The Maturing of Russia-India Relations


12/19/2011 by Richard Weitz

After India obtaining statehood in 1947, the nonalignment doctrine championed by Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru disallowed India from entering any alliance or bloc. Instead, India pursued had a unique policy that combined pragmatism with nonalignment. This nonalignment policy allowed India to work with the Soviet Union in areas of congruence, such as economic development, military trade, and in dealing with China, while remaining largely independent of global Soviet policies and projects. New Delhi would work with Moscow on issues of common strategic interest while not joining the Soviet bloc and still remaining, for the most part, a democracy whose elite shared broad Western values.

The Soviet leader at the time of India’s independence, Joseph Stalin, considered India to be an Anglo-American colony even after its formal independence. Until Stalin’s death in 1953,

Moscow enjoyed good ties with the Indian communist party but had few other levers of influence. Soviet and communist officials saw other nationalists as potential rivals for control of an independent India. They initial sought to overthrow the newly independent Indian government through communist revolution rather than work with it.

The new Soviet leadership after Stalin toned down the revolutionary rhetoric and sought out allies in then so-called Third World (i.e., situated between the First World of the industrialized West and the Second World of the Soviet bloc). In June 1955 Prime Minister Nehru made his first official visit to the Soviet Union, which was reciprocated later that year when Khrushchev and Soviet Premier Nikolai Bulganin visited India. Economic ties then rapidly developed between the two countries thanks to the USSR’s provision of easy credit. Other Soviet bloc foreign assistance helped India develop large-scale public infrastructure and state-owned industries such as steel, heavy machinery, and power generation. Soviet investment came pouring into India’s capital-starved economy, primarily focused in the public-sector industry. The Soviets provided for technical training for Indians, a supply of raw materials, and markets for the finished products. The training extended to include direct instruction of Indian technicians and offering scholarships for Indian students.

In 1959, the Indian government, while reaffirming the goal of long-term defense self-sufficiency, began buying Soviet weapons. The purchases were made as short-term solutions to immediate threats arising from Pakistan and China. The Soviets offered easy terms (long-term payments of nonconvertible rupees), so India did not need to use its valuable hard currency reserves for the purchase. The Soviets adopted a neutral stance regarding the 1959 border dispute between India and China and the ensuing 1962 war, despite being a nominal ally of China. This position reflected, and contributed to, the ongoing Sino-Soviet split. The Chinese were also envious of the massive Soviet economic assistance granted to the Indians. By 1960, India had received more aid from the USSR than the Soviets had provided China. Additionally, the Soviet leadership agreed to transfer technology necessary to coproduce the MiG-21 fighter jet in India, which it had previously refused to China. Thanks to this new arms trade, India’s trade with the Soviet Union reached 16% of all of India’s foreign trade by 1965. The USSR became the second largest international contributor to Indian growth and development. By the late 1970s, the Soviet Union had become India’s largest trading partner.

In August 1971, India and Russia signed a twenty-year Treaty of Peace, Friendship, and Cooperation. Articles 8, 9, and 10 of the treaty committed the parties “to abstain from providing any assistance to any third party that engages in armed conflict with the other” and “in the event of either party being subjected to an attack or threat thereof . . . to immediately enter into mutual consultations.” Most importantly, the treaty contained a security clause stipulating that each party would remain neutral if the other were to go to war. The timing of the treaty was designed to influence the ongoing crisis between India and Pakistan over the independence movement in East Bangladesh. Moscow explicitly sided with India against Pakistan and supported New Delhi’s military occupation of Bangladesh, which secured that state’s independence from the rest of Pakistan. The Soviets also support included public declarations of Support for New Delhi during the conflict as well as the accelerated shipment of Soviet military equipment in the last quarter of 1971.

Significantly, the Treaty acted as a deterrent to an increasingly assertive China. The two countries remained politically cohesive throughout the decade and even after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi chose not to publicly denounce the USSR, though the Indian government did advocate the withdrawal of all foreign troops and the negotiation of a peace agreement that would restore Afghanistan’s traditional nonalignment and independence. More importantly, India declined to become a formal Soviet ally and did not allow the Soviet military to have bases in India. The Soviet Navy was then seeking a global role and would have welcomed a base on the Indian Ocean.

