Russia & Global South

A Special and Privileged Strategic Partnership?

Rationales and Dilemmas in India-Russia Relations

June 10, 2024
  • Nivedita Kapoor

    International Laboratory on World Order Studies and the New Regionalism,
    National Research University Higher School of Economics, Moscow
India's nuanced position on the Russia-Ukraine war is driven by challenges rather than opportunities. Closer India-US relations and Russia-China ties complicate the issue further, and it won't be resolved easily or soon, according to foreign policy expert Nivedita Kapoor.
The position taken by a number of non-Western states on the Russia-Ukraine war - ranging from neutrality to walking a tightrope to openly backing Moscow – has generated a lot of debate and a search for answers in the West. This has also been the case regarding India’s position on Russia after 2022, which is based on New Delhi’s national interests and adherence to a multi-alignment policy. But the road ahead for India-Russia relations could be a bumpy one, with the case revealing the varied nature of challenges and motivations that shape the choices of the Global South in an unstable international system.

Moscow has tapped into the dissatisfaction of the Global South, positioning itself at the forefront of what it calls the “struggle against Western hegemony,” with the “neutral stance” of a large number of states helping Russia avoid isolation. This, together with resistance to Western pressure over Russia, has been interpreted as a sign of the rising strength on the part of the Rest in the international arena. This is undoubtedly true, but it must also be noted that the Rest are neither as united nor as like-minded as might seem from discussions around the ongoing war in Ukraine. The emerging powers among them, despite their status, do face limitations on policy choices as middle powers, with the instability in the international system not always to their advantage.

This is evident in the case of New Delhi, which has been keen to set itself apart from the Russian narrative of “struggle against Western hegemony.” Instead, it has sought to draw a clear line between the “non-West” and the “anti-West,” with India being in the former group. External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar has noted the strengthening of relations with the West even as the country maintains a multiplicity of options in its foreign policy. As India’s concerns rise about China, including a wide gap in its capabilities to deal with the assertive major power on its border, it has looked to the US for an effective balancing strategy, with the West also seen as a key trade and investment partner.

This is not to say that New Delhi does not desire change in the global order, but that the reasons of Global South states for not aligning with the Western position on the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war vary widely. And though this is not much consolation for Ukraine, these differences are critical in this “world between orders” to understand that the alignments that have emerged in this particular case might not easily transfer to another situation. The Rest are not a homogenous, revisionist entity, meaning a more nuanced understanding of their underlying motivations should be developed.

In the case of the ongoing war, India’s motivations for continuing to maintain its strategic partnership with Russia lie in the specificity of its national circumstances, priorities, interests and capabilities – more importantly, India is driven not always by the opportunities but rather the challenges the changing world order presents to a middle power, regardless of bullish official rhetoric.

The impact of steadily closer relations between Russia with China and between India and the US is the leading cause of concern, with New Delhi and Moscow potentially ending up in “opposing blocs.” Given the shifting perceptions of Indian political elites, the positive legacy of India-Russia relations on its own is no longer enough to keep the partnership going. The differences in their positions on the BRI, the Quad, the Indo-Pacific, etc., damage mutual trust, with some openly calling for Russia to tone down its criticism of the Indo-Pacific given the “painful reaction” this causes in India. Imbalanced trade – amid the increased oil imports – and the slowing-down of military-technical cooperation – which allows India’s Western partners to step in and fill the gap – are other challenges that are yet to be addressed.

The shift of India and Russia toward rival major powers is not an issue that will be resolved either easily or any time soon. The two sides have sharply different understandings of the consequences of China’s rise and the policy prescriptions for managing this change in the international system. This will continue to impose a strain on the relationship at a time when attempts are being made to find new bases for future cooperation, suggestions regarding which include Russia’s helping India to build up its own defense industry for achieving self-sufficiency, in addition to arms exports, expanding sectors for economic cooperation, and promoting BRICS and the SCO as solutions to “security and development issues” and not as “anti-Western clubs.”
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