The Trilateral Relationship: How India’s Rise Undermines U.S. Policy Towards Russia

As the United States seeks to bolster ties with India, it should keep in mind that it is dealing with a power whose geopolitical outlook is much closer to that of Russia.

By Ricky Gandhi 

April 26, 2017

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The rise of India as a global economic and military power has attracted the attention of many countries around the world, especially the United States and Russia. Both countries see the value in promoting better relations with India, and have greatly accelerated their outreach in the 21st century. 

For Russia, enhanced ties with India build upon a historical relationship with New Delhi that stems back to the Cold War. For the United States, modern-day outreach to India marks a shift in strategy and priorities, following a relationship in the 20th century that at times became fraught with controversy. But as Washington seeks to bolster ties with India, it should keep in mind that it is dealing with a power whose geopolitical outlook is much closer to that of Russia, and — like Russia —  seeks to move away from the Western-led international system. 

The race for India 

Throughout the Cold War, the Soviet Union and India developed a strong, mutually beneficial partnership that involved billions of dollars in arms deals and common geopolitical interests. Soviet support of India’s position on Kashmir — the highly disputed territory between India and Pakistan — helped solidify Soviet-Indian ties further. Meanwhile, U.S. policy in South Asia sometimes opposed Indian interests, especially in regard to Pakistan, with whom the United States signed multiple security agreements. 

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States has shown a heavy desire to deepen its relations with India due to the latter’s geopolitical position, rising defense capabilities, growing economy, and its status as the world’s largest democracy. The post-Cold War leg of this effort culminated in the 2005 U.S.-India Cooperation Agreement, which reinstated Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visa (earlier revoked by the United States over Modi’s alleged role in the 2002 Gujarat Riots) and envisioned maritime and defense technology frameworks, among other agreements. Today, Washington realizes the importance of continuing to develop U.S.-India relations, which former U.S. President Barack Obama called “one of the defining partnerships of the 21st century.”

Russia also realizes the strategic importance of India. While Russia-India relations saw a slight downturn during the 1990s due to Russia’s weakened economic position, partnership has accelerated in recent years. The two nations have held an annual summit since 2000 to discuss methods of improving bilateral relations. Another significant development was the signing of defense and energy deals worth over $5 billion in October 2016, with Russian President Vladimir Putin describing India as a “special and privileged strategic partner.” 

While the potential for cooperation among the three countries exists, Washington should realize that bolstering India’s position in the world could inadvertently undermine U.S. policy towards Russia. To understand why, it is vital to appreciate the sources and motivations of Indian foreign policy.

India and the world: the Nehru doctrine

India’s foreign policy outlook has long been shaped by history.* A more than 5,000-year-old past has helped to create a domestic narrative of a unique and exceptional India. British subjugation and the following post-colonial period have contributed to India’s near-obsession with autonomy and the principle of non-alignment in international relations. India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, laid down the principles and objectives for Indian foreign policy in a speech at Columbia University in 1949:


“[India] has tried to combine idealism with national interest. The main objectives of that policy are: the pursuit of peace, not through alignment with any major power or group of powers, but through an independent approach to each controversial or disputed issue; the liberation of subject peoples; the maintenance of freedom both national and individual; the elimination of want, disease, and ignorance, which afflict the greater part of the world’s population.”

In his address, Nehru continued to discuss the necessity of peace and attacking the root causes of war, one of which he considers “the domination of one country by another.” The Nehruvian philosophy has persisted to this day across the three major schools of thought in Indian foreign policy. Those in the non-alignment camp consider India as a central voice of the developing world and the poor. Realists, on the other hand, believe that India’s relations with major powers and growing economy can help increase the country’s global influence. Finally, hawks see India’s military as the most effective means for projecting power. Despite differences in means, all three schools wish for India to become a major player in international politics. The desire for global influence and the drive for autonomy have led New Delhi to seek a more diffused system of global governance that other rising powers, namely Russia, have long been advocating.

Towards a multipolar world?

India and Russia share a desire to become established world powers. Both want to exert power in their respective spheres of influence and strongly oppose foreign intervention in the internal affairs of other countries. They also aspire to have more influence at global forums like the United Nations (UN), while promoting new international institutions that reflect their own economic and strategic priorities. 

As such, Russian-Indian cooperation in economic and defense sectors at times undermines U.S. aims, especially in regards to American policy towards Russia. BRICS, for example, serves to provide an alternative to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank. The bloc, which consists of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa, created the New Development Bank (NDB) in 2014 to help achieve this goal. So far, the NDB has given out more than $1.5 billion in loans to various projects in member countries. While this pales in comparison to the $61 billion of new projects the World Bank initiated in 2016, it signals a desire to break away from traditionally Western-dominated institutions. BRICS has also taken positions on geopolitical issues that are at odds with Washington, such as condemning Western sanctions against Russia and military intervention in the Middle East. 

