become far weightier geostrategically and economically than its relationship with India, Moscow is not giving up on New Delhi. Throughout the ongoing Sino-Indian military crisis on the Himalayan border, Russia has not stopped supplying military spares and equipment to India, despite reported Chinese unhappiness with those deliveries.

Put simply, both New Delhi and Moscow are adapting to the changing dynamic in their respective relations with Washington and Beijing. This new geopolitical dynamic is vastly different from the great power politics that brought India close to Russia in the past.

During the Cold War, India’s policies of non-alignment and anti-imperialism were in sync with the Soviet search for partnerships with developing countries not aligned with the West. India sought to balance the U.S. military alliance with Pakistan during the Cold War by developing strategic ties with Russia. The Indian elite’s anti-Americanism, especially on the left, the country’s drift toward socialist economic policies under the Congress Party, and its support for “Third World” radicalism provided a solid domestic political basis for India’s strategic partnership with the Soviet Union.

Russia has not stopped supplying military spares and equipment to India, despite reported Chinese unhappiness with those deliveries.

New Delhi’s warmth toward Moscow did not, however, end with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Although India began to engage more consequentially with the United States in the early 1990s, it was deeply apprehensive about the dangers of the unipolar moment. The Clinton administration’s active pursuit of a solution to India’s dispute with Pakistan over Kashmir, and its focus on rolling back New Delhi’s nuclear and missile programs, inevitably pushed India into hedging its bets and hold on to the Moscow partnership. Persistent military tensions with Pakistan and the Indian armed forces’ reliance on Soviet and Russian weaponry made it a doubly prudent strategy.

If New Delhi was focused on managing the strategic difficulties of the post-Cold War era, Russia was interested in a larger ideological project to limit U.S. power. Its chosen instrument was a new coalition with China and India that would promote a multipolar world. A trilateral forum launched in the 1990s eventually expanded into the BRICS.

By the turn of the 21st century, however, it turned out that New Delhi was hedging against the wrong power. U.S. presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama steadily began to transform the U.S. relationship with India by overcoming earlier differences over Kashmir and resolving the dispute with India on nuclear issues.

Meanwhile, India’s growing problems with a rapidly rising and increasingly assertive China compelled a major shift in New Delhi’s benign-to-neutral attitude toward Beijing. India inevitably turned to the United States and its Pacific allies to balance China. As Washington finally woke up to the challenges presented by Beijing, India began to acquire greater strategic salience in the U.S. worldview. This was reflected in the Trump administration’s decision to put India at the heart of Washington’s new Indo-Pacific strategy.

As Russia’s problems with the United States became sharper and its alliance with China deeper, the old ties between New Delhi and Moscow have become the geopolitical equivalent of a square peg trying to fit into a round hole. If the growing Indo-Russian disputation on the Indo-Pacific is about China and the United States, the divergence over Afghanistan is centered on Pakistan, a front that cuts closer to the Indian bone and is much more immediate.

Unlike Russia, which could not hide its schadenfreude about the humiliating U.S. retreat from Afghanistan, India has been deeply worried about the security challenges arising from the withdrawal. Two decades of U.S. military presence enabled India to significantly expand its own economic and political profile in Afghanistan. It now has no choice to wind down, at least for now, its activity in the country following the return of the Taliban with Pakistan’s backing.

Over the last few years, Russia had stepped up its engagement with the Taliban and coordinated with Pakistan on issues related to Afghanistan. It has also sought to keep India out of the Afghanistan transition process by claiming that New Delhi had little influence with the Taliban.

Unlike Russia, which could not hide its schadenfreude about the humiliating U.S. retreat from Afghanistan, India has been deeply worried.

While Moscow believes that Islamabad and the Taliban will help it better manage future security challenges to its southern flanks in Central Asia, New Delhi is convinced that a Taliban-led Afghanistan will once again become home for anti-Indian terrorist groups backed and encouraged by Pakistan. It is no surprise that New Delhi has taken a harder line than anyone else in the region against the Taliban, even as Russia was trying to befriend them.

But despite these serious differences, the swift fall of Kabul last month and the rapid evolution of the security situation on the ground has encouraged Putin and Modi to establish a permanent channel of communications between them on issues relating to Afghanistan.

In the past, New Delhi tended to be deferential to Russian sensitivities. India was among the few countries in the region that were unwilling to publicly criticize the Soviet Union for invading Afghanistan in 1979. Today, Modi and his foreign policy advisers are no longer uncomfortable with airing differences with Russia on critical issues like the Indo-Pacific, the Quad, and Afghanistan. New Delhi has arrived at a stoic strategy that tries to normalize the relationship with Moscow by expanding cooperation wherever possible, while no longer hiding differences.

India continues to participate in the BRICS group and other multilateral forums dominated by Russia and China, without any anxiety about open differences with the former and ongoing conflicts with the latter. At the same time, New Delhi is pushing vigorously to strengthen the Quad framework.

This Indian strategy is not about non-alignment or multi-alignment, as many would be tempted to conclude, but rather an unapologetic pursuit of an interest-based foreign policy. It is a strategy that is no longer defensive about a growing partnership with the United States and the West that will be on full display this month.

C. Raja Mohan is the director of the National University of Singapore’s Institute of South Asian Studies and a former member of India’s National Security Advisory Board.  

This article was originally published on Foreign Policy.
Views in this article are author’s own and do not necessarily reflect CGS policy.