Managing a Managed Decline: The Future of Indian-Russian Relations


In Moscow last December, Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar praised the “exceptional” nature of Indian-Russian relationship, describing it as the “one constant in world politics.” The reality, however, is that this relationship is a shell of its former self and, rather than being a constant, it is in fact undergoing a managed decline. This is demonstrated by New Delhi downgrading its interactions with Moscow on several fronts, including bilateral summits and multilateral forums, economic engagement, and defense cooperation.

Further complicating the Indian-Russian relationship is the role of third parties, namely China, the United States, and Europe. As Russia becomes increasingly beholden to China, concerns will grow in New Delhi about Moscow’s eroding neutrality in future Chinese-Indian hostilities. At the same time, if U.S. policy toward Russia were to shift under a future Trump administration, Washington might become more accommodating of New Delhi’s ties with Moscow, while Brussels, in turn, could become more critical. In short, India’s relations with Russia will remain strained, but this does not deter the possibility of fissures emerging in its relations with the United States or Europe.



Rhetoric Versus Reality

In December, Jaishankar met with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov, as well as President Vladimir Putin and Deputy Prime Minister Denis Manturov, high-profile contacts that symbolized the importance that Moscow places on its ‘Special and Privileged Strategic Partnership’ with New Delhi. Both countries reaffirmed cooperation in areas that Jaishankar referred to as being reserved for countries where there is a “high degree of trust” — including defense, space, and nuclear energy. This included an agreement to expand the Kudankulam civilian nuclear project in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. This reaffirmed progress in the energy space and the fact that Russia has ironically emerged as one of the key beneficiaries of the U.S.-Indian nuclear agreement, concluded in 2008 amid Moscow’s ability to navigate the challenges of India’s civil nuclear liability law. In the defense domain, both sides discussed joint production of military equipment. Discussions are also ongoing for a bilateral investment treaty, a free trade agreement with the Eurasian Economic Union and cooperation in the Russian Far East.

But underlying all this, the decline of the relationship is hard to miss. Putin and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi have not met in person since September 2022 and last year was the second year in a row when Russia and India failed to hold an annual summit, which was attributed to alleged “scheduling issues.” Contrast this with Modi’s red-carpet welcome in the United States in June, where the two countries deepened relations in several strategic areas from defense to technology and energy cooperation.

Despite several regular interactions through the India-Russia Intergovernmental Commission, and multilateral initiatives — such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, St. Petersburg International Economic Forum, and Far Eastern Economic Forum — India is becoming increasingly aloof in forums where Russia plays a prominent role. This became evident during India’s presidency of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization last year where the relatively low-key virtual summit contrasted with India’s G20 presidency, which was framed as the country’s coming-out party.

Economic engagement also remains subpar. There has been a rapid increase in bilateral trade in recent years to over $50 billion a year from around $10 billion before the war in Ukraine, which has been fueled by India’s purchase of discounted Russian crude oil. Nonetheless, India’s trade with Russia is less than half that of its trade with the United States ($130 billion), or even with rival China ($114 billion), and far below Russia’s trade with China ($200 billion). Despite discussing efforts to renew progress on various connectivity initiatives — including the International North-South Transport Corridor and a maritime corridor connecting Chennai and Vladivostok — New Delhi is increasingly throwing its weight behind connectivity initiatives in cooperation with the United States. The most recent example of this is the India-Middle East Economic Corridor, which was unveiled on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in New Delhi in September. Efforts to conduct trade in their local currencies have also stalled as Russia has opposed the accumulation of Indian rupees into its coffers due to India’s relatively low share of global exports and the rupee not being fully convertible.


To be sure, New Delhi is not about to sever its relationship with Moscow. Among the older generation of strategic elites in New Delhi there remains a high degree of affinity for Russia given memories of Moscow standing by India during its darkest hours, most notably in 1971 when the United States and China aligned against India in its war with Pakistan(which led to the formation of Bangladesh). As a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, the Soviet Union employed its veto six times in support of India.

There is also an underlying strategic rationale that undergirds the bilateral relationship linked to India’s relations with China and the West. New Delhi believes that maintaining close relations with Russia gives Moscow options as it becomes increasingly beholden to China following the Russian invasion of Ukraine. An isolated Russia is more likely to become a client state to China. While this is seen as a foregone conclusion in the West, Russia is not yet seen as a lost cause in New Delhi.

Relations with Russia also remain a hedge against a downturn in relations with the West. While this appears unlikely at present amid the deepening U.S.-Indian relationship, it is not out of the realm of possibility. This became evident during recent allegations of Indian complicity in the killing or attempted killing of foreign nationals in several countries (including Canada and the United States). During a press conference, Jaishankar noted that “India-Russia relations remain very steady, very strong … based on our strategic convergence, on our geopolitical interests, and because they are mutually beneficial.” In making such a statement, Jaishankar sent a signal that India maintains options in its foreign relations while renewing India’s longstanding commitment to strategic autonomy in its foreign policy, which entails engaging all major poles of influence in the international system. Jaishankar reaffirmed this during the Munich Security Conference in February, where he noted that India should be “admired” for maintaining “multiple options” in its relations with the United States, Russia, and Europe.

