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Russia and India: A Truly Lasting Partnership?

Vladimir Putin’s visit to India last month was keenly watched around the world, with many analysts curious to see whether Russia could reinvigorate its’ relationship with New Delhi. The trajectory of the countries could not be more different; India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi enjoys almost rock star status internationally and the Indian economy is slated to lead the world in growth in just two years, while Putin is seen as a pariah and Russia’s economy is teetering on the brink of a sanctions-induced recession. Perhaps surprisingly in view of India’s increasing strategic options, the visit was a success for both Putin and Modi, and may offer some breathing space for an increasingly isolated Russia.

The strategic ties between Moscow and Delhi have long had a whiff of sentimentality about them; Modi has claimed that ‘’Indian children know that Russia is India’s friend’’. Even so, it has been strained in recent years. The Indian military, a long-time user of Russian equipment, has been complaining of cost overruns and time delays on strategic arms purchases. India is seeking to build more arms domestically, thereby ending its status as the world’s largest arms importer. And with Obama visiting India for the country’s Republic Day, Delhi’s ties with Moscow had become increasingly strained. Russia’s newly developed strategic partnership with Pakistan, India’s regional rival, has not helped matters.

Modi’s desire for a strong economic growth drove the swathe of deals signed by Russian last week, including those for natural gas and nuclear power plants; partially replacing markets in Europe which are closed to Putin as a result of his aggression in Ukraine. Furthermore the renewal of close military ties with Russia gives India access to advanced strategic technology — such as nuclear missile submarines — something it would not get from its Western partners.

This ostensible upswing in Russia-India ties will impact the calculations of strategic actors around the globe, from Europe to China and the US. Russian brought the new ‘’prime minister’’ of Crimea along with them to Delhi- indicating at least passive Indian support for Russia in the Crimea region. For Delhi, Crimea and Eastern Ukraine may carry significance regarding Kashmir, – it may provoke thought in Indian strategic circles about being more proactive with the Kashmir dispute, rather than passively accepting the status quo. India has long seen itself as a key factor in enabling a multipolar world, in addition to pushing back against perceived Western dominance of the global system.

The other key factor here is China. Since the mid-1980s, the Kremlin has prioritised China over India. As China grows stronger, Beijing may appear increasingly threatening in Moscow’s eyes; it is unlikely that Putin has forgotten Russia’s long and vulnerable border with China in Siberia. For both Moscow and Washington, India is a potential pivot in Asia against China. Russians cannot be sure that China will be friendly in twenty years, whereas India has been a good friend to Russia for a long time. With India emerging as a key global actor, the decisions taken by New Delhi will have a huge geopolitical significance. It is likely that Putin’s visit to India will significantly raise the pressure on the West to increase strategic co-operation with India in key defence and security spheres. If Russia’s share of the Indian defence market were to be reduced because of US technology transfer to India, it would increase the pressure on an already beleaguered Russian industrial base. Additional investment in the Indian energy sector, in the form of either shale gas or nuclear reactors, would further leave Putin’s export options diminished.

The fact remains that India-Russia ties have undergone something of a sea change, as Russia now needs India more than the other way round. Putin’s mendacity in championing reform and then backtracking, along with his actions in Ukraine, has helped run Russia’s economy into the ground. This economic stagnation, coupled with the increasing obsolescence of Russian technology means Putin can no longer take India for granted as a captive market. For all the talk of India remaining Russia’s main defence partner, there is considerable space for Western business to begin to squeeze Russia out of India.

Putin’s visit to India may have boosted Russia’s flagging exports, but this newfound partnership between Modi and Putin may prove transient if the West can offer sufficient alternatives to India. For now at least, Russia has one major friend in Asia.

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