India’s Embrace of U.S. will Dampen Moscow-New Delhi Ties

Competition with China is pushing India towards the U.S. and away from its traditional ally, Russia.

May 18, 2017

By Sasha Riser-Kositsky 


Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi will meet Russian President Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum in early June and reports indicate that a number of sundry deals and agreements will be on the table. Yet the invariable warm words and friendly gestures will do little to mask the strategic reality that India and Russia, once close Cold War partners, are steadily drifting apart as India and the United States, driven primarily by shared concern at China’s growing assertiveness, grow closer together. Underscoring this ongoing realignment, this summer Modi is set to make a state visit to Washington to meet President Donald Trump, the Indian leader’s fifth trip to the United States since coming to power in 2014.

Moving away from non-alignment

Seeking friends and partners in its emerging competition with China for influence around the world has emerged as a powerful driver of Indian foreign policy, competing with New Delhi’s traditional emphasis on nonalignment and skepticism of U.S. global leadership. China has taken on ever greater prominence in New Delhi’s thinking over the last year as Beijing has blocked Indian initiatives in the United Nations (UN), prevented Indian entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group, and increased support for Pakistan through the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, which passes through areas of Kashmir claimed by India. Meanwhile, India pointedly refused to send a delegation to China’s Belt and Road Initiative summit in mid-May.

New Delhi has yet to resolve the tension between balancing China and nonalignment, but Modi has followed in Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s footsteps by tilting toward the United States, particularly in the defense realm. Russia accounted for about 68% of India’s arms imports between 2012 and 2016, a predominant market share that has steadily eroded since the late 1990s; from negligible levels a decade ago, the U.S. is now second to Russia, meeting 14% of India’s import demand.

As India has grown closer to the U.S. and more concerned about China’s growing global role, New Delhi has tilted away from multilateral institutions such as the Non-Aligned Movement and the BRICS initiative that were designed to challenge Western dominance of existing global bodies, still a significant goal of Russia foreign policy. India’s insistence that each member country equally contribute to the New Development Bank (the ‘BRICS Bank’), ensures that China cannot dominate the bank through an outsized financial commitment. The rule ensures that the bank’s resources are limited by South Africa’s financial constraints, ultimately constraining the bank’s ability to seriously compete with the likes of the World Bank and IMF.

Conversely, competition with the United States has pushed Russia towards China and prompted a series of policies at odds with Indian interests. As India has moved closer towards Washington, Russian relations with China and Pakistan have warmed, increasing New Delhi’s wariness. Increased Russian support for the Taliban in Afghanistan, recently tacitly confirmed by the U.S. military, also alarms Indian officials. New Delhi has invested heavily over the years in supporting the Afghan government, and India’s limited presence in the country is deeply resented by Pakistan.

For Russia, facing isolation from the West and threatened economically by sanctions and low oil prices, support for U.S. opponents and closer alignment with a China hungry for resources and eager to invest in infrastructure are logical steps. Putin was the most important leader in attendance at the recent Belt and Road Initiative summit in Beijing, holding talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping on the sidelines.

Russia’s long game

Despite increased friction as India more closely aligns with the United States, Indo-Russian relations are likely to remain close as the two countries continue to cooperate across a myriad of projects and programs. While no longer the default suppliers, Russian firms remain well placed to compete with their Western and American counterparts for lucrative Indian defense deals as India’s military modernization continues to slowly grind forward.

By contrast, warming Indo-U.S. relations have fallen short of the soaring rhetoric regularly employed by U.S. officials. While the century is still young, thus far Indo-U.S. relations do not appear to be on track to eventually constitute “one of the defining partnerships” of the age. As closely as India has tilted toward the U.S., relative to New Delhi’s previous baseline of firm nonalignment, many Indian officials, and the public at large, remain suspicious of any move that smacks of an alliance with Washington. Although India signed a foundational defense logistics cooperation agreement with the United States last August, as of late April India had yet to finalize its policies and begin implementation. The reality is that the Indian system moves slowly and the realignment of a half century of foreign policy moves more slowly still.


Sasha Riser-Kositsky is a South Asia analyst at the political risk consultancy Eurasia Group.

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.

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