Between a Cold War Ally and an Indo-Pacific Partner: India’s U.S.-Russia Balancing Act


It feels like déjà vu all over again. Reports of an Indian arms deal with Russia. Concerns in the United States about said deal, with threats about punitive measures and warnings about implications for U.S.-India relations. Voices in India insisting that the government go through with the deal and not succumb to American pressure.

This is not a Cold War story, but, rather, a summary of the state of play over the last few months. The deal in question is India’s contract to purchase five Russian S-400 long-range surface-to-air missile systems, signed during President Vladimir Putin’s visit to India earlier this month. The punitive measures would result from the 2017 Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA). And the deal and potential sanctions have once again made Russia a source of friction between Delhi and Washington.

This complication comes at an important time in the evolution of the U.S.-India partnership. The two countries have been deepening their cooperation for the last few years, given their shared concerns about Chinese behavior and intentions. Washington sees India as a critical partner in its Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy, and Delhi believes the United States is a crucial component of its Act East approach. If they want to sustain, and even enhance, this cooperation, the two countries have to ensure that their different perceptions of Russia do not once again hinder their relationship – as was the case during the Cold War.

To avoid history repeating itself (or even rhyming), the United States and India will have to find a way to reconcile their different approaches toward Russia with their broader imperatives in the Indo-Pacific. For one, this means avoiding over-reacting to developments in the other’s relations with Moscow. The United States should realize that Moscow is part of India’s China strategy too (as a supplier of defense equipment and a potential counterweight). But India’s relationship with Russia is much more limited than it was during the Cold War. U.S. sanctions or public pressure are unlikely to limit this further; instead, they could constrain U.S.-India cooperation. As it is, the threat of sanctions has raised questions in Delhi — not about the Russia relationship, but about the wisdom of a closer partnership with the United States. When India considers alignment, one of the factors it assesses is the impact on its autonomy.

For its part, as Delhi tries to maintain one partnership, it will have to be careful not to damage another — one that is arguably even more critical for its interests in the Indo-Pacific and beyond. Furthermore, it will need to recognize that Russian actions make it harder for the United States and other Western countries to improve their relationships with Moscow — a rapprochement India desires in the hope that it might prevent Russia from moving even closer to China. The Beijing-Moscow dynamic, in turn, should make Delhi ask some serious questions about future Russian reliability.

The Reasons for the Russia Relationship

Moscow was Delhi’s closest partner in the later Cold War, and the relationship survived the breakup of the Soviet Union, albeit in a more circumscribed way. For India, Russia remained a crucial source of military equipment and spare parts. It was also willing to co-produce with Indian companies — significant for a country that was seeking to enhance its indigenous defense manufacturing capability. And Russia gave India access to defense technology that few others were willing to share. In the energy sphere, Russia built nuclear reactors in India and offered oil, gas, and opportunities for investment. Regionally, the two shared an opposition to Taliban rule in Afghanistan. And as India looked east, it saw Russia as an important part of its strategy to balance China. Globally, Moscow was seen as an ally in the United Nations (particularly in the Security Council, where it wielded a veto) and in other international groupings (sponsoring, for example, Indian membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization).

Thus, when the results of the 2016 U.S. presidential election rolled in, India hoped, given the president-elect’s comments on the campaign trail, for an improvement in U.S.-Russia relations. This could ease a longstanding irritant in the Delhi-Washington relationship and potentially limit the deepening Russian partnership with China. But reports that Moscow had interfered in the elections put paid to any broad U.S.-Russia rapprochement. While President Donald Trump wanted to engage Russia’s Vladimir Putin, senior members of the administration and Congress took a more hawkish turn. New Sanctions on Russia followed, as did the Trump administration linking and identifying China and Russia as twin “revisionist” challenges in its National Security Strategy.

India, on the other hand, has seen Russia as part of the solution to its China problem. For Delhi, a Russia that treats China as a rival helps shape the regional balance of power in a way that could keep Beijing from dominating. In its experience, when China and Russia have been distant, India has benefited. On the other hand, when Beijing and Moscow have been close — as they were during the initial years of the Cold War — it has caused complications for India.

Thus, in recent years, India has watched warily as China and Russia have moved closer together, fearing that the West’s more hostile approach to Russia, following the annexation of Crimea, has pushed Moscow into Beijing’s arms. Along the same lines, policymakers in Delhi have also been worried about a “drift” in their own ties with Russia that could hurt India’s foreign policy diversification strategy — that is, maintaining relationships with multiple countries to maximize benefits and minimize risks (and over-dependence on any one).  Indians see maintaining this approach as especially crucial in light of greater uncertainty about U.S. reliability.

Consequently, over the last two years, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has been trying to find ways — though not always successfully — to arrest the drift in relations with Russia and to convey to the Kremlin that China is not its only option. There has been increased bilateral engagement, including the Modi-Putin summit in Sochi in May and three trips by the Indian foreign minister to Russia in less than a year. And the two countries have inked major defense and energy deals, which are seen as a way of keeping Russia on India’s side. India is one of the largest importers of defense equipment as well as of oil and gas. And Russia needs markets.

