Foreign Affairs
How is the India-Russia Relationship Transforming?

India External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar’s visit to Russia on December 24-29 resembled the halcyon days of Indo-Soviet relations. Despite the ecstasy in his words and taking a walk on the Red Square, Jaishankar’s mission aimed to strengthen India’s strategic autonomy in a complex international environment. His mission was to create space for Indian diplomacy, similar to the fateful moments in modern history.

The US-Indian relationship has seen a soaring high and then a nosediving shortly thereafter due to the Biden administration’s growing frustration that the Modi Government refused to join the West’s caravan to sanction Russia. India pragmatically increased its oil imports from Russia, which became a major source of budgetary support but moderated the bite of the West’s sanctions against Russia.

The recovery of the Russian economy has led to a 3.5% growth this year, and India-Russia bilateral trade has surged to $50 billion in 2023. Indian decision-makers sought to gravitate toward the western camp for creating an even more beneficial matrix of cooperation, but their strategy was fundamentally flawed as it was predicated on the notion that Russia was destined to lose the war in Ukraine. The Indian establishment drew hasty conclusions from the military setbacks suffered by Russian forces in the early phase of the Ukraine war, typifying a surreal outlook.

India’s relationship with Russia has been a contentious one, with the US and India forming a close bond. The US-India relationship lasted for almost a year until mid-2023 when Russian forces returned to Ukraine, crushing Kiev’s counteroffensive. This shift in geopolitics has put India in a difficult position as it aspires to be the leader of the Global Majority. The Western narrative on Ukraine is fraying, and signs of war fatigue appear in Europe and the US. The Biden administration has also rethought its ties with China, leading to increased pressure from top US officials in Beijing for a summit between President Biden and President Xi Jinping.

Despite the improved climate of US-China relations since the San Francisco summit in November, this has diminished India’s worth as a “counterweight” to China. The geopolitics of the Far East coincided with alleged Indian plots to kill American and Canadian citizens. Russia, aware of the US-Indian bromance heading south, began lionising Modi, showing praise for refusing to take actions that would be at variance with India’s national interests. New Delhi expects the US to be bogged down in domestic politics through 2024, with US-China tensions easing and the Indo-Pacific strategy in the back burner.

However, the US remains the most consequential partner for Indian elites, and it is guaranteed that Washington will reciprocate. With Russia’s upper hand in the war in Ukraine, India no longer needs to do tight-rope walking, and the annual India-Russia summit is set to resume in 2024. India is also better positioned to push back US criticism on human rights issues, as Washington has lost moral ground over Israel’s war crimes in Gaza.

India and Russia have expanded their agenda on geopolitics and strategic interests for mutual benefit. The effectiveness and sustainability of these optics will be tested at the BRICS summit in Kazan in October, chaired by Putin. The question is whether India will show the presence of mind to hit the US’ core interests by supporting the creation of a BRICS currency to challenge the dollar and US-dominated international financial and trade architecture. The Global Times has featured an extraordinary commentary against this tumultuous geopolitical backdrop, praising the Modi government for its policies. Another bellwether to be watched is the trajectory of Russian-Indian defense cooperation, which has historically been the anchor sheet of the two countries’ strategic relationship. The US is persistently urging India to decrease its arms purchases from Russia, aiming to align with the West and enhance ‘interoperability’ with American weaponry.

Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov announced that discussions in Moscow focused on military-technical cooperation, including joint production of modern weapons. He expressed respect for India’s efforts to diversify ties in military-technical cooperation and support their initiative to manufacture combat hardware under the ‘Make in India’ programme. Lavrov also highlighted the outstanding performance of Russian weaponry in the Ukraine war and the surge of the Russian defence industry in the past year, which would put Russia in a strong position to regain its footing as India’s number one partner in military technology. This trajectory will provide evidence of a new thinking in Delhi regarding the geopolitics of the India-Russia-US triangle.

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