The time-tested India-Russia relationship, once considered an exception to the dictum that “there are no permanent enemies, and no permanent friends, only permanent interests” is under strain on account of the tremors in the world. But given the history of the relationship and the strength of continuing mutuality of interests dictated by history and geography, the two countries are likely to remain friendly even as they diversify relationships in an increasingly turbulent world.
The impact of the long history of Indo-Soviet cooperation during the Cold War is too significant to be erased or wished away. Pandit Nehru’s fascination for socialism and planned development formed the basis of the strong political and economic relationship with the Soviet Union, which began providing development assistance to India in the 50s and military assistance in the 60s. It was the Soviet Union, which helped India build India’s basic infrastructure and many of the institutions built with Soviet support continue to be crucial in India’s economic development. A virtual barter arrangement between the two countries promoted trade and investment for half a century.
Mutual political support too all through
The political support from the Soviet Union was also strong, first on Kashmir, then on India’s nuclear ambitions and most importantly on Bangladesh, which led to a Treaty, which called into question India’s non-aligned credentials. The Soviet vetoes on Kashmir, Goa and Bangladesh were historic and India reciprocated by remaining silent on Hungary, Czechoslovakia and supported the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan. India was the only country outside the Soviet bloc which extended support to the Soviet actions on crucial occasions. India’s position on Afghanistan adversely affected India’s relations with the US and many non-aligned countries.
I was in Moscow during the heyday of Indo-Soviet relations between 1974 and 1977. Although important events in India like India’s “Peaceful Nuclear Explosion in 1974, the National Emergency in 1975 and the formation of the Janata Government in 1977 jolted the Soviet Union, the nature of the relationship was such that they did not affect the relationship. The Soviet Union joined the international protest against India’s nuclear test and joined the Nuclear Suppliers Group to counter India’s development of nuclear technology, but bilaterally expressed understanding of India’s compulsions.
The Soviet Union gave the strongest support to PM Indira Gandhi during the Emergency by meeting India’s needs. Her defeat in the elections shocked them as they never believed that she could lose. They felt unsure of the new dispensation In India, but quickly adjusted themselves to the new situation. The “genuine non-alignment” of Janata Party hinted at distancing itself from the Soviet Union, but, in effect, nothing changed. I went with PM Morarji Desai to Moscow in 1979, when he tried to disown the Indo-Soviet Treaty, but returned with the conviction that Indo-Soviet relations were crucial. He turned down an offer to take an Indian cosmonaut to space, but nothing more.
The lost decade
The collapse of the Soviet Union and Russia’s initial efforts to seek sustenance from the US led to a “lost decade” in India-Russia relations, but the essential spares and technology transfer for India’s defence industry continued with Russia and some of the new Republics.
After Russia began to return to the international stage under Vladimir Putin, India-Russia cooperation gained strength in trade, defence and nuclear technology. Russia became India’s biggest trading partner in the 90s. Russia joined the rest of the world in questioning India’s nuclear tests of 1998, but continued its nuclear cooperation in Kudankulam and the lease of a nuclear attack submarine. The India-US nuclear deal resulted in improvement in India-US relations, but the main beneficiary of the deal was Russia because nuclear trade with other countries got blocked because of the liability law enacted by India. Russia continued its cooperation under the “grandfather clause.”
The China factor
It was a matter of concern to China and Russia when India became a major defence partner of the US and Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a new symphony in India-US relations. The first signs of Russian concern surfaced at the Heart of Asia Meeting in Amritsar in December 2016 when the Russian representative stated that the main terrorist threat was not cross-border terrorism, but the IS and Al-Qaeda. There were also indications that Russia was getting closer to China and Pakistan. Russia also tried to persuade India to join China’s Belt and Road Initiative. An informal summit in Sochi between PM Modi and President Putin and PM Modi’s important visit to the Vladivostok did not reverse the Russian policy to be closer to China and Pakistan. In 2020, following the geopolitical changes following COVID-19, Russia became closer to China and began supplying arms to Pakistan and held joint exercises in the Indian Ocean. The annual India-Russia summit did not take place in 2020 and Russia characterised its relations with China as the best ever.
When China launched an attack on the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Ladakh, Russia made some mediation efforts, but did not support India as Russia felt that India had become a part of the west’s aggressive policies on China. The activation of the QUAD drove Russia into the Chinese camp as both agreed that QUAD was nothing but an “Asian NATO”. Russia’s relationship with China and Pakistan grew so rapidly that it became clear that it will neither oppose China’s aggression nor oppose Pakistani terrorism against India.
Russia warms up to Pakistan
It was against this backdrop that Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov paid a visit to India and Pakistan, as though to hyphenate Moscow’s relations with New Delhi and Islamabad. In fact, he travelled to Islamabad from Delhi and spent more time in Pakistan. In India, FM Jaishankar described India-Russia relations as “time tested, energetic and forward looking”, while FM Lavrov used the words, “warm, comprehensive and productive” to describe the same. The reiteration of our order for S-400 missiles in the face of opposition by the US and the plans for President Putin to visit India may have gladdened Russia, but the Lavrov indicated that all is not well between New Delhi and Moscow. PM Modi did not find it necessary to reschedule his election campaign to receive Lavrov. In Islamabad, Lavrov revealed that consultations were taking place between India and Pakistan, which India had tried to keep secret.
Search for new alliances
Russia is under pressure from the US on Ukraine and Crimea and the recent measures US President Joe Biden has taken against Russian diplomats and others and acrimony over Alexei Navalny’s failing health have embittered relations between Russia and the US and Russia is looking for new alliances. Similarly, India is seeking new alignments, defence supplies and support from the international community. The whole world is in a state of flux also because of the COVID-19 pandemic. It will take time for matters to settle down in the new norm, but past relationships and mutuality of interests will not go in vain.