In October 2016, the two countries signed agreements for India to purchase the S-400 system and stealth frigates, and for the co-production of Ka-226T helicopters. They also pledged to move forward with co-development of a fifth-generation fighter aircraft. In addition, it was announced that a Rosneft-led consortium would purchase private Indian energy company Essar, which was heavily in debt, including to India’s largest public-sector bank.

Putin’s recent trip built on this cooperation with agreements in the space and energy sectors, as well as the signing of the S-400 deal. India believes the new systems will enhance its air defense capability against China and Pakistan. Furthermore, officials cite the S-400’s operational capabilities and note that there is no comparable system available to Delhi.

American officials and analysts, however, have been concerned that this “significant transaction” with Russia would trigger sanctions, hurting the U.S.-India relationship. Beyond the diplomatic repercussions, in the longer term they worry, as House Armed Services Committee chairman Rep. Mac Thornberry put it, that the S-400 deal “will make interoperability harder.” Enhancing interoperability has been a major U.S.-India effort over the last few years, with the two countries signing additional foundational agreements, negotiating others, and expanding their military exercises. Some American officials also worry that the deployment of the S-400 systems could limit India’s access to advanced technology from the United States and its allies. But for Delhi, a bird in hand is worth two in the bush.

The two countries have dodged a bullet for now, with Congress giving the president authority to waive the CAATSA sanctions if certain conditions are met. Defense Secretary James Mattis has advocated for such a waiver, arguing that the punitive measures could hurt America’s burgeoning partnerships with countries like India, Indonesia, and Vietnam. But it is unclear what step — payment or delivery, which is not expected to commence till late 2020 — might prompt sanctions , and uncertainty remains about whether the president will grant the waiver, what he might demand in return, and what Delhi might be willing to put on the table in exchange. As a former Indian official put it, the sword of Damocles continues to hang above India — and U.S.-India relations.

The president’s recent comments when asked whether the S-400 deal would be subject to sanctions (“India will find out. You’ll see. Sooner than you think.”) will only reinforce the sense of uncertainty. As it is, in Delhi, the issue has strengthened voices skeptical of the U.S.-India relationship, who point to the threat of sanctions as evidence of America’s desire to constrain India’s choices and, thus, its strategic autonomy and freedom of action.

Not Your Father’s India-Russia Relationship

Over the last three decades, that desire for choice and the changing strategic landscape have already achieved what congressional action now seeks: reduced Russian salience in India. On the defense front, India has long been diversifying away from its heavy Russian dependence. Russia’s share of Indian defense imports fell from 79 percent between 2008 and 2012 to 62 percent between 2013 and 2017. India withdrew from Russia’s fifth-generation fighter aircraft project because of delays and differences over cost, technologies, and flexibility for future upgrades. Furthermore, it has not yet signed pending deals for a submarine, helicopters and frigates, and the manufacture of Russian assault rifles, which Moscow was expecting.

Beyond defense, this continues to be a limited relationship — something that Putin has even complained about. While investment has picked up recently, thanks to a few big deals in the energy sector, non-defense trade has stayed low. Russia and India fell far short of their bilateral trade target of $20 billion by 2015. Despite a 42 percent boost from the previous year, trade still only touched $10.7 billion in 2017-18 — compare that to India’s trade with China ($89.7 billion), the United States ($74.5 billion), or even Germany ($22 billion).

Bilateral cooperation in India’s region has also faltered somewhat. In Afghanistan, Russia has been engaging with the Taliban, while India continues to have concerns about the group. Unlike during the Cold War, it has found itself more aligned with the United States in backing the government in Kabul, with China, Pakistan, and Russia arrayed on the opposite side.

But it is Russia’s developing relationship with Pakistan that most gets under India’s skin. Driven in part by concerns about Afghanistan, Moscow’s diplomatic and military exchanges with Islamabad have witnessed an uptick. Russia and Pakistan conducted a military exercise in September 2016, reportedly in disputed territory, shortly after an attack on an Indian military base from across the Line of Control. Indian officials are generally loath to criticize Russia, but the Russian decision to proceed with the exercise led the Indian ambassador to Moscow to state that defense cooperation with Pakistan “is a wrong approach and it will only create further problems.” Even after a Russian official indicated that there would not be a repeat, the second edition of the exercise was held last year. Moreover, Pakistan and Russia have since formed a joint military consultative committee and signed a military training agreement. Moscow, always on the search for new markets, has also sold attack helicopters to the Pakistani military. Russian officials have indicated that they would limit military supply so as not to risk their India relationship, but the unstated corollary seems to be that if India limits its Russia relationship, Moscow would not exercise such restraint.

Russia’s partnership with China has further complicated its relations with India. Despite assurances to the contrary, Moscow has sold advanced military technology to Beijing. It has endorsed China’s One Belt One Road and has urged India to overcome its objections to it. There has also been concern about Moscow leaning toward Beijing in forums like the BRICS. And on issues like cyber governance, Russia, along with China, continues to support a multilateral state-based approach, whereas India has shifted toward a multistakeholder approach that recognizes the voices of non-state actors.

