The Enduring Shadow of Russia in India’s Strategic Discourse

In a changing global environment, Russia is India’s opportunity to flex its strategic autonomy, obtain material gains and ensure a reliable alliance.

In the 19th India-Russia Bilateral Annual Summit held on Oct. 5, 2018, India and Russia decided to step up their engagements, especially by advancing their security commitments to the next level. In the joint statement that encapsulated multiple areas of cooperation and engagement concerning economy, connectivity, space and nuclear cooperation, what made the headlines was the signing of the $5-billion S-400 Triumf air defence missile system deal which was accomplished despite uncertainties regarding looming US sanctions on India under the Countering American Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA).

Often perceived as traditional allies, India and Russia have shaped their relationship since the Cold War days, giving it a new dimension of special and privileged strategic partnership in 2010. Friends, allies, partners – almost all the three words stand equally contextual in the Indo-Russian bilateral lexicon. However, with New Delhi’s growing camaraderie with Washington and Moscow’s explicit overtures to Islamabad, combined with Russia’s Asian hedging strategies in the past few years has landed the erstwhile bilateral bonhomie between India and Russia in doldrums. Amidst this idea of a complicated bilateral relationship and emerging new equations in the contemporary world order, the India-Russia engagement would never cease to lose its relevance, especially due to two factors – first, India’s re-emphasis on strategic autonomy which necessitates and facilitates Russia as an inadvertent yet default anchor of counterbalance – especially amidst India’s growing ties with Washington. Second, the incentive of mutual gains through the common areas of convergence – particularly through the involvement of big money in defense sector deals.

New Delhi’s sensitivity for strategic autonomy comes from three quarters. First, India’s insistence on strategic autonomy emanates as a spin-off from non-alignment whereby India is still wary of being a party to any block or power consolidation. Secondly, in a more transactional world setup, strategic autonomy can also be interpreted in terms of a strategy of omni-alignment, even as economic and strategic concerns considerably overlap. Thirdly, India’s resurgence of strategic autonomy derives from a caution from over-engagement with US and emerges from a balancing act between engagements with a host of countries spread across various interests. With President Trump’s almost cold denial to the leadership of its allies, Prime Minister Modi has realized that a complete tethering of India’s national interests with the US would be precarious. It is here that Russia comes into the picture.

Even in the case of transactional relations, India and Russia are eager to converge on a range of issues. The joint statement expressed cooperation under domains of science and technology, space and important international issues. Meeting between the foreign ministries preceding the summit and the visit of the Indian army chief coinciding along with interactions between the business personals indicate the wide-ranging issues on which New Delhi and Moscow wish to collaborate. The joint statement expressed India’s invitation to Russia to participate in the ‘Make In India’ scheme and in the development of other infrastructural projects and industrial corridors in the country. The Russian President, for his part, has been willing to include India in his pet projects of energy exploitation in the Arctic region. Moreover, the possibilities of a free trade agreement between the countries of Eurasia, led by Russia and India have furthered the prospects for greater economic integration.

Even though India has increased its arms imports from the US, Russia still remains the largest arms supplier to India. One of the most important developments in bilateral defence cooperation between the two sides has been India’s agreement to let go of the offset clause. On the other hand, an emerging India is a strategically and economically profitable transactional asset for Russia. At a regional level as well, a stable partnership with Russia is an added advantage for India and a leverage for the balance of power, given its desire to expand role in Afghanistan and Moscow’s emerging nexus with China and Pakistan. While Russia is crucial for India’s Eurasian market access, a connectivity route from Vladivostok to Chennai through the Straits of Malacca may add a different dimension to connectivity initiatives across Asia which has been so far dominated by the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative.

Russia is the all-weather ally that not only complements India’s military and diplomatic needs, but has become the fulcrum around which India’s international identity as a strategically autonomous nation revolves – even when it engages with a host of western countries. In India’s widely spread out and multi-directional foreign policy agenda, Russia is the anchor that provides New Delhi a diplomatic and strategic counterbalance against the West. To a large extent, Russia’s declining acceptability across New Delhi’s policy spectrum is largely due to a westward emphasis in foreign policy behavior, complemented by Moscow’s dwindling status as a power, primarily economic and soft power outreach, in a post-Soviet world. However, with a competitive China and an uncertain US looming large, India’s relations with Russia symbolizes an enduring and stable foreign policy construct in an ever-changing world environment, especially one in which past idioms and phrases used in international relations are now becoming a rarity.

Header Image: Reuters

About the authors

Avishek Jha is a Young India Fellow for 2017-18. He has completed his Masters in Political Science & International Relations from Department of International Relations, Jadavpur University.

Udayan Das is a Doctoral Candidate at the Department of International Relations, Jadavpur University, India. He is a Visiting Faculty at Amity University, Kolkata and a Research Assistant at Netaji Institute for Asian Studies, Kolkata. He tweets at @udayan993

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