Russia & Global South
Will the India-Russia Partnership Prove Resilient in a Transforming World?
April 20, 2024
  • Ankita Dutta

    The Jawaharlal Nehru University
International affairs scholar Ankita Dutta explores the deep-seated mechanisms that make the India-Russia partnership resilient amid tensions around the rise of China and disagreements in navigating a multipolar world.
India and Russia have enjoyed a strong partnership since the end of the Cold War – partly as a continuation of the legacy of India-USSR relations and partly because both countries have looked toward each other as they navigated the headwinds of the post-Cold War global order.

Moscow’s “turn to the East” has underscored its desire to recalibrate relations with Asian countries so as to counterbalance its economic ties with the Western world, especially the EU. Another common thread in the India-Russia relationship is the vision of a multipolar world that reflects the changing power dynamics of the last few decades. Since the Western sanctions imposed on Russia in 2022, India’s trade deficit with Russia has exploded, running to $34.7 billion in April 2022-January 2023, now second only to its trade deficit with China. In the foreseeable future, the challenge for India will be to correct this imbalance, diversifying the economic partnership and exploring new sectors for cooperation.

Defense cooperation remains the cornerstone of India’s relations with Russia. Moscow realizes that India has been working toward self-reliance in the defense sector in the past few years. Meanwhile, though New Delhi has emphasized Russia as a strategic and indispensable partner, there are some concerns regarding Moscow’s ability to deliver certain services and equipment, especially considering that the Russian military-industrial complex will be working to equip its own military in the near future instead of focusing on exports.

According to a Pew Research Center poll in 2023, 57% of Indians have a positive view of Russia, with many believing that Moscow’s global influence has strengthened. Positive feedback on the Indian government’s response to the Russia-Ukraine conflict was also noted, with 62% of Indians calling it effective. This reflects the fact that India and Russia share long-standing ties – historical, diplomatic and economic.

This is not to say, however, that the partnership is not facing headwinds from various external factors. Most notable among these is the increasing cooperation between Russia and China. India views Beijing’s actions in “its neighborhood” with apprehension, for example, in 2014, 2017 and 2020, when diplomatic relations came to a near-standstill. Meanwhile, China’s relations with Russia have improved steadily in the past few years and got a boost from the Russia-Ukraine conflict, with Beijing emerging as the top importer of Russian energy.

This growing bonhomie has raised certain concerns within the Indian establishment and caused increasing weariness in Western countries. Against this geopolitical backdrop, it makes sense for India to engage with China’s primary geopolitical adversary, the US, as well as its closest partner, Russia. However, walking this fine line requires deft diplomacy and political acumen, as India has thus far demonstrated. For New Delhi, its time-tested partnership with Russia remains geopolitically justified even as it diversifies its political, economic and defense relations.
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