Moreover, despite recent efforts to get the private sectors and civil societies to engage, this remains largely a government-to-government relationship. The Russian ambassador to India recently said, “What connects us the most is the never-ending sympathy between people of the two countries, for each other.” But whether in terms of Indians studying abroad, in-bound and out-bound tourism, or diaspora links, India has closer ties with the United States — and even China — than with Russia.

The Cold War Lens: Limits & Lessons

As American policymakers debate whether and to what extent they should take a hard line against the S-400 purchase, they should recognize that the India-Russia relationship already has limits. Publicly trying to force Delhi to limit that partnership further is not likely to succeed, and in fact might have the unintended consequence of hampering the U.S.-India relationship instead. If Washington decides not to issue a waiver, or if the president wields it very publicly for a quid pro quo (for instance, making it contingent on a defense or trade deal with the United States), India might limit its cooperation with the Trump administration’s Indo-Pacific and South Asia strategies. Such a decision would also fuel questions in India, which has been subject to American sanctions in the past, about its exposure to and dependence on the United States. India might or might not go through with the S-400 purchase — it’s not as if India-Russia agreements have not fallen by the wayside before. But Indians need to see this as a decision made in Delhi and not in Washington.

The United States should not make the mistake it did during the Cold War. Its heavy-handed approach then is partly responsible for India’s defense dependence on Russia today. In the 1960s, when the United States had an opportunity to become a major military supplier to India, it tried to force a choice. But Delhi insisted that it wanted both American and Russian equipment. Washington resisted; Moscow filled the vacuum. If America again insists that India make a stark choice, it might not like the answer it gets.

Relatedly, Washington cannot expect India not to buy from Russia (or others) if it does not put something comparable on the table. It’s a bit like India and the United States expressing concern about China’s One Belt, One Road projects without offering recipient countries viable alternatives. If the United States wants to reduce Indian dependence on Moscow, it has to consider seriously what advanced technologies and systems it is willing to offer India (and India needs to find a quicker path to saying yes). The United States sees trust-building as coming before technology sharing, but the Russians have understood one element better: Delhi sees offers of advanced technology as evidence of, or the pathway to, a trusted relationship.

Observers in India, for their part, need to take off the rose-colored glasses through which they sometimes see Russia. Looking back, it’s worth remembering that Russian assistance during the Cold War — as recent books by David Engerman and Srinath Raghavan have shown — was not unconditional; it, too, came with preferences and constrained Indian autonomy.

Looking forward, India should ask the same questions about its relationship with Russia that it does with others. CAATSA and the potential for U.S. sanctions have in some ways prevented this discussion by making the debate not about the advantages and disadvantages of the S-400 system or ties with Russia, but about the U.S.-India relationship. But there are questions worth asking. For example, will this deal really push Russia toward India and away from China? And, ultimately, will Russia be reliable vis-à-vis China? India’s decision to go ahead with the S-400 sale assumes that Sino-Russian bonhomie will not last — and is indeed partly designed to limit it. But Delhi needs to assess the consequences of a Sino-Russian friendship or quasi-alliance that continues or even deepens. It’s worth keeping in mind that during the 1962 Sino-Indian war, Moscow held up the supply of MiGs to New Delhi and provided Beijing intelligence on India. More recently, Russia has not followed through on assurances to India with regard to either China or Pakistan.

Indian policymakers also need to be clear-eyed about the consequences of Russian actions in Europe and the United States. Russia’s annexation of Crimea, alleged poisoning of Britons, and attempts to influence the political landscape in Europe and the United States might not directly affect India, but they are preventing Delhi’s hope for a Western rapprochement with Russia from coming to fruition. Furthermore, they run contrary to the very rules-based order that India is calling for in the Indo-Pacific.

Avoiding a CAATSA-strophe

The CAATSA and S-400 issue has brought to the fore the balancing act that India and the United States face. Delhi is trying to balance an old partnership that remains critical to its warfighting ability with a new and more diversified one that is crucial for India’s balancing of China and, yes, even for its strategic autonomy. The United States, for its part, is trying to build ties with an India that it sees as a crucial partner in the Indo-Pacific realm, while confronting a Russia that it sees as a challenge in the transatlantic one. A waiver, as Mattis has argued, can help resolve some of the conflict between these balancing acts. On the flip side, trading barbs about imposing or defying sanctions will only make the balance harder to strike and the imbroglio tougher to tackle. Worse would be levying sanctions, which could upend this very delicate balance.

The objective for the United States and India is not to get on the same page on Russia, which is unlikely in the short term, but to get past their differences on Russia to cooperate in the Indo-Pacific. This will require defusing the CAATSA issue by striking a deal. It will also mean ensuring that similar obstacles do not arise in the future by better assessing and discussing how planned actions vis-à-vis Russia will affect their other interests ahead of time — and not after the fact.


Tanvi Madan is director of The India Project and a fellow in the Project on International Order and Strategy in the Foreign Policy program at the Brookings Institution. She is completing work on a book on how China shaped U.S.-India relations during the Cold War.

Image: Prime Minister of India