‘Binary divisions’ are common in international politics, where two opposite sides view the other through a ‘zero-sum game’ mentality. For other countries, it always poses a dilemma—closeness with one country would not be seen positively by its rival. India has witnessed the United States/West–Russia (former Soviet Union) rivalry, which has profoundly impacted New Delhi’s foreign and security policies. Despite the end of the Cold War in 1991, policymakers in the US and Russia continue to see their relations with India as a by-product of their own long historical rivalry.
The US-Russia diplomatic breakdown over Ukraine has intensified India’s security challenges, as both countries are important strategic partners for New Delhi. India has peculiar security concerns, being both a continental (Eurasian) and maritime (Indo-Pacific) power. India’s response to an external security threat like China reflects this geographical reality. India’s relations with China have been one of the important factors in determining New Delhi’s response to the US-Russia binary.
A historical look at India’s efforts to balance China reveals New Delhi has partnered and aligned with the US in 1962 and the Soviet Union in 1971 in order to deal with its China challenge. The thaw in US-China relations in the early 1970s signalled to India that the US would not be a reliable partner in order to balance China. India sought an alignment with the Soviet Union in 1971 (Friendship Treaty) as both did not have a good relationship with China. The Soviet Union later initiated its rapprochement with China in the 1980s, which accelerated under Mikhail Gorbachev’s ‘New Political Thinking’.
The pattern during the Cold War suggests that Russia has been a balancer in India–China ties, but China’s willingness to accommodate Indian concerns came at moments when China felt internationally beleaguered and times when Sino-Soviet competition was very acute. In contemporary times, China is not hampered by Russia’s power and influence. This suggests that amidst the growing partnership between Russia and China, Beijing may not be willing to address New Delhi’s concerns.
PM Modi’s response to the US-China binary
This is where it becomes important to analyse PM Modi’s response to the US-Russia binary. Improvement in Russia’s relations with the West would give New Delhi a lot of space to manoeuvre against China. However, given Russia’s actions in Ukraine, this scenario is not feasible.
When PM Modi assumed office in 2014, he found himself amidst a structural change in international politics in which Russia would depend much more on China than India. To his credit, he gave up past inhibitions towards the US and has taken this relationship to new levels. Under PM Modi, India is making yet another attempt to align with the US against China, especially after the June 2020 Galwan Valley clash. India-US alignment has come at a time when the balance of power is gradually changing in Eurasia.
Since 1947, India had a big friendly country in its north, the Soviet Union, which dominated the Eurasian landscape and helped India in dealing with China. This possibility is now being questioned, as Russia and China claim to have a no-limit partnership.
Russia’s prolonged military campaign in Ukraine is already delaying critical defence supplies to India. India’s rapprochement with China seems an old story now as Beijing continues to raise questions over past border agreements and mechanisms through its aggressive posture along the Line of Actual Control. This has even raised questions over India’s membership in organisations like the Russia-India-China (RIC) trilateral, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) and Brazil Russia India China South Africa (BRICS) multilateral, where both Russia and China are also members.
Not surprisingly then, India had joined the revived version of the Quad in 2017, the same year it also became an SCO member. India is hedging its bets as Pax Sinica unfolds in Eurasia, by cultivating close security ties with the US and other like-minded countries in the Indo-Pacific.
One of the recent highlights of PM Modi’s foreign policy has been to seek ‘de-hyphenation’ between the US and Russia. He dialled Russian President Vladimir Putin after wrapping up his historical and successful visit to the US. President Putin had recently called PM Modi a ‘big friend of Russia’. India has been trying to keep relations with Russia steady even as it deepens its strategic embrace of the US.
A weakened Russia dependent on China would complicate India’s strategic options in Eurasia. Foreign Minister, Dr. S Jaishankar, has refused to join any military alliance against China, as New Delhi is capable enough to counter Beijing’s aggression by itself. India’s proximity to the US does not come at the cost of Russia; however, it is coming up in those areas where Russia can no longer take the lead, like the technology and space sector. There are geopolitical differences between India and Russia over initiatives like Indo-Pacific and Quad, however, none of them is directed against Moscow.
For India, China is a twin threat (continental and maritime); however, the Indian Ocean may not necessarily be a priority for Russia whose ships are rare guests in these waters where India and China are locked in a strategic competition. Amidst growing Russia-China strategic ties and West-Russia confrontation, India has strictly conveyed its neutrality. New Delhi would expect Moscow to remember this and at least maintain neutrality in case its relations with Beijing worsen further.
India has further strengthened bilateral relations with Russia as trade touched US$45 billion in 2022-23, mainly buoyed by India’s oil imports from Russia. This looks to be a long-term trend, which, if sustained, could become a new backbone for India-Russia ties apart from the defence trade (which is likely to decline in coming years). Apart from buying a record amount of Russian oil, India has also emerged as the largest supplier of refined fuels to Europe, helping their energy security at a critical juncture.
Apart from sticking to neutrality, India is also trying to break the shackles by conveying that both the US and Russia have their independent value in India’s strategic matrix and both these countries should come to terms with this view. Despite pressure from the West, India has stood its ground on the Russia-Ukraine crisis, unlike Pakistan, which claims neutrality but has supplied weapons to Ukraine. India is not supporting Russia’s actions in Ukraine, although New Delhi’s position is routinely scrutinised in the West.
However, the Western leaders show a growing acceptance of India’s close relations with Russia. In August 2022, the US had said that India cannot break relations with Russia as it is not like flipping a light switch. In April 2022, former British PM, Boris Johnson, had said that India’s ties with Russia are historic which they won’t change. There is a view in Europe that accepts that India’s strong ties with Russia prevent Moscow from having a military alliance with Beijing.
Another perspective comes from the US, which argues that America should understand the reasons behind close India-Russia relations as it has the potential to spoil Russia-China ties in future. Interestingly, an argument from China highlights that the Quad is fine with India’s economic support to Russia but not with that of China. This observation seems correct as US President Biden has recently warned Xi that China should be careful while dealing with Russia as the Chinese economy relies on Western investments.
The recent statements made about the US and Russia by India’s top policymakers clearly conveys India’s attempts to de-hyphenate the two rivals. National Security Advisor Ajit Doval has mentioned that India’s growing cooperation with the US would not impact ties with Russia. Foreign Minister Jaishankar has said that India cannot be tied down to exclusive relationships. Historically strong ties with Russia should not become an obstacle to an equally strong relationship with the US, as relationships are not a zero sum game, he further argued. New Delhi has kept relations steady with Moscow while engaging the US, and this developing de-hyphenation between the US and Russia from India’s point of view could open many areas of opportunity. As both India and Russia move closer to each other’s adversaries (China and the US respectively), the central challenge, however, could be to protect their core security concerns. So far, under PM Modi, this strategy has worked well for India.