Why India still places a high priority on good ties with Moscow

As Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is set to make a state visit to Russia on July 8, following his recent re-election, the world watches with keen interest. The coming summit will mark Modi’s first bilateral meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin since the invasion of Ukraine and his first to Russia since 2019, highlighting the enduring strength of India-Russia relations.

India’s relationship with Russia dates back to the Cold War era, with the Soviet Union being a reliable partner during India’s formative years. The 1971 Indo-Soviet Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Cooperation solidified strong bilateral ties. The treaty provided India with crucial diplomatic and military support during the 1971 war that led to the independence of Bangladesh. The treaty also outlined a robust framework for cooperation across multiple domains, including defence, technology and economic development.

Starting in 1957, the Soviet Union vetoed five UN Security resolutions on tensions between India and Pakistan, shielding New Delhi from international pressure. This came at a time when India faced significant opposition from other global powers, such as the US, which sent its Seventh Fleet to the Bay of Bengal in a show of support for Pakistan. Moscow’s support resulted in a deep-seated trust that continues to influence India’s foreign policy decisions to this day.

India’s reluctance to align completely with the West, despite growing partnerships like the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, stems from its commitment to strategic autonomy. This principle, rooted in India’s history of non-alignment, allows New Delhi to maintain an independent foreign policy that balances relationships with various global powers.

By maintaining strong ties with both Russia and the West, India aims to maximise its strategic options and avoid becoming too dependent on any single power. India’s strategic autonomy is particularly evident in its approach to the Russia-Ukraine conflict.

While India has strengthened its ties with the US, particularly in the Indo-Pacific region, India has consistently abstained from UN votes condemning Russia’s actions in Ukraine despite pressure from Western allies. Instead, India has called for a peaceful resolution. This approach has become increasingly crucial in a world marked by growing great power competition and shifting alliances.

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Indian foreign minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar with Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov during a Moscow press conference in December. Photo: Reuters

This diplomatic tightrope walk reflects India’s desire to maintain its strategic autonomy while also highlighting the trust deficit that still exists between New Delhi and Washington. Despite growing cooperation, memories of past US support for Pakistan and concerns about America’s reliability as a partner continue to influence Indian thinking.

Energy security is a critical factor in India’s engagement with Russia. As the world’s third largest oil importer, India has significantly increased its purchases of Russian oil since the Ukraine conflict began. Russia, facing Western sanctions and a shrinking customer base, has offered its oil at discounted rates. For India, this represents an opportunity to secure its energy needs at lower costs, a crucial consideration for its developing economy.

By increasing imports from Russia, India is also diversifying its energy sources, reducing over-reliance on traditional suppliers in the Middle East and hedging against supply disruptions. The savings from discounted Russian oil translate into reduced inflationary pressures and lower costs for Indian consumers and industries. India’s pragmatic approach, despite Western pressure, underscores the importance it places on its relationship with Moscow.

Russia has been India’s largest arms supplier for decades. From 2016 to 2020, India accounted for 23 per cent of Russia’s total arms exports, while Russia provided 49 per cent of India’s arms imports. This long-standing defence partnership has resulted in deep technological cooperation and interoperability between Indian and Russian military systems.

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An employee fills petrol in a car in Mumbai in June 2022 as India increases imports of Russian oil. Photo: AP

While India has diversified its defence purchases in recent years, including increased procurement from the US, the legacy of Russian equipment and ongoing cooperation in projects such as BrahMos Aerospace continue to bind the two nations.

While defence and energy dominate headlines, India-Russia economic cooperation extends to other sectors as well. Bilateral trade has shown resilience despite Western sanctions on Russia, amounting to US$49.36 billion between 2022 and 2023, with both countries working on alternative payment mechanisms to bypass the Swift system.

Furthermore, India sees potential in Russia’s resource-rich Far East, with Modi’s government encouraging Indian companies to invest in sectors such as agriculture and mining.

After the Sino-Soviet split, Russia and China grew further apart, owing to ideological differences and border conflicts. In recent years, the two countries have drawn closer, forming what some analysts call a “partnership of convenience” driven by shared opposition to Western dominance. This shift has complicated India’s position.

While India maintains its strong ties with Russia, it faces an increasingly assertive China which India considers as a security threat. This evolving dynamic necessitates a delicate balancing act for India, as it seeks to maintain its historically close relationship with Russia while managing the security risk posed by China and strengthening ties with Western powers as a counterbalance.

As Modi and Putin prepare to meet in Moscow, next week’s meeting symbolises more than just bilateral talks. It represents the culmination of decades of trust, strategic cooperation and shared interests. While India has continued to strengthen ties with the West, its relationship with Russia remains rooted in the pursuit of strategic autonomy, energy security and defence capabilities. India’s balancing act between Russia and the West is likely to remain a defining feature of its foreign policy, guided by pragmatism and its national interests.

Professor Syed Munir Khasru is chairman of the international think tank IPAG Asia-Pacific, Australia, with a presence also in Dhaka, Delhi, Dubai, and Vienna

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