This also explains the apparent contradiction of India’s position on the wars in Ukraine and Gaza with New Delhi refusing to overtly condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine (and thus downplaying the violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty) while supporting a two-state solution for the Israeli-Palestinian issue (which acknowledges the right of a sovereign Palestinian state). Notwithstanding Modi’s much touted statement that now is “not an era of war,” New Delhi has maintained a largely neutral position on the war in Ukraine. The language of the G20 Leaders’ Declaration under India’s presidency was watered down with no mention of Russia’s actions in Ukraine. Among many in New Delhi there remains a degree of sympathy for Russia’s narrative of the war, which links Moscow’s actions to NATO expansion into Russia’s self-perceived sphere of influence.

India has also been a beneficiary of the war through its access to discounted Russian crude oil, which accounts for almost 20 percent of its crude oil imports (up from 2 percent before the war), although there has been a recent drop in imports amid U.S. sanctions on vessels operators carrying Russian oil and rising shipping costs arising from instabilities in the Middle East. Indian companies have also benefited from the export of refined Russian oil product, some of which has made its way to Western markets. While expressing some displeasure, the West has been generally understanding of India’s predicament as a price-sensitive and energy-hungry developing economy that is heavily dependent on oil imports. However, this also reflects pragmatic considerations that India’s purchase of Russian crude oil has helped to control crude prices, which would have otherwise spiked even higher had India shunned sanctioned Russian crude oil and relied on the same suppliers as the West.


A key watchpoint for the Indian-Russian relationship will be Moscow’s position on future Sino-Indian hostilities. Deepening ties between Russia and Pakistan are also a source of concern to New Delhi, although the Sino-Russian relationship is more significant in the context of China being seen as a more pressing long-term strategic threat to Indian interests. In the past, Moscow maintained a largely neutral position on Sino-Indian tensions, which occasionally went as far as leaning in New Delhi’s favor. As recently as the Sino-Indian border conflagration in 2020, Moscow pursued a balanced position, and it has even offered to play the role of mediator on occasion. Historically, India has also obtained more advanced military platforms from Russia (for example Su-30 MKI aircraft, compared to the Su-30 MKK and MK2 aircraft that China has in its arsenal).

However, as Russia becomes increasingly beholden to China, this neutrality may be called into question. Any signs of a shift — indicated for example by Moscow’s diplomatic posture leaning in Beijing’s favor during a future Sino-Indian conflict or supplying China with more advanced military platforms — would prompt New Delhi to rethink its relationship with Russia. There are already some signs of the latter, with Russia and China cooperating in the development of a ballistic missile early warning system. There has also been a role reversal of sorts with the Russian defense industry becoming increasingly dependent on components and technologies sourced from China — to New Delhi’s alarm.

Another watchpoint is the reliability of Russia as a defense supplier and the battlefield performance of Russian weapons in the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. Russia accounts for 60 percent of India’s in-service military platforms. However, the long drawn-out war of attrition in Ukraine has undermined the confidence of some Russian-made defense systems, such as its tanks (although Russia remains competitive in aircraft engines and missile defense). The war in Ukraine has also raised concerns about delays in the delivery of several platforms, from the S-400 surface-to-air missile system to spare parts for its fighter jets.

This has prompted New Delhi to renew its push towards diversifying its defense imports and indigenous production — a trend that pre-dates the war in Ukraine. For example, New Delhi is now considering French-made Rafale jets for its aircraft carriers, replacing the MiG-29K. Delays in the licensed manufacture of Russian Kalashnikov assault rifles has also prompted India’s Ministry of Defence to approve the import of U.S.-made rifles.

Risks on the Horizon

While India and Russia share a preference for a multipolar global order, India offers a more benign worldview that is non-Western, but not explicitly anti-Western. This will make India increasingly estranged from the agenda being pursued by forums where Russia (and China) plays a prominent role, including the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, BRICS, and Russia-India-China trilateral. Confirming this, when asked where India stands on relations with the West and the Russian-Chinese axis, Jaishankar noted that “we are a democracy; we are a market economy; we are a pluralistic society; we have positions on international law and I think that should give a fair part of the answer,” adding that India’s membership of the Quad “should tell you which direction we are going.” This is also apparent from India’s membership of a growing number of U.S.-led initiatives — from the Minerals Security Partnership to the Artemis Accords.

At present, the United States and Europe maintain consensus on engaging India, despite India’s relations with Russia. However, there are risks on the horizon, particularly in the event of a growing trans-Atlantic rift on Russia. The Russian invasion of Ukraine poses an existential risk to the security of Europe. In contrast, there are growing calls in the United States to de-escalate tensions with Russia in order to focus on China, particularly among the pro-Trump right. In the event that a future U.S. administration seeks to de-escalate tensions with Russia, the trans-Atlantic split in perceptions on India will grow. The United States may prove more likely to overlook or downplay concerns about the Indian-Russian relationship than Europe, particularly if New Delhi’s actions are seen to be empowering Moscow and prolonging the war in Ukraine. This has become evident with the latest round of E.U. sanctions on Russia, which includes secondary sanctions on an Indian entity.

While India will continue deepening relations with the West, it will also need to maintain engagement with Russia, particularly in the domains of energy and defense, for the foreseeable future. So far, the West has been largely accommodating of India’s strategic compulsions. But more belligerent behavior by Moscow, combined with the prospect for a trans-Atlantic split on Russia, alludes to a more difficult road ahead.



Dr Chietigj Bajpaee is senior research fellow for South Asia at Chatham House, a U.K.-based public policy think tank. He has worked with several think tanks and risk consultancies in the United States, Europe, and Asia. He is the author of China in India’s Post-Cold War Engagement with Southeast Asia (Routledge, 2022).

Image: Photo by the Presidential Executive Office of Russia via Wikimedia Commons