India & Russia: End Of A Bromance

Alexa, Play “Dost dost na raha.”

India & Russia are like two friends who had been together since childhood. Russia was there when India got into a fight with its neighbour. India tried Russia’s way of handling the finances— the “five-year plans”, giving credence to USSR’s economic system. Like they say in Pakistan, this relationship too was “higher than mountains, deeper than the ocean and sweeter than honey.”

But then, College happened. I mean, the Cold War ended.

Now, Russia doesn’t like India’s new friends. India doesn’t like Russia’s new friends. Both of them know that it will never be like the “good old days” when India imported most of its weapons from Russia & the latter vetoed anything that was against India’s interest at UN Security Council.

So, what changed?

Improved Sino-Russian Relations

Despite being two communist regimes, USSR & PRC split due to doctrinal differences after the death of Stalin. USSR’s Krushchev wanted a “peaceful coexistence” with the capitalist West but Mao didn’t. The relation got bitter with China calling Russia “the revisionist traitors”. In 1972, Nixon flew to China & joined hands with them. This was one of the reasons behind USSR’s fall as a large communist country like China wasn’t in the Soviet camp.

When Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, the Western countries imposed severe sanctions on it. Since then, Russia has been trying to woo China. In the Cold War, China was the junior partner. But today, Russia needs China more. Russia is the biggest supplier of Oil to China. Russia, which was reluctant to transfer defense technology to China in the 2000s, is selling its top defense equipment to China. Russia sold China the S-400 missile defense system. Both the countries are against the US-led world order. The US is also involved in a Trade War with China. This is causing Russia & China to come together in a kind of “alliance of autocrats”. Their trade is burgeoning & it crossed $100 Billion last year. In September, China & Russia conducted the largest joint military exercise since the Cold War— Vostok 18. Russia has been urging India to join China’s Belt & Road initiative which India opposes due to the fact that CPEC, a part of BRI, passes through POK & this is a violation of India’s sovereignty.

Henry Kissinger has apparently counseled Trump to pursue “a reverse Nixon China Strategy”. In Cold War, the US joined hands with China, the junior partner & isolated USSR. Now, Trump should seek to befriend Putin & isolate China.

Improved Russo-Pakistan Relations

After the fall of the Soviet Union, Andrei Kozyrev, Russia’s foreign minister from 1990 to 1996, declared that it would not discriminate between India & Pakistan. In recent years, Russia has also tilted towards Pakistan for currying favours from China.

Russia has always supported India on the Kashmir issue & vetoed any resolution on Kashmir issue in the UN Security Council. Recently, there has been a slight change in Russia’s stance on the Kashmir issue due to its increasing closeness to Pakistan. In December 2017, Russia supported Pakistan’s line on Kashmir in a first-ever six-nation Speaker’s Conference in Islamabad. It asked for a peaceful resolution of Kashmir issue through UNSC.

The pace of exchanges between Russia & Pakistan has increased drastically. In 2014, Russia sold four Mi-35 assault helicopters to Pakistan. In 2015, Russia & Pakistan carried out the joint anti-narcotic naval exercise called “Arabian Monsoon”. In 2016, the commandos of two countries carried out a joint exercise called “Friendship 2017”. In 2017, a Russian military delegation visited Pakistan’s North Waziristan tribal district, which was once known to be a Taliban emirate. In April, this year, the two countries signed a historic agreement allowing officers of Pakistan’s armed forces to receive training in Russia. As US’s relations with Pakistan weaken, we may see Russia occupying that place. But this is going to be interesting as any arms export to Pakistan by Russia will eat into China’s share of arms export.

India’s diversification of its arms purchases

India’s fear of putting all its eggs in one basket is not new. In the 1970s, India bought the Jaguar Bomber from a European Consortium to move away from an arms dependence on the USSR. India represents 12% of global arms purchases as its defense manufacturing capacity are not that great.

Just a few years back, India imported about 70% of its defense equipment from Russia. As the US is trying to boost India’s military power as a hedge against China in Asia, it has been more willing to provide high-end defense equipment to India which it did not provide before. Moreover, arms exports to India is great for the US from a commercial point of view too. This has led India to import most of its defense needs from the US in recent years. It has also signed foundational agreements like LEMOA & COMCASA which will ensure that India will buy more arms from the US to keep its military interoperable. As the US’s share increases, Russia’s declines. Israel too has always been willing to provide high-end defense equipment to India. Although its share is quite low compared to the US & Russia, Israel, too, has contributed to reducing India’s arms dependency on Russia. The drastic reduction in India’s arms imports from Russia has affected Russian revenue from the defense. A partnership solely based on defense purchases is going to suffer in the long term & that is what happened in the last few years.

India’s embrace of the United States

Post-1991, In the unipolar world led by the United States, India, as well as Russia, tried improving their relations with the sole Superpower. The 1998 sanctions on India after the nuclear tests were a small bump in the road for India but the relationship has travelled unimaginable distance since the 1998’s low.

India used to import about 2% of its arms from the US about a decade ago & that figure has gone to about 15% now. India’s trade with the US has increased & it is going to increase a lot in years to come. But Russia’s story has been a bit different. After Russian annexation of Crimea, the West imposed harsh sanctions on Russia. The allegations of Russian meddling in the US elections acted as a fuel to the fire. Russia is in an indirect war with the US in Syria where the two sides are funding two antagonistic groups.

So, India’s embrace of the US isn’t seen to be a great thing by Russia especially when the US is eating Russia’s share of defense revenues. The US law CAATSA is also a new roadblock in India’s defense acquisition from Russia. In spite of the threats of sanctions, India went forward and signed the deal to buy the S-400 Missile defense system. This, in a way, showed that India is strategic autonomous & it would not kowtow to any sanctions except those imposed by the UN.

India is also not too happy with Russian support to the Taliban. On this issue, India’s interests are more aligned with the US.


I think if India wants to be one of the powers in the multipolar world that China & Russia are trying to build, we should try not antagonizing anyone nation— Russia, the US, or China. While India’s defense imports are a testimony to India’s inability to manufacture arms domestically, they also provide us with a leverage over other nations. India should try diversifying its arms imports as much as possible.

But what about the time when India will have a world-class domestic arms industry? Isn’t that what the government is trying to achieve?

See that line representing Indian exports to Russia? The growth is almost non-existent. India-US relations, although heavily dependent on arms purchases aren’t entirely dependent on them. This is hardly a case with Russia. India needs to boost its trade ties with Russia. On the recent visit by Putin to India, India signed some agreements to open Indian markets for Russia. Russia too should work on liberalizing its restrictive visa regime so that Indian professionals can go work in Russia.

The other factors like Russia’s bonhomie with China & Pakistan will take care of itself.

Kadyalwar Sunil Abhinav

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