India-Russia Relations

By Nantoo Banerjee

President Vladimir Putin’s record fifth term in office is good news for both Russia and India although there was absolutely no doubt about Putin’s registering thumping victory in the election, last month. Diplomatically, India has always maintained a pro-Russia stance in international forums despite its growing coziness with the United States in forming new blocks to contain China in the Indo-Pacific region. The Russia-Ukraine war leading to the Western trade and financial embargo on Russia has lately brought China much closer to Russia. And, the relationship between the two countries is expected to get further bolstered in the coming years. It is to be seen how far China is able to engineer Russia’s support for its territorial ambition and its bid for an aggressive control of the Pacific and Indian Ocean region. Until now, Russia has remained neutral in the China-US conflict in the region as Moscow is not directly concerned. But the situation can change if the US keeps backing Ukraine more vigorously in the coming months.

The situation can also change rapidly for both Russia and India if former US president Donald Trump wins the 2024 US presidential election in November. Trump’s affinity for President Putin is well known. Trump has also a long record of antagonism toward Ukraine. Trump had praised President Putin as a “genius” and “pretty savvy” after the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February, 2022. If Trump gets elected as the US president again, it is expected that he would help Russia achieve a favourable peace deal in the region by cutting off assistance to Kyiv. Trump is strongly upset with NATO members who do not pay enough to sustain the alliance. Thus, a Donald Trump victory in the US presidential election should augur well for Russia as well as for India for a better three-corner relationship in the coming years.

It may be recalled that the US-India relations flourished under President Donald Trump. Both the countries shared concerns over China. A strong rapport was built between President Trump and India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Nevertheless, President Joe Biden’s victory in the 2020 US presidential election was highly welcomed by New Delhi. The new administration cemented the gains made over the previous four years paving the way for a closer US-India partnership. However, a few important policy shifts in Washington seem to limit US-India cooperation. Lately, a number of petty US actions and inactions, including veiled support to anti-India campaigns by Khalistanis, have hurt the Indian sentiment.

Fortunately, President Vladimir Putin, the Longest serving Russian or Soviet leader since Joseph Stalin, has witnessed them all. Putin has held continuous positions as Russia’s president or prime minister since 1999 – as PM from 1999 to 2000 and from 2008 to 2012, and as President from 2000 to 2008 and since 2012. The next Russian presidential election is due only in 2030. President Putin’s re-election is expected to maintain Russia’s policy towards Ukraine. That may further deepen Moscow’s relationship with Beijing.

Seemingly, it may also put the India-Russia relationship under stress amidst growing US-Russia and US-China confrontations. India’s relationship with China has been under stress especially since China’s increasing assertiveness in its neighbourhood under President Xi Jinping. China’s Belt and Road Initiative, China-Pakistan Economic Corridor in 2013, its actions on the Indian border in 2014, 2017 and 2020; its rejection of India’s membership bid of the Nuclear Supply Group and its intervention in the UN Security Council on issues related to Kashmir made the country India’s biggest adversary. The diplomatic relationship between the two countries hit the bottom after the Galwan clash in 2020.

The growing Russia-China relationship could create the impression that Moscow may eventually play a subordinate role to Beijing. Such an idea would be entirely wrong. Russia was and is a top global power alongside the US. Apart from its having a massive nuclear arsenal, Russia’s economic strength has been admirable in the fields of petroleum and nuclear energy, food, fertiliser and several industrial raw materials. Russia is also a significant exporter of energy and food. The fact that Russia’s economy has so far been able to withstand multiple-corner western sanctions and maintain a good growth in the last two years shows its inherent strength. Russia has always followed a strong diplomatic policy. And, there is no reason to believe that the country will dump its time-tested friends such as India under foreign influence. Despite India’s leaning towards the US on defence, diplomatic, trade and technological relations in recent times, India has maintained a strong diplomatic and trade relations with Russia and firmly stood by its ally in all global forums.

India had strongly withstood the western pressure to maintain trade and defence exchange with Russia after the Ukraine war in 2022. It has been unapologetically purchasing discounted Russian crude oil despite the questions raised by the US. The massive rise in India’s crude oil import from Russia helped the total trade between India and Russia reach nearly the $50-billion mark in 2023, comfortably exceeding the 2025 bilateral trade target of $30 billion. India’s export of pharmaceuticals and certain categories of food items to Russia also leapfrogged. Interestingly, India has not been shy of admitting its export of refined Russian crude oil to other markets, including energy-starved western Europe, which helped create stability in the global oil market.

The mutual respect and understanding between the two countries have grown ever since the 1960s when Russia offered a series of defence and critical technology collaboration projects in the core sector to India when the West had mostly stayed away. Over the years, Russia and India have also relied on a strong relationship with each other to advance their interests in West Asia. Among the few influential global political leaders to congratulate President Putin soon after his re-election, were Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, apart from Chinese President Xi Jinping. Prime Minister Modi said he looked forward to strengthening India’s “time-tested special and privileged strategic partnership” with Moscow. The two countries are unlikely to surrender the goodwill they have built together under any external pressure. (IPA