India’s growing economic clout is coupled with an increased interest in defense, as shown by India becoming the fifth largest military spender in the world. While the U.S. has increased arms exports to India in recent years, Russia still accounted for nearly two-thirds of total arms exports to India in 2015-2016. In the long-term, India may seek to improve its weapons platforms through continued diversification of suppliers. For Russia, this means more competition and a loss of market share in India. In the short-run, however, Russian primacy in the Indian defense sector appears secure.




A few reasons account for this. First, while U.S. suppliers offer technological advantages, Russian products generally cost less. Second, American defense deals often come with more restrictions and requirements that India views as an affront to its sovereignty. Third, due to the ability of the U.S. Congress to amend or block a sale at any time, the United States is perceived as an “unreliable” supplier. Lastly, U.S. export controls heavily burdened India’s purchases during the Cold War. While these controls have relaxed since then, the perception of an onerous and opaque U.S. system still exists.

In addition, Prime Minister Modi’s “Make in India” campaign will increase economic and defense relations between India and Russia. The October 2016 package of economic and defense deals created a joint venture to construct Kamov helicopters in India in addition to boosting ties in the infrastructure and energy sectors. India has also received materials to produce shells used for Russian T-90 tanks. Russian companies have also shown interest in improving India’s air force and air defense systems, with the two countries expected to finalize the S-400 Missile Air Defense System Deal by the end of 2017.  

Such close defense ties (valued at nearly $8 billion) help improve Russia’s economy at a time when Western sanctions have restricted capital flows. It also enhances the political relationship the two countries share. At the risk of alienating Moscow, India has publicly opposed Western sanctions against Russia and has not condemned Russian actions in Syria or Crimea.

This stance could become problematic for the West, and especially the United States, should India receive a permanent seat on the UN Security Council (UNSC) – a move that has been the subject of ongoing discussions, and is backed, among others, by the UK and France. India would likely block actions that it views as “interventionist” and would resist UNSC decisions that interfere in its perceived sphere of influence.

In short, rooted in defense cooperation and a similar geopolitical outlook, Russia-India relations will continue to strengthen. Increased economic and political support from India could mitigate the effects of U.S. sanctions against Russia or similar policies focused on isolating Moscow. It also enhances the prospects of generating a multi-polar world, as both countries will continue to support and establish non-Western institutions to serve as a counterweight to the current Western-dominated ones. 

American policy moving forward

All of this begs the question of what the United States’ policy towards India and Russia should entail moving forward. Regarding India, the U.S. must maintain its interest in improving relations, as this relationship offers a strategic and economic counterbalance to Moscow-New Delhi ties. That involves increasing trade, military cooperation, and supporting India’s bid for a UNSC seat. The last one, despite being counterintuitive, actually would improve U.S.-India relations as it signals U.S. acceptance of India as a rising power. It would also improve trust and show a willingness to work with India on the global stage. Conversely, refusing to support the UNSC bid would likely hamper relations, making it harder to cooperate on issues of mutual interest, especially economic and military ones.

As for Russia, Washington should focus on crafting policy based on pragmatism rather than ideology. While this could possibly alter the strategy regarding some geopolitical issues, it does not mean the United States will have to abandon the concerns of countries neighboring Russia. Nor does it mean abandoning the promotion Western democratic values outright. Rather, this strategy entails making areas of mutual interest (e.g. counterterrorism) a foremost priority.

Lastly, the United States needs to prepare to navigate a multipolar world. Part of this involves improving the already existing institutions, such as the IMF and World Bank, to better accommodate developing nations. It also means not viewing new institutions like BRICS as a threat, but rather as an opportunity to collaborate, as well as improve upon existing structures. The United States should also assist willing countries in developing stronger institutions and democratic governance. Doing so will increase American credibility and soft power while limiting Moscow’s reach, as Russia cannot offer these benefits.

Russia and India will want to project more influence as the world becomes increasingly multipolar. However, if the United States learns to navigate this new stage by using an appropriate mix of soft and hard power, it will simultaneously foster better relations with India while diminish Russian threats to American interests. Should this occur, a trilateral relationship could soon begin to develop — one that could foresee cooperation in trade, combating Chinese expansion, addressing climate change and more.


*For more on the development on India’s foreign policy see:

Schaffer, Teresita C., and Howard B. Schaffer. India at the global high table: the quest for regional primacy and strategic autonomy. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 2016.

Hardgrave, Robert Lewis, and Stanley A. Kochanek. India: government and politics in a developing nation. Estados Unidos: Thomson/Wadsworth, 2008.

Ricky Gandhi is an economist at the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and a junior adjunct fellow at the American Security Project. His research interests include Russian foreign policy and the impact of Russia-India relations on U.S. foreign policy.

The Center on Global Interests does not take institutional positions. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect those of the affiliated institutions or individuals.

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