Why India Still Can’t Let Go of Its Cold War Friend

Close relations with Russia are imperative if India is to offset Chinese influence in its neighborhood.

Presidents Pranab Mukherjee of India and Vladimir Putin of Russia speak in Moscow, May 9
Presidents Pranab Mukherjee of India and Vladimir Putin of Russia speak in Moscow, May 9 (Presidential Press and Information Office)

Indian president Pranab Mukherjee was in Moscow this weekend to join the grand parade marking the seventieth anniversary of the Allied victory over Nazi Germany in the Second World War. This high-profile visit was both timely and significant. India demonstrated a camaraderie with Russia at a time when most Western leaders boycotted Vladimir Putin on account of what they consider his aggressive, destabilizing policies toward Ukraine.

Since the end of the Cold War, when India, despite professing nonalignment, leaned more toward the Soviet Union, the country has gradually shaken off its ideological inhibitions in favor of better relations with the United States. The last two decades have witnessed a cooling in Indo-Russian relations. From India’s point of view, there is no downgrading of its traditional ties with Russia and there are significant overlapping interests that bind the two countries regionally as well globally. But Russia’s inability to alleviate India’s security challenges vis-à-vis China and Pakistan has been one of the crucial factors in moving the latter closer toward the United States.

The imminent American withdrawal from Afghanistan has given China a powerful incentive to seek opportunities in Central Asia at the United States’ expense. The relationship between India, Pakistan and Russia is getting more complex with China emerging as the crucial factor. China’s appetite for energy resources and political influence in Central Asia is evident in its geopolitical calculations. As Russia’s own energy-driven economic prosperity is coming under stress due to Putin’s diplomatic and military gambles in Europe, the momentum in Sino-Russian relations is shifting in China’s favor. To illustrate China’s growing importance to Russia, President Xi Jinping and his wife were seated next to Putin during the Moscow Victory Day parade.

The tension in relations between India and Russia is reflected in their diverging priorities. Although Russia remains a central player in sustaining the Indian armed forces — it provided up to 75 percent of India’s imported weapons from 2009 to 2013 — its outreach to Pakistan has alarmed policymakers in New Delhi.

Late last year, Russian defense minister Sergei Shoigu traveled to Islamabad to sign a first-ever military cooperation pact that paved the way for the sale of military equipment to Pakistan. Shoigu was the first Russian defense chief to visit Pakistan in more than four decades. The latest example of improving bilateral relations is a planned $2 billion Russian investment in a Pakistani gas pipeline.

Broader geopolitical dynamics have pushed Russia to enhance its commercial and military cooperation with Pakistan. Shunned and punished by the West, Russia is desperately looking for new friends and markets. The fate of Afghanistan is also inextricably linked to Pakistan and cooperation with Pakistan would serve Russia’s strategic interest in terms of making Afghanistan less hospitable to Islamic terrorism.

Another argument advanced by Russia for the paradigm shift in its policy is that if India can buy defense equipment from Israel and the United States, why should it not sell to Pakistan?

Does this signify the emergence of a China-Russia-Pakistan synergy? If so, it is time for India to realize that its increasing proximity to the United States will reduce its leverage over Russia. As does Russia’s increasing tilt toward China. The negative fallout of the China-Pakistan relationship, the sole feature of which is to undermine India, certainly weighs immensely on the strategic debate in New Delhi. The difficulty of resolving territorial disputes with China, the anti-India nature of the China-Pakistan alliance and China’s attempts to dominate the Indian Ocean region are matters India cannot hope to manage without the help of a friendly Russia.

Engaging an isolated Russia will certainly draw criticism from India’s new friends in Washington. But its ability to shape the future of Asia depends on it.


  1. India, along with China and Russia, are the three nuclear armed megastates of Eurasia. Millenia old civilizations, large populations, technical/scientific capabilities, economic heft, and the political clout of the three are easily among the most influential in the world. For India, Russia has been a reliable and trusted geopolitical ally. Russian help, especially before India’s 1991/1998 emergence as a major economy and a nuclear armed state, respectively, was instrumental in both the diplomatic sphere through its P5 membership and in the military sphere through arms sales, technical assistance in difficult fields such as nuclear propulsion, cryogenic fuels, and major warship designs, to name a few well known areas. Aside from squabbles over technology transfers, price gouging, and aftermarket support, India and Russia have no baggage with each other, nor do not feel a sense of threat. Russia and India are very likely to remain on cordial, if not very friendly terms. Both nations are masters of the truism that in geopolitics there are no eternal friends or enemies, only eternal interests. Each will probably accord the other the space and time to pursue its major interests with other powers in the world, great and small. Since the vast majority of those interests either align with each other or are non threatening, the relationship will most likely be an enduring one, notwithstanding India’s democratic polity, or it’s cultural and economic ties to the West, particularly the Anglosphere nations of the US/UK,, Israel, Japan, etc.

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