India and Russia have gone through several ups and downs in their decades-old bilateral relationship. The two appear at present to be going through a tricky phase. The two-decade old India-Russia annual summit was cancelled for the first time. A news report in India suggested that the postponement was the result of “severe reservations on New Delhi joining the Indo-Pacific initiative and Quad.” India’s Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) spokesperson responded by saying, “The India-Russia Annual Summit did not take place in 2020 because of the COVID pandemic. This was a mutually agreed decision between the two Governments. Any imputation otherwise is false and misleading. Spreading false stories on important relationships is particularly irresponsible.” The Russian side also responded with a statement saying that it is in “close touch” with its counterparts in India to finalize new dates for the summit, “postponed due to epidemiological reasons.”
But such denials are unlikely to entirely remove speculation about the state of bilateral relations, especially considering that India has taken part in a large number of bilateral and multilateral talks virtually, even if the pandemic has prevented physical meetings.
Moreover, overall speculation about difficulties in the relationship is not exactly new. There has been a lot of it, especially because of comments from senior Russian officials, such as Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, on India’s Quad and Indo-Pacific policy. Russian officials have repeatedly criticized the idea of the Indo-Pacific and the Quad, arguing that it is meant to contain China. Lavrov publicly stated so at the annual Raisina Dialogue in New Delhi in January 2020. More recently, Lavrov returned to the theme, saying at the general meeting of the Russian International Affairs Council in Moscow on December 8 that “India is currently an object of the Western countries’ persistent, aggressive and devious policy as they are trying to engage it in anti-China games by promoting Indo-Pacific strategies, the so-called ‘Quad’ while at the same time the West is attempting to undermine our close partnership and privileged relations with India.”
Indian officials and public commentators are increasingly miffed at this lack of sensitivity to Indian concerns about China, especially coming after China’s intrusion in Ladakh this year, which led to a bloody clash and Indian casualties. Even the normally cautious Indian foreign ministry was forced to respond, with the MEA spokesperson stating that India has always had an independent foreign policy based on its own national interests, that India’s Indo-Pacific approach was not directed at any particular country, and that India stands for a free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific. He also added, for good measure, that “India’s relationship with each country is independent of its relations with third countries. We hope that this is well understood and appreciated by all our partners.”
All of this is coming at a time when the India-China relationship is in one of its worst phases. India’s External Affairs Minister Dr. S Jaishankar while speaking at an Australian think tank, the Lowy Institute, commented that India and China are “at the most difficult phase of our relationship” in the last three or four decades and that the relations between the two were “very significantly damaged” over the past year.
These damages are unlikely to be undone easily. It took several decades to rebuild relations after the 1962 Sino-Indian border war, but the progress made since 1988 has been entirely lost with the current Galwan clash, provoked by China in an effort to unilaterally change the status quo on the border.
Russian comments have led to some criticism in India of Moscow’s position and are increasingly eroding public support that the relationship always had. But there are contrarian voices too. In fact, Rahul Gandhi, leader of India’s main opposition party, the Indian National Congress, criticized the government’s decision to cancel the annual summit with Russia in a tweet saying, “Russia is a very important friend of India. Damaging our traditional relationships is short-sighted and dangerous for our future.” It should be noted, of course, that it was the Congress-led UPA government that joined the Quad the first time, back in 2007. It was the same UPA government that has also strengthened the strategic partnership with the United States, including by signing the U.S.-India civil nuclear deal.
While Russia’s dependence on China is understandable considering its worsening relations with the West, Moscow cannot expect India to ignore its national security concerns regarding China. And as I have written previously, a China-India crisis invariably puts Russia in a tight spot, with difficult choices between India, a traditional partner and also a lucrative defense market, and its newfound but mighty partner, China. For India, it will be increasingly difficult to see China as a partner. Finding common ground and partnering with a neighbor that has aggressively pursued a salami slicing strategy at India’s expense will be difficult. In order to build appropriate diplomatic and defense response against its aggressive eastern neighbor, India will need to partner with like-minded states that have also borne the brunt of Chinese aggressive behavior. Moscow will either have to understand this reality or risk further hurting its ties with India.