India-Russia Relations Amid Global Geopolitical Flux

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Vladimir Putin at the 2017 Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit in Astana, Kazakhstan
Credit: kremlin.ru, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Russian President Vladimir Putin will visit India on Dec. 6 for the 21st Annual India-Russia Summit. This will be the first in-person meeting between Putin and Prime Minister Narendra Modi since 2019. The summit was postponed in 2020 owing to COVID-19 pandemic. 

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Defence Minister Sergey Shoigu will also be visiting India to participate in the inaugural 2+2 ministerial dialogue. Lavrov and Shoigu will hold talks with Indian External Affairs Minister Dr. S. Jaishankar and Defence Minister Rajnath Singh. 

Putin’s visit comes at a time when the world is in a flux due to increasing polarization. India and Russia must work around the increasingly overlapping and complex global geopolitical rivalry. Approach towards the US and China is also a principal component of India-Russia relations.  

While India-Russia relations have stood the test of time, both the countries differ in their respective vectors of international engagements, particularly in response to the changing global order.   

The end of Cold War led to a recalibration of India’s external engagements. The last 30 years, since the end of Cold War, have witnessed India’s growing engagements with the US and other Western countries. While relations with Russia continued to remain strong, India expanded its trajectory considerably by engaging more with the US in economic and strategic domains. For a long period of time Russia was the largest supplier of defence equipment to India. During the last three decades, in addition to Russia, the US, Israel and France have also become India’s major defence suppliers. 

Post-Cold War period is marked by India pursuing a more outward-looking foreign policy. India’s increasing focus on the maritime domain and towards Southeast and East Asia bear testimony to this fact. India has approached Russia with the same outlook to diversify the bilateral engagements. 

During his visit to Russia in 2019, Modi visited Vladivostok and announced India’s Act Far East Policy. Modi also announced $1 billion Line of Credit (LoC) in various projects in that region thereby declaring India’s interest in the resource-rich Russian Far East. 

Also during Modi’s visit in 2019, India and Russia signed a Memorandum of Intent (MOI) to develop Vladivostok-Chennai Maritime Corridor (VCMC). This proposed corridor would pass through South China Sea and would be a counterbalance to China’s assertive activities in the region. With the Quad taking shape in an accelerated manner over the past one year, the VCMC would be also contribute to give a multilateral character to the Indo-Pacific Region. 

India is starting a ministerial level 2+2 dialogue with Russia. Besides Russia, India has 2+2 dialogue mechanism with only the US, Japan and Australia which are all the members of the Quad. So this inaugural 2+2 dialogue could be considered as a start of India-Russia partnership in the Indo-Pacific Region, an unexplored dimension until now. 

But while India has expanded its trajectory concomitant to the changes in the world order, Russia’s foreign policy projections still reflect the Cold War era rivalries. Putin is visiting India when Russia is at loggerheads with the Western world over Ukraine. While the US, European countries and the NATO are expressing concerns over Russia’s military build-up along the Ukraine border, Russia has issued a warning to the NATO not to cross a ‘red line’. Pentagon has said that it will strengthen combat-credible deterrent against Russian aggression in Europe and enable NATO forces to operate more effectively. Meanwhile the chief of British foreign intelligence agency MI6 considered Russia among the top threats for the UK. 

The China factor also features differently in India’s and Russia’s foreign engagements. In the course of rivalries with the Western countries Russia has grown closer to China. Although the US is a common rival for Russia and China, the two do not share comfortable relations. In an attempt to regain its influence of the Cold War era, Russia is making efforts for the Central Asian countries and also Ukraine to remain in its fold or sphere of influence. But China has already made inroads in Central Asian countries. At present Russia cannot antagonize China since the former is in confrontation with the US and European countries. 

India, on the other hand, has been more assertive on China in the recent past. This is evident from India’s positive response to the Quad as a counterbalancing mechanism against China in the Indo-Pacific Region. 

But India has a balancing act to do between Russia and the US. As India starts receiving the delivery of S-400 missile defence system from Russia, there is a fear of the US imposing sanctions on India under Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA). The US passed this Act as a measure against those countries working against the US’ interests. However there are also growing calls for waiver of CAATSA to India as the US-India relations are deepening. 

As Russia and the US stand firm on their positions with respect to each other, India has so far managed to act in a flexible manner to protect its own interests. For Russia, it would be important to consider partnership with India as a diversification and a counter to China’s growing assertion.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.