Russia-India relationship time-tested through hardships

by Valerio Fabbri

In recent years, India has stepped up its purchases of military equipment from the United States, but a majority of its defense inventory is still of Russian origin. In Autumn last year India and Russia signed more than two dozens deals across a variety of sectors and inked a 10-year defense cooperation pact. The 28 agreements concluded Russian President Vladimir Putin visit to New Delhi and meeting with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi during the 21st India-Russia annual summit. The deals cover a wide range of areas including trade, energy, science and technology, education and intellectual property. For his part, Modi met U.S. President Joe Biden in September and attended the first in-person Quad Leaders Summit hosted by the head of the White House. The United States considers India a key ally in the Asia-Pacific to counter China’s growing influence in the region.

India and Russia intend to upgrade the defence cooperation, including facilitating joint development and production of military equipment, components and spare parts, enhancing the after-sales service system, progress towards mutual recognition of quality control and regular joint exercises of the Armed Forces of the two countries. As a matter of fact, Russia is still one of India’s largest arms suppliers. Around 23% of Russian arms exports between 2016 and 2020 went to the South Asian country, according to a report from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. In a recent, relatively low-profile visit in Moscow of India’s National Security Advisor (NSA) Ajit Doval to meet his Russian counterpart, Nikolay Patrushev, the strategic partnersnhip between the two countries gained new traction. According to some reports, the parties addressed several important topics, including defence, security, energy, counter-terrorism and Afghanistan among others, giving the meeting a hands-on approach vis-à-vis the deals signed last fall. Patrushev visited India twice last year, including for newly created Indo-Russian mechanism on Afghanistan. As India expands its diplomatic presence in Kabul, coordination with Moscow is key to counter-terrorism cooperation in the wider Central Asia region.

Russia has appreciated India’s neutral and balanced position on Ukraine. Reports suggest Russia has become India’s second-largest supplier of crude oil. The imports rose as Moscow offered crude at discounted rates, seeking to shift its customer base after European companies shunned Russian crude in opposition to its invasion of Ukraine. India is also big buyer of fertilisers and coal from Russia. The International North South Transport Corridor via Iran has helped to increase the Indo-Russian trade manifold. The International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC) has been facilitating a higher volume of trade between India and Russia via Iran over the last three months amid the West’s sanctions on Moscow following the Ukraine war. Apart from expansion of trade, the INSTC will contribute to further infrastructure development, including creation of new border checkpoints, cargo consolidation terminals and closer interaction between customs and other regulators of various stakeholder states of the corridor. In July, Russian President Vladimir Putin described the INSTC as the key connectivity link between Russia and India via Iran. Transporting goods between Russia and India via the INSTC takes less than 25 days, down from the nearly 40 days through the traditional routes. In the long run, the INSTC would be an alternative to the Suez Canal and the Mediterranean Sea—which is dominated by some nations–and the Bosporus Strait, according to sources, who did not wish to be named. It will also provide an alternative to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in the region. There are also plans to link the northern route via the Russian Arctic with INSTC for transportation of goods.

Meanwhile, India has taken note of the Ukrainian Foreign Minister’s comments on Kiev’s attempts to widen ties with Pakistan. Sources pointed out that Ukraine and Pakistan have shared close defence partnership and Ukraine did not back India on Kashmir at the UN Security Council. India has also taken note of the Ukrainian Foreign Minister’s comments on New Delhi’s purchase of Russian oil – which the government here considers critical for its population.

In sum, the Russia-India relationship must be read through the prism of the traditional proximity between the two countries. Relations between Moscow and New Delhi have been shaped by a “high degree of political and strategic trust”, and across the years, Russia and India routinely took similar stances and supported each other on contentious international issues. The current standing should come as no surprise other than for the international context. The decades-old Indo-Russian alliance is also underpinned by a long history of bilateral collaboration on economic and strategic issues. India wants to maintain a positive relationship with Russia because it needs Moscow’s support in resolving its territorial conflicts with its neighbours, especially China, something that plays into the hands of Russia as well.


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