Why the India-Russia Relationship Works

This article was originally published in The Diplomat

It’s not often that you get Russian President Vladimir Putin to sing a little ditty. Yet he recently did, when asked about the state of the Russian-Indian relationship.

“Hindi Rusi bhai-bhai” (Indians and Russians are brothers) is a slogan left over from the days of Soviet and Indian friendship. Though much has changed since that time, both nations have been careful to preserve and even strengthen their cooperation. The relationship is driven by two very different sets of interests, yet it somehow has managed to persist.

India, as a postcolonial country, has a foreign policy marked by a desire for autonomy. It regularly views alliances as infringing on its independent decision-making.

During the Cold War, Indian leaders labeled this “nonalignment.”  They now refer to it as “strategic autonomy.”

In practice, India wanted good relations with both the Soviet Union and the United States. However, India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, had a romantic notion about the Soviet Union and a soft spot for Fabian Socialism. This, combined with Pakistan becoming a U.S. partner, led to closer India-Soviet relations.

Soviet assistance in economic and military areas over the years only cemented India’s belief that the Soviets were a steadfast ally. Instead of looking at Soviet and later Russian arms sales as a way for Moscow to hold on to a captive market (India), Indians have often viewed Russian actions with deep sentimentality. The Soviet decision to veto any U.N. resolutions on Kashmir, for example, was viewed in New Delhi as a symbol of Soviet embrace, rather than strategic calculation.

India may no longer be nonaligned, but the desire to balance its relationships is still strong. Even though India has now moved closer to Western countries, it still wants to make sure that China, and particularly Russia, do not see it as an enemy or threat.

New Delhi has also interpreted the desire for autonomy as the need to be independent of, or different from, the West. So despite close economic and defense ties, and a deep strategic partnership with the United States, India still does not want to be called a U.S. ally. Partner is fine, ally is not.

India’s membership in BRICS (the association of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa), the G-20 and the G-77 are also reflective of its desire for participation in organizations not dominated by the West. Cooperation with Russia, which is now at odds with Europe and the United States over Ukraine and Syria, helps cement that standing.

Russia, like the Soviet Union, has always looked at India through the lens of realpolitik. During the Cold War, India was a critical country to keep out of the Western orbit. Today, it is both a critical market for Russian products and a key partner in Asia.

Russia’s long Asian borders have historically been the source of much consternation. Its border with China is a particularly serious concern. By co-operating with India, Russia is playing a balancing game — it hopes to help India successfully balance against what Moscow regards as their mutual adversary, China.

Russia’s own economic situation is increasingly tenuous — thanks to a combination of Western sanctions, falling oil prices and overall fiscal mismanagement. Nearly half of Russian budget revenues come from the sale of oil and gas, which have fallen drastically in the past two years. In an ever more competitive world market, Russia is looking for new outlets for its oil. India is set to become the world’s third largest consumer of oil, after only China and the United States.

Russia’s Rosneft, its biggest oil company, recently won a competition against Saudi Arabian and Iranian firms to purchase 49 percent of Essar Oil, which operates a major refinery at Vadinar and owns 2,700 fueling stations across India. Rosneft sees the deal as creating “big potential for expansion of its presence on the markets of other APR [Asia-Pacific Region] countries, such as Indonesia, Vietnam, the Philippines and Australia.”

India is also a promising market for one of Russia’s most successful ventures – building nuclear power plants. Rosatom, the state-owned nuclear power company, is now building more than 20 reactors in different locations around the world. It recently inaugurated its second reactor at Kudankulam in southern India. Two other reactors are under construction at the same location. Both projects help India achieve its goal of further diversifying its energy sources.

Russia also sees India as a continuing but growing market for its armaments. Over the past few years, Russia has lost some of its longtime arms sales markets — but not India. Russia is, however, afraid that India’s newer but increasingly robust friendships with Israel and the United States, both formidable arms purveyors, could drastically cut into a market that is critical in helping to keep Russian unemployment numbers low.

New Delhi’s continued use of Russian small and large weaponry – including aircraft carriers, submarines and fighter planes – means stability within the Indian military. During Putin’s recent visit to India, several defense pacts were signed, including a joint venture between Hindustan Aeronautics and Russia’s state-owned weapons producer Rosoboronexport to build 200 Kamov 226t helicopters. Russia has also agreed to build S-400 surface-to-air missiles and stealth frigates for the Indian navy.

As both countries see the other as a useful aid in achieving their foreign policy goals, this relationship seems unlikely to fade anytime soon. Many Indians would echo the words of Sergei Chemezov, the chief executive of Rostec State Corporation: “Russia is a friend, an ally and not a business partner. Russia stood by India during its darkest hours. Next year will mark 70 years of our relationship. It is a long time.”

Although Russia has been largely ostracized by India’s Western friends, New Delhi has made clear that it will not follow the same path. While meeting with Putin at a BRICS summit in October, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi praised the bilateral relationship for “our strong convergence of views and positions on pressing international and regional issues.” India seems unlikely to forget those moments of friendship.

Ditties and slogans are well and good, but foreign policy is based more on action than on words. India’s desire to be considered a global power might require it to rebalance its relations with the United States, Russia and China. New Delhi will have to revise its old friendship with Russia, which benefits India much less now than it did in the past, in order to maintain closer ties with China and the West. It must put its sentiments aside, and realize that relations between the two countries will be dictated by realpolitik.

For its part, Russia hopes to continue to exploit India’s positive feelings towards it. But with Russia’s weak economy, isolated leadership, and an much more competitive market for its number one export, India has perhaps more leverage against Russia than it realizes. Whether it will take advantage of that strength remains to be seen.