The 1980s saw frequent reciprocal leadership visits to each other countries. Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi journeyed to the Soviet Union four times, while President Mikhail Gorbachev made two trips to India during this time. They signed many agreements to expand economic, cultural, and scientific and technological cooperation. The Soviet Union provided investment and technical assistance for India’s industrial, telecommunications, and transportation projects. They also continued to extend billions of rubles worth of credits for the purchase of Soviet weapons, machinery, and other goods.

From New Delhi’s perspective, the Soviet Union’s disintegration in the early 1990s shattered this beneficial relationship. The new Russian President, Boris Yeltsin, definitely had a westward focus and downplayed Russia-Indian ties. Yeltsin and his Foreign Minister Andrey Kozyrev fervently hoped to become the recipients of large-scale economic aid packages from advanced Western countries. These aspirations reflected their desire to ease the difficult transition from a socialist planned economy to a free market economy. The Yeltsin policy did not represent an explicit repudiation of the previous Moscow-New Delhi alignment, but it did treat these ties as something of an afterthought.

The Yeltsin government took actions that the Indians could easily consider as detrimental to their interests. For example, Moscow tried to improve ties with Pakistan, and even considered selling weapons to Pakistan take advantage of the U.S. arms embargo then in place. Russian officials also welcomed warmer relations with China and the economic benefits provided by a newly emerging massive Chinese market. The 1971 treaty was replaced in 1993 with the new Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation, which dropped clauses that were implicitly directed against a perceived threat from the United States and China. The Yeltsin administration also yielded to U.S. pressure on nonproliferation issues and curtailed its space launch cooperation with India since U.S. analysts feared it was contributing to India’s ballistic missile capabilities. For example, they delayed transferring cryogenic (low temperature) rocket engines and related technologies to India, which the USSR had promised to assist India’s outer space program. The Russian government also urged India to join the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and in March 1992 applied “full-scope safeguards” to future nuclear supply agreements with India, which constrained India’s use of its civilian nuclear power program to produce fissile material for nuclear weapons.

The collapse of the Russian economy following the disintegration of the Soviet Union resulted in a steep reduction in Russian purchases of Indian manufactured goods, decreases in Russian exports of oil and raw materials to India, a hardening of the terms for Russian financing of Indian enterprises, and the virtual disappearance of new Russian investments in the Indian economy. In May 1992, Moscow decided to abandon the 1978 rupee-ruble trade agreement in favor of the use of hard currency in their bilateral commerce. In addition, a dispute arose over India’s financial debt to Moscow. Russia wanted it repaid sooner and in hard currency. As a result of all these problems, Russian-Indian trade, governed by market forces rather than state-to-state direction, soon fell to under 2% of India’s total trade and has remained at such low levels since then.

Those Russians who favored continuing the traditional “special” relationship with India and other potential balancers against American hegemony included communists, Russian nationalists, and analysts and policy makers adhering to a “Eurasian” outlook. They continued to exert some influence on Russian foreign policy in the 1990s since Yeltsin felt pressured to adopt some of their policy preferences in order to not appear as a Western lackey. Their influence increased substantially after Yeltsin felt compelled to dismiss the pro-West Kozyrev and replace him with Yevgeni Primakov, an influential Soviet-era policy analyst who advocated a Eurasian policy. Primakov served as foreign minister from January 1996 until September 1998, and then was promoted to Prime Minister until May 12, 1999.

Primakov sought to balance Russian ties with the West with a more focus on developing Moscow’s ties with the emerging powers of Eurasia by establishing a “strategic triangle” among China, India, and Russia. One source binding Russia them together was their shared concern about Islamic terrorism. Russia faced a secessionist movement in Chechnya, a predominately Muslim territory within Russia, while Indians felt threatened by Islamic militants in Kashmir and the Chinese were alarmed by Uighur nationalism in Xinjiang. In addition to supporting a multipolar world, Russia joined with India and China in defending the primacy of the principles of state sovereignty and of non-intervention in their respective separatist regions of Chechnya, Kashmir and Taiwan.

But Primakov’s geopolitical reorientation ran into several major barriers. India and China proved reluctant to support an explicitly anti-American agenda, not wishing to exchange their partnership with Washington for alliance ties with Moscow. At the time, the Russian army was still recovering from the disintegration of the Soviet army while Russia’s 1998 financial crisis led to the near collapse of the Russian economy. In addition, China and India were divided over various regional security issues, including their disputed borders and Beijing’s ties with New Delhi’s main rival, Pakistan. They also emerged as energy competitors as China’s need for imported energy surged in the following years.

