The Russian-Indian partnership has experienced an upward trend in the past years. Russian President Vladimir Putin and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi enjoy cordial relations, meet regularly, hold telephone conversations, and seek ways to boost further bilateral trade. Although the official presentation of mutual ties seems cloudless, fundamental shifts are happening behind the curtains.
The previous year was a breakthrough in bilateral relations for Moscow and New Delhi. Both nations experienced impressive 22 percent growth in trade and boosted cooperation in a number of spheres ranging from agriculture to energy to pharmaceuticals. Earlier, Russia’s largest oil producer, Rosneft, closed a $12.9 billion purchase of India’s second largest private oil refiner, Essar Oil, which marked one of the biggest foreign investment in India. New Delhi likewise was the major guest country of the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum (SPIEF) in 2017, Russia’s top national event for international cooperation, and hosted the pavilion titled “Make in India” along with Modi’s participation in a plenary session next to Putin.
The two countries likewise seek stronger ties in the military sector. The Kremlin keeps its competitive edge and remains the largest supplier of weapons to the Indian market. Both nations signed an inter-governmental agreement for the purchase of the S-400 Triumf advanced Air Defense Systems (NATO: SA-21 Growler) estimated at $4.5 billion. Moscow and New Delhi also agreed on the import of Kamov Ka 226T light utility helicopters and collaboration in manufacturing of four Admiral Grigorovich–class guided-missile stealth frigates. The previous calendar year was likewise marked by a rare feat: the Indian defense minister and national security advisor each visited Russia twice.
Growing trade and new defense contracts combined with the personal friendship between Putin and Modi facilitate an impression of strategic bilateral relations. But shifting geopolitical dynamics driven by the rise of China, international sanctions against the Kremlin, and its never-ending economic stagnation point to imminent changes for India-Russia relations in the coming years.
The Kremlin played a key role in facilitating New Delhi’s membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Moscow pushed forward India’s membership in order to dilute China’s dominance in the group. Its efforts likewise played vital role in maintaining the Russia-India-China trilateral format, during which the nations reconcile on a mutually shared vision and responsibility for the future of the Eurasian continent. The Kremlin also perceives such meetings as vital steps for pushing forward its ideological agenda of a multipolar world and challenging Western dominance, but India maintains a far more pragmatic vision.
New Delhi has great capacity to effectively respond to structural and geopolitical shifts and is extremely skillful in learning to adjust to changing power dynamics. For instance, in 1971 India signed a treaty of friendship and cooperation with the Soviet Union to balance Sino-U.S. rapprochement. After the end of the Cold War, India was keen on joining the Moscow-led Eurasian movement and agreed to embrace institutional cooperation with Beijing. The impetus was to secure its geopolitical ambitions as well as resist Washington’s threats to roll back New Delhi’s nuclear goals and possible interventions in a regional dispute with Pakistan over Jammu and Kashmir.
Currently the geopolitical realities in the region are changing again. Growing Chinese power and Indian ambitions mean that sooner or later both nations will start confronting each other more. The new setting prescribes the need to revise previous formats of interactions and seek diversification in foreign policy. Given Moscow’s weakness and growing dependence on Beijing, India will need to look for another strong player to maintain its geopolitical ambitions.
Beijing is currently posing the biggest geopolitical threat to India. Both nations have a disputed border, which was highlighted during the recent standoff on the Doklam plateau in territory claimed by both China and Bhutan. China and India likewise compete for influence in the Asia-Pacific region and the Indian Ocean. With China’s current GDP four times larger and its defense spending almost three times bigger than that of India, the broken parity pushes New Delhi to seek for ways to counter its neighbor’s power.
Sino-India relations have been deteriorating for the past decades, while U.S.-India relations have experienced improvement simultaneously. The White House supports New Delhi’s claim for a permanent seat at the United Nations Security Council and its entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group – moves that are opposed by Beijing. The United States likewise is more keen on supporting India’s pursuit for regional leadership in its opposition to China’s ambitions in South Asia and the Indian Ocean and has lots to offer in terms of trade and defense technologies. The latter is particularly appealing in lights of India’s quest to diversify its military suppliers.
Washington’s previous support for Pakistan has posed a serious challenge to India’s geopolitical ambitions and the two nations’ relations. In effect, the Trump administration’s latest unexpected move to freeze aid to Pakistan could deliver positive vibes to India-U.S. relations. New Delhi has a lengthy record of accusing Islamabad of supporting cross-border terrorism, claims that might find support in Washington considering its own criticism of Pakistan’s poor efforts in combating terrorism.
The Kremlin could still help New Delhi with some of its cutting-edge technologies and international diplomatic support, but India will ultimately keep shifting to the pro-Western orbit. Despite augmenting trade volumes, Russia’s exports to India are barely 2 percent of India’s total imports and in an economic sense, Russia’s struggling economy has little to offer to India in the long-term. The Kremlin’s growing political and economic dependence on Beijing ultimately means that the current momentum of Russia-India relations will be imminently challenged in the upcoming years.
For New Delhi, the anticipated shift will necessitate rational support for its independent foreign policy, which aims to diversify political relations while nurturing the goal of keeping “India first.” The latter is proven by India’s participation in a November 2017 working-level meeting of the so-called “Quad” of countries along with Japan, the United States, and Australia to counter China’s growing influence in the Asia-Pacific. As a growing power, India needs to find its ways to improve its weight in the world order and it’s unlikely that its historically pro-independence foreign policy will make an exception for the Kremlin.
Dmitriy Frolovskiy is a Moscow-based political analyst and writer. Follow him on Facebook.