Under pressure: Can Russian-Indian ties survive the war in Ukraine?

on 14.02.2023
india russia

Russia and India have been on good terms since the early days of the Cold War. Historically, the Soviet Union supported India's claim to Kashmir against Pakistan, while India voted with or abstained from condemning the USSR during key Cold War events like the 1968 USSR invasion of Czechoslovakia. For India, a closer alignment with Russia was a way to balance China's growing influence in the region and pursue both Russia's and India's mutual geopolitical objectives. Even after the dissolution of the USSR, the two countries have maintained a strong defence sales relationship, with Russian-origin weapons and parts making up as much as 85 percent of major Indian arms systems as of 2020.

Over the past few years, however, this long-standing relationship has been under significant pressure due to India's aspiration of closer military cooperation with the US. This has mainly been caused by the rise of India's rival China and by Putin's invasion of Ukraine last year. The Russia-India partnership will continue to cool off for three main reasons. 

Decreasing Indian reliance on Russian weapons

Even before the war in Ukraine, western sanctions against India and pressure to decrease the Russo-India arms trade from the US had undermined the country's reliance on Russian weapons. Putin's 2022 invasion of Ukraine certainly only exacerbated this diminishing reliability. The war in Ukraine has hampered Russia's export of weapons to India as Russian military demand for parts and weapons surged, and the country began prioritizing the replacement and repair of its own arms lost or damaged in Ukraine. Russia's isolation from the global financial system is another obstacle reducing the country's capacity to fulfil new military hardware orders or support existing contracts. Moreover, due to export controls imposed by Taiwan and South Korea, Russia's defence industry has lost all access to high-end semiconductors essential for producing precision weapons and other advanced weapons systems. The poor performance of Russia's army on the battlefield and the inferiority of its military technology to that of western powers has also become evident. India will continue to seek alternative sources of production and maintenance, especially for its more advanced military equipment.

Decreasing reliability of Russia as a balancing power

Russia is steadily losing its ability to influence China, with whom India has a long history of territorial disputes. Since the eruption of the war in Ukraine, Russia's economic and political isolation from Europe has pushed the country to move closer to China. This will inevitably lead to Beijing's greater influence over Russia, which could impact the sale of new weapons or the transfer of spare parts to China's rival India. Indian military capabilities risk being greatly reduced until India can find alternative suppliers. China could also pressure Russia to recognize Chinese claims over disputed territory in northern and north-eastern India or to change its traditionally pro-India stance on Kashmir.

Similarly, China could influence Russia to increase its partnership with Pakistan. In the past years, the relationship between Islamabad and Beijing has dramatically improved. China has invested in developing Pakistan's economy and infrastructure as part of its Belt and Road Initiative. On top of all this, western sanctions will also push Russia to search for new buyers of its oil and natural gas, which will likely further improve Russia's ties with China and Pakistan due to existing oil and gas pipelines. Pakistan has been India's rival state since the partition in 1947, and their rivalry has led to a number of wars, territorial disputes, and population displacements.

Improving relations between India and the US

A potential China-Russia-Pakistan axis could push India to align closer with Russia's significant rival, the US, and other American partners like Japan and Australia to balance the influence of Beijing in the region. The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, a strategic alignment between India, Australia, Japan, and the United States, also known as the QUAD, illustrates this evolution. Russia's decreasing reliability as a weapons supplier will lead to India building closer relations with alternative arms sources such as the US and Israel. Furthermore, Modi's statements at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit and India's votes at the United Nations suggest a shift in India's traditional alignment with Russia.

Despite all this, there are still ways for Russia and India to remain close. One of them would be creating a new financial system between the two countries that would ease trade using their currencies and avoid the impact of sanctions. Considering the high costs and lengthy process of disentangling from the Russian military supply, it would still be in India's interest to keep this partnership. Moreover, India continues to depend on Russia for spare parts, especially for Russian-manufactured tanks and the jointly produced BrahMos missile, works on which have been continued since the invasion of Ukraine. Another factor that has been alleviating disruptions in the Russia-India partnership is India's purchase of discounted Russian oil, which has significantly boosted the profits of Indian refiners and proven to benefit India's economy. In May 2022, Russia became the country's second-largest source of imported oil.

Nonetheless, it is still unclear whether these factors will alleviate the current pressure on and downturn in the Russia-India relationship. First of all, implementing a different financial structure would be a lengthy endeavour, and even then, it would not be entirely immune to Western sanctions. The issues surrounding export controls would also remain. Additionally, the existing energy infrastructure is not suited for a drastic increase in the export of oil and gas to India. The two countries would need significant financial and material investment to construct new pipelines. Given the geography of South Asia, a pipeline from Russia to India would have to go through Pakistan and Afghanistan, which could lead to potential interference from their governments or terrorist groups active in those areas.

It is evident that Russia's invasion of Ukraine has weakened Russia's position as a balancing power against China. It has paved the way for stronger ties between India and the US and decreased India's reliance on Russian weapons. In the meantime, Russia is getting closer to China for economic and military reasons, decreasing New Delhi's trust in its Russian partner. The US will then be well-positioned to offer security and diplomatic support to balance Beijing's influence. Nonetheless, India is contradicting itself by continuing to purchase discounted Russian energy sources and simultaneously turning westwards for alternative arms suppliers. To what extent the invasion will impact the Indo-Russian partnership in the long term remains unclear. What is clear, however, is the fact that Modi will be treading a very fine line in the coming months.