As during the Soviet period, Moscow was again torn between sustaining its long-standing ties with India and seeking to improve ties with China. Russia supported India in the conflict with Pakistan over the Kashmir region while India expressed support for the steps taken by Russia to protect its territorial integrity in Chechnya   They both expressed a firm commitment to fighting religious extremism and international terrorism. Russia was also still willing to sell weapons to India that it declined to sell to China. When India openly tested five nuclear weapons at its Pokhran test range in May 1998, the defense minister justified these tests as designed to enhance India’s security against China. Russian officials declined to criticize India for these Pokharan-II tests. More importantly, Moscow did not impose sanctions as the United States did. In fact, in the months following Pokhran-II, the Russians signed an agreement to construct two Russian light-water nuclear reactors in India in defiance of a Nuclear Suppliers Group ban. Nonetheless, the Russian government urged India to sign the NPT and offered to mediate India’s disputes Pakistan, a Chinese ally. More recently, the revival of the Russian economy and continued growth of the Chinese and Indian economies has renewed interest in cooperating together on economic issues through the new BRIC ((Brazil-Russia-India-China) bloc of emerging economic powers. Thus far, the BRICs only achieved modest economic cooperation through joint declarations and summits, and has yet to achieve any strategic coordination.

The continued Chinese-Indian tensions have not prevented Russian-Indian strategic cooperation because of their common geopolitical imperatives, which had previously cemented a close relationship during the Soviet era, did not disappear following the end of the Cold War.

Both countries fear radical Islamic terrorism and are uneasy with the rise of China and U.S. military hegemony. They also have a common interest in sustaining arms sales. Russia’s defense industry needs to sales to achieve economies of scale in some production runs as well as to sustain a manufacturing base that is excessive for simply meeting Russian domestic demand. India has an enormous legacy of Soviet-based weapons that it needs to service, modernize, and replace, and Russian arms supplies continued to offer a good price-performance tradeoff. On January 28, 1993, the two countries signed a comprehensive arms agreement guaranteeing the supply of defense equipment, spare parts, product support and maintenance services of Russian armaments for the Indian armed forces. In February 1996, Russia and India announced a $3.6 billion arms deal. For several years, India was purchasing more Russian military hardware than Russia’s own armed forces. By the end of Yeltsin`s presidency military – technological cooperation between the countries (mostly procurement of Russian weaponry by India) slowly started to grow, reaching the level of $1.5 billion a year.

Russian-Indian economic ties continued to grow after Vladimir Putin became Russian president in 2000. Some Russians joked that the word “PUTIN” is short for Planes, Uranium, Tanks, Infrastructure and Nuclear Power. These items do indeed comprise the main pillars of Russian-Indian commerce, but one should not exaggerate economic ties between Russia and India. Russian investment in India is not great. In addition to the joint development and production of military systems, Russian-Indian co-production encompasses the telecom, titanium alloy, and their automobile and manufacturing sectors. Foreign policy coordination between Russia and India also continued under Putin. The Russian government endorsed India’s efforts to become a permanent member of the UN Security Council with full veto powers. In Putin’s words, “India is our candidate number one in terms of enlarging the geographical representation of the Security Council.”  Putin strongly backed the Indian position on Kashmir, which is that Islamabad must stop supporting terrorists before any negotiations over Kashmir can take place.

Despite the end of the Cold War and the other changes in world politics during the past two decades, Russia and India continue to share many common interests while having few divergent ones. The economic relationship between Russia and India is still largely rooted in weapons and nuclear energy. Even as their strategic partnership persists, however, the underlying nature of the Russian-Indian relationship is changing in ways similar to the Russia-China relationship. In both cases, the importance of economic ties with Moscow has decreased as India and China have opened their borders to Western trade and investment. The Russian government faces particularly strong third-party competition in its civilian nuclear and defense collaboration with India. During the Cold War, Moscow was New Delhi’s dominant partner in both profitable high-technology sectors. In recent years, Westerns governments and companies have undertaken vigorous campaigns to expand their presence in both areas. In addition, the Indian government is striving to increase the share of indigenous production in both areas.