While some of America’s allies and partners were aghast at U.S. President Donald Trump’s performance during the recent Helsinki summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin, reaction in India was somewhat different. There was actually greater hope than dread leading up to the summit, and in its aftermath somewhat greater disappointment at the reaction in the United States to the summit than in Trump’s performance.
The reasons are not that difficult to understand. India’s traditional and continuing security relationship with Russia and its growing partnership with the United States meant that there was a desire in India that Russia and the United States would patch up their deteriorating ties. This troubled relationship was clearly putting Russia on the defensive and pushing Moscow to seek closer ties with China and even Pakistan, leading to consternation in New Delhi.
Much of this was obviously the result of Russia’s tensions in its relations with the West in general and the United States in particular. But that tension also meant that India had to balance its relationships with two of its closest security partners. This is not a place that India wants to be in, especially as it faces growing pressure from China.
Ideally, India would like to have both Russia and the United States in its corner to deal with China. After all, both of these countries are worried about China. China’s rise is threatening to push the United States out of the Indo-Pacific, while creating a powerful potential adversary on Russia’s eastern front. They should be natural partners with each other and with India, except that they appear unwilling to recognize their clear common interest sufficiently to bury their differences. The hope was that Trump and Putin might begin to reverse course.
This consideration shaped much of the response of Indian commentators, although there has been no official comment from the government. Prior to the meeting, the expectation was that “any thaw in U.S.-Russia relations would come as a relief.” Analysts were also concerned about the impact CAATSA (Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act) would have if the U.S.-Russia relations did not improve.
Some also believe that the Trump-Putin meeting provides a window of opportunity “to establish clear lines of understanding” and seek an exemption for the Indian government to procure the S-400 air defense system from Russia. Others fear a much larger dynamic could be at play and that this could set in motion the dismantling of the Eurasian geopolitical order that the United States had built and nurtured for decades. Arguments were also made highlighting the stabilizing effects of improved U.S.-Russia ties for not just the two countries but for the broader global order as well.
Indian commentators were thus both excited and nervous about the Trump-Putin meeting. An overall improvement in relations between Washington and Moscow could possibly ease the strain in Indian diplomacy. On the other hand, worsening of the U.S.-Russia ties post-Helsinki meeting could have multiple adverse reactions. For one, it will make India’s choices in the defense and security realm quite challenging. Indian interest in buying the S-400s is just one instance. Even as India has diversified its defense procurement, its defense inventory is still Russia-dominated. Additionally, there are technologies and platforms that no other country is willing to part with to India as yet, at least in the immediate time frame and therefore India will continue to be dependent on Russia for a number of important technologies, as well as spare parts and the upkeep of its existing defense infrastructure.
But more importantly, further deterioration of Russia’s ties with the West and isolationism will drive Moscow further into China’s arms, which will exacerbate the strategic challenges for India and restrict the choices for India. A close Russia-China strategic partnership also creates real worries in the security sector. For instance, the Russian sale of advanced weapon platforms to China such as the Su-35 and the Kilo-class submarines only serve to widen the disparity in the military balance between India and China.
Furthermore, while Russia continues its diplomatic support for India in various forums for now, this could also potentially change in the future. The Russian keenness to build political and military relations with Pakistan has also raised concern in New Delhi not as much for the scale of the relations (at least for the time being) as an indicator of how far away Russia has moved away from India. The fact that the emerging Moscow-Islamabad ties could be an afterthought of the strategic ties between Russia and China offers little comfort.
Tensions between Russia and the United States might make Moscow uncomfortable with the growing ties between India and the United States, even if this is not directed at Russia. But New Delhi also sees little choice, considering the challenge it faces from China. The harsh bipartisan domestic reaction in the United States to President Trump’s performance, and his back-pedaling on some of his comments with President Putin, means that there is little hope that there will be much improvement in U.S.-Russia ties in the immediate future. So, New Delhi will likely have to continue to worry about any fallout that might affect India.