Throughout the past few decades, India and Russia have maintained extraordinarily close relations. During the Cold War, India, though not formally allied with the Soviet Union, leaned toward it. The Soviet Union proved vital to India because it was able to provide superpower cover for its development as an independent nation, especially during bouts of tension with China or the United States, both of which were friendly toward Pakistan.
This has led to the view by many in foreign policy circles in India that India and Russia share a sort of special relationship, one which transcends temporary interests. As India’s president, Pranab Mukherjee said in 2015:
Our relationship stands apart. Russia is and will be a dependable partner in defense matters and energy security despite the relationships with other countries developed by Russia or developed by India….[the] India-Russia relationship is one of deep friendship and mutual confidence that would not be affected by transient political trends….Russia has been a pillar of strength at difficult moments in India’s history. India will always reciprocate this support. Russia is and will remain our most important defense partner and a key partner for our energy security, both on nuclear energy and hydrocarbons.
However, in recent years, both international conditions and India’s views on foreign affairs have changed. To paraphrase a famous dictum, nations do not have permanent friends and enemies — only permanent interests. Therefore, it should come as no surprise to realists in India that India and Russia are growing apart. Indian security interests throughout Asia and the Middle East are not necessarily shared by Russia, though not due to any deliberate maneuvering against India on the part of Russia.
In particular, two recent incidents highlight this. First, Russia — together with Iran, another country close to India — has been engaging the Taliban politically. The engagement was presented by the Russian side as an attempt to fight a common enemy in the form of the Islamic State, which is also active in Afghanistan. Nonetheless, the Russian outreach to the Taliban may also be an attempt at building influence in the country with a faction clearly not aligned with Western interests. This could pay off with economic and political benefits down the road. India on the other hand, has not opened up talks with the Taliban, who have a record of hostility toward India and close ties with Pakistan. On December 15, the Indian foreign ministry issued a cautionary statement regarding Russian overtures toward the Taliban: “We do not see any downward trend in our bilateral relationship… but it is clear that India has been disturbed by recent events.”
Secondly, and perhaps more disturbing to India, was a recent Russian decision to strongly support the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which links western China with the Pakistani port of Gwadar. Additionally, Russia “also announced its intention to link its own Eurasian Economic Union project with CPEC.” This decision comes after Russia denied interest in the project. Earlier this year, Russia also upset India vis-a-vis Pakistan by holding military exercises with Pakistan soon after the Uri terrorist attacks in India, which damaged relations between the two South Asian powers.
It is clear that Russia is feeling out Pakistan, as part of its efforts to enhance its influence throughout Asia, and Pakistan could be of particular importance to Russia because of its links with the Arab world and Central Asia, as well as its possession of ports on the Indian Ocean. These developments are not aimed at disrupting relations with India, and stem from a different set of priorities, but could nonetheless rattle India. For now, the main Russian game in Asia is to work with China and Iran to create a multi-polar space therein.
Russia will continue to pursue its own perceived national interests, as it always has. Russia is primarily focused on establishing a sphere of influence throughout the former Soviet Union, and further afield, when possible, in Europe, East Asia, and the Middle East, as evidenced by its intervention in Syria. Russian President Vladimir Putin has stated that his goal is to prevent “attempts to create a unipolar world,” an obvious reference to the United States and states closely aligned with America.
Viewed through the lens of history, India and Russia have often been at odds geopolitically, because their particular locations point them toward different priorities: land versus sea, the extraction of natural resources in inhospitable locations versus trading in the center of the world’s busiest ocean. The close relationship between India and the Soviet Union during the Cold War was often a matter of convenience and ideology; the Great Game, where a power based in North Asia (the Russian Empire) and a power based in South Asia (the British Raj) had different ideas for what happened in the territory between them is a more accurate reflection of the inherent geopolitical tendencies of Russia and India. India will continue to grow closer to the more commercial, mercantile littoral states of Asia, such as Japan and the Gulf Arab kingdoms, and their ally, the United States, all of which have lukewarm relations with Russia. On the other hand, the larger land powers of Asia, such as China, Russia, Iran, and perhaps even Pakistan will find more common ground.
Russia and India are unlikely to formally break and will continue to cooperate on many issues. They will remain partners on weapons development and energy issues. Nonetheless, a geopolitical drift is increasingly likely in the coming decades, as the two countries have disparate interests. It is particularly important for Indian policymakers, who are often given toward sentimentality, to understand this and adapt to the changing circumstances without harboring resentment toward Russia. Nevertheless, there is scope for future cooperation with Russia, since it is only a matter of time before Russian relations with China and possibly also Iran cool down–after all, Russia was a historical rival of both China and Iran for power and influence throughout much of inner Asia. Moreover,it would be difficult for so many great powers to compete in the same space without tensions surfacing. A change in American attitudes toward Russia or a decline in American power in Asia could potentially lead to new geopolitical alignments in which Indo-Russian interests on limiting Chinese power take precedent over any differences in Central and South Asia.