Reinventing the India-Russia relationship

Nations carve out long-term strategic policies based on their circumstances and compulsions and New Delhi seems to be applying geostrategic correctives over its ties with Moscow.

Published: 09th December 2021 12:25 AM  |   Last Updated: 09th December 2021 12:25 AM   |  A+A-

India-Russia ties

Representational Image. (Express Illustrations | Amit Bandre)

The visit of President Vladimir Putin for the India-Russia annual summit, coupled with the first bilateral 2+2 consultations of foreign and defence ministers, has to be viewed in the larger context. New Delhi seems to be applying geostrategic correctives when it comes to Moscow after in-built and inevitable hiccups began showing up in our nation's post-Cold War strategic preference for the US.

Nations carve out long-term strategic policies based on their circumstances and compulsions. Details follow, and do not precede, such clinical assessments. It's under constant review and course corrections are periodically applied, based on relative expectations and experiences.

India's geopolitical tilt commenced under PV Narasimha Rao during the unprecedented economic crisis, when the US had more to offer than a truncated post-Cold War Russia. The 90s also saw Boris Yeltsin's Russia going back on Soviet commitments. It did not stop with an end to the Kudremukh iron ore project in Karnataka and what amounted to the suspension of the Kudankulam nuclear power project in Tamil Nadu.

Under Yeltsin, not only did Moscow hold back cryogenic engines for the Indian nuclear programme, but also said it needed Washington's say-so to clear it. Indian scientists made the cryogenic engines themselves. New Delhi did not want to take the Washington route to Moscow and stopped with America instead.

Consistency, constancy: Indians should not conclude that the decision now to procure the S-400 missile defence system from Russia aims at keeping Moscow away from the Chinese camp. The intervening American revival of threats of sanctions over the S-400 every now and again should have irked Indian policymakers even more. They still derive comfort from memories of the predictable consistency and constancy of Moscow's India policy, barring the Yeltsin years.

In comparison, the US has been playing hide-and-seek with S-400 sanctions against India, picking it up at will. The US converting the Quad into a white man's club through Quad-2 by keeping India and Japan out, retaining Australia and roping in old ally Britain has left a bad taste. If India cannot count on the Quad for naval support against an aggressive China as the Quad-2 message goes, of what use is the scheme and even the Indo-Pacific construct for New Delhi? Even Quad-3, involving the US, Israel, the UAE and India, is nothing more than a sop, of no great strategic value for New Delhi in the immediate Indian Ocean context.

For India, the US has not proved to be a dependable all-weather friend as Moscow used to be and may continue to be. Citing domestic political compulsions and congressional interference, successive American administrations have placed hurdles in ties with India from time to time. They have also been inconsistent on India's human rights record. Under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, it has also gone beyond the traditional Kashmir issue. India faces no such problems and inconsistencies from Russia.

Land border: India's immediate strategic and security concerns are still centred on the land border, where Russia matters more than the US and the Quad. As defence minister in the Vajpayee government, George Fernandes named China, and not Pakistan, as the nation's main adversary of the future. Yet, he too did not acknowledge that post-Yeltsin Moscow, in that case, would matter more than Washington.

Against this, the Quad is ocean-centric. Strengthening the Navy to fend off China's String of Pearls around India is still no substitute for improving political ties with ocean neighbours as well as land ones. Nor does overextending the Indian naval outreach to Vietnam on the one side and the Gulf-Arab region on the other help stall aggressive Chinese naval expansion if it were to target the Indian coastline.

Even without India and the Quad, the US is bound to check Chinese naval expeditions into the ocean waters off India for its own reasons. It has the Diego Garcia base to handle any such crisis. France, with the largest number of offshore territories for any nation, and Germany, too, have drafted independent Indian Ocean strategies that would have addressed our China concerns without being a part of any of the existing or evolving geostrategic camps targeting the region.

That is not the case with the long-standing border dispute with China, which keeps reminding us of the past by provocative acts of the Doklam and Galwan kind. The sudden US withdrawal from Afghanistan, based on domestic American compulsions and with no thought to the Indian friend's complex regional concerns, is another pointer on which direction the nation's long-term strategic relations should be headed.

If nothing else, India now seems to be moving back to the middle path with respect to the nation's strategic ties with the US and Russia. From now on, American strategic behaviour when it comes to India's interests and concerns may determine the future course of bilateral, rather trilateral, relations, including Russia. But then, Indian policymakers too should be asking themselves if the nation should continue having one toe, if not foot, in every global strategic camp, supposedly targeting the China-Pakistan nexus, and to be considered an undependable ally by each one of them. There is more to strategic alliances than playing partners around circles - and India especially has not equipped itself enough to do so.

(The writer is a distinguished fellow and head-Chennai Initiative, Observer Research Foundation. He can be reached at


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  • some1

    I differ in some ways. Remember during Peak of Aggression
    9 months ago reply
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