India-Russia Relations: Hopes and Anxieties

India-Russia relations are now experiencing a period of high hopes and great anxieties. There are hopes, because India, contrary to pessimistic forecasts, did not yield to US pressure and did not refuse military-technical cooperation with Russia, once again confirming its aspiration for the great power status and demonstrating the strength of the “all-weather friendship” between New Delhi and Moscow. Also, there is an anxiety, because it is not clear how cooperation between Russia and India will develop in the next decade, after the current big military contracts are fulfilled.

The Russian-Indian economic ties traditionally stand on three pillars: military-technical cooperation, space technology, nuclear energy. This is due to the fact that in these areas Russian products are the most competitive and often surpass the Western ones. In Soviet times, Russian-Indian cooperation was much broader with the USSR being one of the leading trading partners of the Republic of India. However, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, which coincided with the payments crisis in India, the volume of bilateral trade fell substantially. At a time when India relatively quickly overcame economic difficulties, and the Russian economy found itself in a protracted crisis, the countries of Southeast Asia began to play an increasing role in foreign trade of New Delhi. When Russia recovered from the crisis, it had to regain its place in the Indian market. As a result, a paradoxical situation emerged in the relations between Moscow and New Delhi: despite the common approaches to many issues of the modern foreign policy agenda, active cooperation at international forums, deep mutual sympathy between the peoples of the two countries, the economic basis is very weak.

The chance for revival of close economic cooperation appeared when negotiations began on the creation of a free trade zone between India and the Eurasian Economic Union. We should expect their speedy completion and signing of the FTA agreement, which will strengthen the economic basis – a necessary measure considering the US sanctions, which are designed to destroy the military cooperation – one of the three pillars of the Russian-Indian economic cooperation.

At the moment, India and Russia are successfully resisting American pressure. For India, this is primarily a matter of its own security: the share of weapons of Soviet and Russian origin in the armed forces, police and paramilitary forces of India is about 60%. One can hardly expect a significant increase: the Indian government is carefully monitoring how not to become overly dependent on a sole foreign supplier. But to stop using Russian weapons and reject further purchases would in essence mean the disarmament of India amid global instability in an era of the world order restructuring and the emerging rivalry between the United States and China.

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The anti-Russia sanctions imposed by the US and the prospects for parallel sanctions against New Delhi provoked a sharply negative reaction in India even among supporters of rapprochement with Washington. Indian politicians and experts regarded them as an attempt of blackmail to undermine the country’s sovereignty. When the US tried to force India to stop military-technical cooperation with Russia, New Delhi took a principled position, confirming its intention to buy Russian weapons even under the threat of sanctions. The question of successful completion of deals became a matter of prestige for India.

At the same time, the fate of further cooperation remains unclear. The contracts for the supply of anti-aircraft missile systems, frigates and helicopters were agreed before the adoption of CAATSA, and the rough attempt to force India to abandon them met a natural rebuff. However, in order to conclude new deals with possible consequences, a considerable political will is needed. New Delhi has a few years before the main deliveries under the current contracts are completed, but later it will have to make a choice: either succumb to American blackmail, or accept aggravation of relations with Washington. Given the assertiveness of the current American leadership, it may be necessary to take the final decision much earlier.

A certain optimism is inspired by India’s desire to further strengthen relations with Russia on both bilateral and multilateral basis. The accession of India and Pakistan to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization plays an important role in this process: SCO membership of all major regional players will help stabilize the situation in South and Southeast Asia, minimizing the possibility of external interference.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.