In India, we often poke fun at Pakistani depictions of their relationship with China. The two countries’ ties — including nuclear and missile cooperation after the 1970s and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) — are regularly described in baroque termsby them: “iron brothers” whose friendship is “higher than the mountains, deeper than the oceans.” Yet it’s clear that China has rarely bailed Pakistan out from a tight spot. During the Kargil War in 1999, Beijing criticised Pakistani adventurism and recklessness and has subsequently snubbed Pakistani requests for financial bailouts, as in 2008.
While Pakistan’s faith in China may at times seem naïve, there are sometimes echoes of it in Indian characterisations of relations with Russia. Diplomatic niceties aside, India-Russia ties have always been transactional.
India’s relations with the Soviet Union were slow to take off after independence. Anxiety about Soviet support for domestic communist revolutionaries led to an Indian wariness that only began to subside in the mid-1950s. Joseph Stalin’s death in 1953 paved the way for Moscow to provide economic and technical assistance to non-communist countries such as India. At the same time, the US and UK roped Pakistan into the Baghdad and Manila Pacts. Only then did India begin to align with Soviet positions on international diplomatic matters, such as the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. (At the time, Indian journalists lambasted New Delhi’s position as shameful sycophancy to the Soviet rulers and kowtowing.) After some initial Russian defence purchases in the late 1950s, India agreed to buy MiG-21 aircraft in 1961, facilitated by technology transfers and mindful of deterring China. Indo-Soviet defence ties accelerated after the United States suspended military assistance to both India and Pakistan during the 1965 war.
But despite this growing bonhomie, Moscow’s support for India was never unconditional. After some hints of neutrality, the USSR eventually leaned towards Beijing during the 1962 India-China war, in part to ensure its support during the Cuban missile crisis. After 1965, the Soviet Union positioned itself as a neutral broker between India and Pakistan, hosting the summit at Tashkent and even supplying military assistance to Pakistan in 1968.
Relations assumed a clearer direction with the 1971 Indo-Soviet Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation (modelled on a similar arrangement between the USSR and Egypt), which was prompted by the US-China rapprochement and their support for Pakistan. As a consequence, India’s defence ties with the USSR deepened and cooperation eventually extended to the war in Afghanistan. The relationship also broadened: by the early 1990s, the Soviet Union was India’s largest trade partner and Indian students of medicine and engineering had gone in sizeable numbers to the Soviet republics. Still, ties remained business-like: India regularly rebuffed Soviet attempts at closer military contacts. Later, in the 1990s, Russia initially joined the United States and China in condemning India’s nuclear tests.
Today, the relationship has become one-dimensional, centred on arms sales by Russia to India. Between 2000 and 2014, 73% of India’s imported military equipment came from Russia. But India’s imports from Russia halved overnight following its annexation of Crimea in 2014, and have remained lower at about 50-60% amid international sanctions. Meanwhile, overall India-Russia trade has been slight, rising from $6 billion in 2014 to $10.7 billion this year. Although energy relations are deepening, the overall economic relationship remains narrow, not helped by the poor performance of the Russian economy. Just five years ago, Russia’s GDP was 20% larger than India’s; today, India’s is 70% larger than Russia’s.
Under these circumstances, what explains India’s high-profile and sustained engagement with Russia this year? One, India still needs Russia for military spare parts just as Moscow needs New Delhi for revenue. Two, there are certain technologies that Russia is willing to provide — such as nuclear-powered submarines — that the likes of the United States never will. The defence relationship will therefore remain vital for the foreseeable future. Three, as in years past, Russia wields a powerful veto at the UN Security Council, and multilateral cooperation extends to BRICS and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. Four, there are deep and abiding concerns in New Delhi about Russia’s post-2014 relationship with China and its exploratory ties with Pakistan. For all these reasons, engaging with Russia at the highest levels is absolutely necessary. Major deals — including last year’s multi-billion dollar deal involving Rosneft and Essar or this year’s negotiations towards the S-400 anti-aircraft missile system — are likely to continue, even if they risk attracting the ire of Europe and the United States.
But India-Russia ties would also benefit from a dose of realism, a Bulgakovian realisation that no one’s fate is of any interest to you except your own. There is little indication that Putin views India in sentimental terms, unlike an earlier generation of Russian officials exemplified by former Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov or the late Russian envoy Alexander Kadakin. India’s high-profile and sustained outreach to Moscow in 2018 is not a reversion to an imagined past. It is a hard-nosed attempt at managing a transactional relationship over the medium-term future to secure vital Indian security interests and preserve a favourable balance of power.