Over the past decade, a lot has been written about India's drift towards the United States. Although vehemently denied by Delhi, its larger and more varied arms purchases from the United States, growing economic relations, a greater frequency of official visits at several levels, and a higher tempo of military joint exercises have led many to believe that the United States is India's new preferred partner. The occasional disagreements, such as the one over the Logistics Support Agreement that was recently resolved, are dismissed as residual anti-Americanism in the political class and commentariat that spent the Cold War singing praises of the Soviet Union and China.
More importantly, this drift is believed to come at the expense of Russia, the successor state to India's Cold War patron, the Soviet Union. While there may be some truth to this view, it grossly underestimates the value of cooperation between the two countries in strategic areas — nuclear energy, the INS Arihant, fifth generation fighter aircraft, Brahmos — while exaggerating the zero-sum element of Delhi's relations with Moscow and Washington. Russia remains important to India, but admittedly, the relationship holds significantly greater potential than is being derived today.
One of the marked differences between India's relationship with Russia and the United States over the past 15 years has been the presence of a willing leader in the case of the latter, at times just on one side, to shepherd ties through the traditional hoops. At first, it was the Atal Bihari Vajpayee administration and George W Bush White House that dared to imagine a different India-US dynamic than that during the Cold War. After the exit of the Bharatiya Janata Party from power in 2004, Manmohan Singh continued the trend for a while, though less support from his own political party tempered the bloom.
With Russia, there has existed no such leader either in Delhi or Moscow who was committed to building a new relationship for the 21st century. Despite the several arenas of cooperation between the two countries, initiatives have largely remained isolated and not part of any common plan to develop connections across the spectrum, and at multiple levels. For example, despite the nascence of Russia's relations with India's rival, Pakistan, there exists a strategic working group that oversees different areas of mutual interest and coordinates joint initiatives. There exists no such mechanism in Indian ventures with Russia.
As the sources of India's military hardware diversify, its joint military exercises with Russia have reduced and with it the familiarity between the two militaries. However, the Indian and Russian armed forces have, historically, not been close. It is rare to see officers in exchange programmes or taking professional courses at each other's military institutes. In all likelihood, there is little interaction between strategists of the two countries over key issues, such as nuclear strategy or counter-terrorism, as you see Indian scholars engage with US and other Western militaries and think tanks.
This lack of interest extends to other areas as well. For example, there are few Indian media outlets that have permanent correspondents in Russia and vice versa. Though there are a few Indian students in Russia, particularly for medicine, the vast majority head to universities in the Anglosphere. With limited people-to-people ties, interest in each other's countries is inevitably diminished. Indian soft power, in terms of yoga and butter chicken, have had more success in becoming mainstream features of Western societies as compared to Russia.
Cultural interest is usually bolstered when there are economic incentives. India's trade relations with Russia are staggeringly poor — less than $10 billion per annum — compared to the generally warm political ties. While investments may be encouraged, trade in goods is a little more difficult, despite the complementarity of the two economies in energy, engineering, heavy industry, and other fields. One reason is distance: the sea route between India and Russia is circuitous, while the present land route would presumably traverse through Pakistan, Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, and at least two other Central Asian republics. Besides the political instability of the region, the geopolitical realities of South Asia do not permit such a route.
An alternative route is the much touted international North-South Trade Corridor. Not only does this route connect the Iranian port of Chabahar to destinations in Afghanistan, Central Asia, Azerbaijan, and Russia but, in its fully mature stage, also offer connectivity to European markets. According to engineers, the new route will be at least 30 percent cheaper and 40 percent shorter than the present route between India and Europe. While discussions regarding the INSTC have been going on since at least 2000, and the initial group of interested parties has swelled from Russia, Iran, and India to a dozen members now, little has been achieved on the ground. This is largely because of the sanctions that had been imposed on Iran over its nuclear programme but with that hurdle removed, there is little stopping the INSTC except political will.
It is important to address the misperceptions of India's drift because it could have consequences that fulfill the prophecy. For example, Russia has recently concluded arms deals with Pakistan, albeit minor ones, and even scheduled a joint military exercise with Pakistan. This is presumably to put India on notice that its dalliance with the United States would have repercussions. However, the fundamental difference between the two relations is that while all arms Pakistan acquires will be used against India, the United States' relations with India are not aimed against Russia. If anything, they are hoped to recruit India into an international order that would curb Chinese global ambitions. Moscow's tit-for-tat policy mistakes these dynamics and the damage it could cause relations with Delhi if continued.
Perhaps the crux of what ails closer India-Russia relations is that such an alliance has no visible enemy to focus against. India is primarily concerned with China and Pakistan, and to a lesser extent, Western structural power. Russia, on the other hand, is more concerned about the United States and Nato inching ever eastwards on its western flank. Following European and US sanctions on Russia after the Crimean reabsorption, Moscow is forced to play nice with Beijing though privately, it cannot be pleased with China's newfound assertiveness. The United States is important to India to balance China — even though Delhi publicly denies such realism — while China remains the lesser evil for Russia. Without an enemy, even a secret one, alliances take much more effort to come together.
It is in the interest of both countries to continue to work together and boost relations — four powers are always going to be better than two. The inspiration for this cannot come from nostalgia as India is often prone to imagine but from a pragmatic realisation that both countries have much to gain from greater connectivity, trade, and exchange with each other. As a third world country with 1.3 billion people, India's developmental needs are vast and beyond any one country. Russia must understand this when it views the frequent American visitors to Delhi. India must also allow room for Russia's close ties with China, understanding that the European and US squeeze on Moscow has left it with few alternatives.
What ails India-Russia relations is a certain lethargy to understand the context of their ties in a new world order. India is no longer satisfied in being a passive client and Russia can no longer afford to be the magnanimous patron. With changes in the global balance of power, both India and Russia must rediscover their worth to each other and avoid rancour in their mutual perceptions and dealings.