Think Tank
India-Russia Relations in a Post-Covid World

The current period of flux is exactly the time for the two sides to bank on their “special and privileged strategic partnership” to pursue a multi-vector foreign policy. The most important, critical takeaway from the relationship for both countries is the strategic space they provide each other to deal with the US, China and other great powers, write Nandan Unnikrishnan and Nivedita Kapoor. The article is published as part of the Valdai Club’s Think Tank project, continuing the collaboration between Valdai and Observer Research Foundation (New Delhi).

As the world grapples with the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, the reshaping of the international system has added to the uncertainty confronting nation-states at this historical juncture. While the US-China rivalry hardly comes as a surprise, its acceleration due to the pandemic has made this bipolar dynamic the pivot around which the new world order is likely to revolve. 

India and Russia are both important players in their own right but neither of them will occupy the top two positions in the world order. However, their foreign policy choices will inevitably be affected by the ongoing changes in the balance of power. The impact will be far greater on the two countries because of the way their respective relations with the US and China have evolved.

While their bilateral relationship is free of active conflict, the repercussions of external factors can no longer be ignored or underestimated. Thus, it is pertinent to examine the effect of these developments on the long-standing “special and privileged partnership,” as New Delhi and Moscow seek to position themselves amid the ongoing flux in global politics.

As the US-China rivalry threatens to disrupt the order of the day, India and Russia remain supporters of a multipolar world order, understanding the constraints that bipolarity would impose on their foreign policy choices. They emphasize independence in pursuit of foreign policy and eschew alliances. However, this does not mean that the two sides are in complete agreement about the world order, which remains in flux with neither an unambiguous bipolarity nor a clear multipolarity in sight. This results in more fluid relationships as the stakeholders hedge their bets and seek to define their positions while trying to preserve national interests. 

Nowhere is this more visible than in Asia, which forms the base of the rising power of China and from where it seeks to challenge the established power. This geography is also critical for India and Russia. However, despite their cordial bilateral engagement, the two sides have struggled to significantly enhance cooperation in this area that is the centre of current global geopolitics.

Since 2014, China has emerged as Russia’s key external partner, brought even closer due to their continued tensions with the US-led West. For Russia, a breakdown of ties with the West has not led to a successful “pivot to Asia” with diverse relations across the Asia-Pacific. And despite its emergence as a significant power, Moscow has been unable to build a strong “power centre” in Eurasia or demonstrate it has “enough resources” to establish itself as the key regional power. 

On the other hand, India has witnessed a steady deterioration in relations with an increasingly aggressive China. This has made a turn to the US an inevitable policy choice to manage China’s rise as New Delhi on its own has limited capacity to be a rule-setter versus Beijing. It is also important because the closeness of the Russia-China partnership is leading to the emergence of some conceptual differences on the emerging world order and how Beijing should be balanced. It is dealing with these challenges – of the US-China rivalry and their respective equations with India and Russia – that will require a deft navigation.

Webinar on Russia-India Relations

And there are already signs that this is going to be a complex undertaking, the “special and privileged ties” notwithstanding. Foreign minister Sergei Lavrov’s comments on India being an “object” of Western policy to engage it in “anti-China games by promoting Indo-Pacific strategies” led to a terse response from the Indian Ministry of External Affairs, a rare public disapproval of a Russian position. While the Russian position on the issue might be informed by its own disagreements with the US, it carries the danger of glossing over the concerns of regional players in the Indo-Pacific – where Moscow has limited room to manoeuvre due to its yet weak linkages. 

Even if Russia does not support the concept of the Indo-Pacific, the question it needs to ponder over is whether alienating partners like India aids its efforts towards becoming a stronger Eurasian power. The hubris associated with having been a superpower along with a revival of its influence in the 21st century must not be allowed to come in the way of nimble manoeuvring in an emerging world order. Stakeholders like India and ASEAN would welcome an independent power like Russia if it can demonstrate a balanced approach and is not perceived as a junior partner of China.

Given that Moscow remains antithetical to the idea of being subordinate to any power, there remains scope for bilateral cooperation in Indo-Pacific and beyond – including in Central Asia, West Asia and Afghanistan. In fact, the concepts of Eurasia and the Indo-Pacific are not mutually exclusive; on the contrary they supplement each other. 

The abovementioned challenges do not mean India and Russia must abandon their close engagement. Quite the opposite, this period of flux is exactly the time for the two sides to bank on their “special and privileged strategic partnership” to pursue a multi-vector foreign policy. The most important, critical takeaway from the relationship for both countries is the strategic space they provide each other to deal with the US, China and other great powers.

What would be the cost of an Indo-Russia rift? Russia that is already dealing with a breakdown of relations with the West will be left with no other major power but China as a strategic partner. This would mean a “threat to geopolitical equilibrium” for Russia in Eurasia, a rather dire prospect given its weaknesses. For India, a Russia-China alliance would bring about the dreaded prospect of an Asia dominated by China. In this scenario, India would feel compelled to contemplate a similar relationship with the West. This would entail moving away from its current willingness to engage with “different parties” despite not always having the “same interests,” which would negatively impact its pursuit of a multipolar world order where it maintains strategic autonomy. 

In order to prevent such a scenario, one key step would be to revitalize the bilateral India-Russia agenda. In this regard, an action like the quiet diplomatic effort by Russia last year to get India and China to the table during their border clashes is critical for building confidence and much more effective than public airing of differences. Equally important is the need to revive the economic agenda that is currently heavily dependent on cooperation in defence and energy sectors. While these two sectors will continue to form the bedrock of the ties, a more broad-based economic engagement is urgently needed. 

A forward-looking economic agenda should include cooperation in the hi-tech sector, biotechnology, nanotechnology, AI, space, start-up and innovation, pharmaceuticals, healthcare etc. to harness the strengths of the two countries. Encouraging SMEs to engage in bilateral economic cooperation will also be an important step in this direction. Besides, furthering cooperation in the Russian Far East and the Arctic, both in bilateral and multilateral formats, would be beneficial.

In fact, the multilateral setting has been an area of sustained engagement for India and Russia, where the latter has supported the former on issues like permanent seat at the United Nations Security Council and entry into the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group. The willingness towards continued cooperation is also visible in formats including BRICS, Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the Eurasian Economic Union. Even the International North–South Transport Corridor (INSTC) has been envisaged as a multilateral undertaking, with economic and geopolitical rationale intertwined in this connectivity project. Similar reasoning also guides the proposed Chennai-Vladivostok Maritime Corridor, where apart from improving trade ties with the Russian Far East, the Indian side hopes that the link will also act as a bridge between the Eurasian Union and open, free and inclusive Indo-Pacific. It may also be useful to discuss reviving the cooperation between India, Iran and Russia on Afghanistan.

Neither India-China ties nor US-Russia ties are expected to improve in the short term; and the US and China will remain key partners for New Delhi and Moscow respectively. It might thus be prudent to intensify “free and frank” discussions on all issues as well as resolve to maintain neutrality on issues of core concern for each other while taking steps to strengthen the bilateral relationship. 

This should ensure that at a time of uncertainty in a changing world, India’s and Russia’s engagement with other powers does not come at the expense of their bilateral partnership; while giving the two sides space to strengthen their political, economic, defence and cultural ties in the coming years.

Nandan Unnikrishnan on Potential and Risks in Russian-Indian Relations
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.