Discussions / Russia's War Against Ukraine from the Perspective of the Global South

Thursday, May 09, 2024

Back to the Future: The Past and Present State of Close India-Russia Ties

India’s tilt towards Russia in the ongoing Ukraine War has drawn criticism as either opportunism or apathy. In fact, it is an outcome of the seven decades of India-Russia/Soviet friendship, which can be only understood if placed within the larger context of two triangular relationships: India-Russia-west on the one hand and India-Russia-China on another. The mutual orbiting of India and Russia has always been affected by the gravitational pulls of the west and China.

Despite their fundamentally different political systems, New Delhi and Moscow developed a close and stable relationship after the death of Iosif Stalin in 1953. Their economic relations intensified when the Soviets helped India establish steel plants in Bhilai and Bokaro and develop its oil industry. In each of these cases, the Soviets stepped in after India’s negotiations with the west fell through. Indo-Soviet military cooperation also expanded dramatically after the Chinese rout of the Indian Army in 1962. The USSR quickly became India’s principal weapons source thanks to favorable economic terms, a willingness to license aircraft for Indian production, and New Delhi’s desire to reduce reliance on the west. The Indian military continues to depend on Russian arms supply to this day, despite its efforts to diversify. The Sino-Soviet Split of the late 1960s further strengthened India-Russia relations as both countries found a common threat in China. Even the high point of the Indo-Soviet relationship—the 1971 Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation—only came about because American diplomats quietly reduced security commitments to India as they sought to normalize their relations with China.

It is worth noting that in all of these cases, Indo-Soviet ties expanded either because of the Chinese threat or as a result of India’s dissatisfaction with its relationship with the west. Indian-Soviet economic cooperation continued to prosper in the 1970s and 80s not only due to material benefits but also because it allowed India to maintain a degree of independence from global capitalism centered around the US. After the Cold War, the Indo-Russian relationship reached its nadir as both Moscow and New Delhi turned toward the west.

It took almost a decade for the friendship to be reinvented, once again within the context of the India-Russia-west triangular relationship. Russian President Vladimir Putin laid its foundations in 2000 by proposing the India-Russia Strategic Partnership agreement, which, he declared, intended to promote a “multipolar world.” Moscow wished to challenge American hegemony, and New Delhi, harboring deep-seated wariness of the US as a reliable partner, was willing to go along.

The renewed relationship was more political than economic at its core. India used Russia as ballast to ensure that New Delhi didn’t keel too much towards the US, but the two failed to translate the Cold War-era intense public-sector economic cooperation into a twenty-first century private-sector partnership. In the 2010s, worldviews of the two countries showed increasing convergence as Indian leaders joined the Russians in calling for a multipolar world and criticizing the U.S.-led world order in their joint statements. Moscow also began looking to India not just as a partner to push back against American world leadership but also as a counterweight against its growing dependence on China. Tellingly, the 2021 Russian National Security Strategy drew an equivalence between China and India as Russia’s partners.

The strength of the Indo-Russian relationship was proven after the 2022 Ukraine war began. India declared itself neutral in the conflict, which effectively helped Russia’s cause. It abstained from UN resolutions condemning Russia for the invasion. Taking advantage of the western sanctions, it quickly became one of largest importers of cheap Russian energy. The war deepened India-Russia economic ties, something that the two had struggled with ever since the end of the Cold War. In some telling exchanges, Indian officials even appeared sympathetic to the Russian arguments for the war.

India has been remarkably successful in withstanding pressures from the west to condemn Russia, as evidenced in its successful performance as the 2023 G20 Summit host and the its deepening involvement in the Quad. However, it is facing intense pressure from the other triad. The Ukraine War has pushed Russia closer to China, celebrated as their “no limits” friendship. Meanwhile, Sino-Indian relations remain tense after multiple border skirmishes. New Delhi is finding its tightrope balance of leveraging both its relations with the US and Russia as counterweights to China as increasingly difficult. This does not mean that New Delhi is ready to abandon its relations with Russia yet. Nevertheless, Indian policy has no easy answers as it watches Russian dependence on China grow further.


Sandeep Bhardwaj is finishing up his PhD in international history from Ashoka University, India, where he is currently serving as a Visiting Faculty in the International Relations department. His research examines India’s role in the making of the post-colonial regional order in Asia after World War II. He has just finished a year at Yale as a Fulbright Scholar. Initially trained as a software engineer, he earned his Masters from the University of Chicago specializing in International Relations. He has worked for a decade as a foreign policy researcher in several Indian think tanks, including the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, where his work blended historical and policy research. He is the co-author of the Official History of the Kargil War for the Indian Ministry of Defense.

David C. Engerman, Leitner International Interdisciplinary Professor of History and Global Affairs, teaches international history at Yale University. Between receiving his PhD from the University of California-Berkeley in 1998 and joining Yale in 2018, he was on the faculty at Brandeis University. He is the author of three books—Modernization from the Other Shore; American Intellectuals and the Romance of Russian Development (Harvard, 2003), Know Your Enemy: The Rise and Fall of America’s Soviet Experts (Oxford, 2009), and The Price of Aid: The Economic Cold War in India (Harvard, 2018)—and the editor or coeditor of multiple collections, including a volume of the new Cambridge History of America and the World. His current research recounts the history of development through the lives and works of six prominent economists.

More Letters in this Discussion

See Full Discussion
  • Brazil-Russia relations and the Ukrainian Crisis

    The Ukrainian crisis escalation in February 2022 can be understood as the continuation of the conflict established with the annexation of Crimea by Russia in 2014 and the intensification of disputes over the Donbass region. In the same period, Brazil went through significant political changes. However, it is worth noting that the political-ideological oscillations in Brazil did not mean, in general, significant differences toward the stance taken by Brasília regarding the Ukrainian crisis and its escalation, when considering the main paradigmatic lines that have guided the country’s foreign policy. Thus, Brazil’s response to the war reproduces general principles of Brazilian foreign policy, but finds challenges raised by the demand for a pragmatic position toward Brazil-Russia relations in the face of Brazil’s domestic political changes.

  • Middle Eastern Responses to the Russian Invasion of Ukraine

    Russia’s two closest partners in the Middle East—Iran and Syria—have been supportive of Moscow’s war effort against Ukraine. America’s traditional partners in the Middle East, by contrast, have not joined the US and other western governments in providing aid to Ukraine or even imposing economic sanctions against Russia. There appear to be several reasons for this, and each Middle Eastern government has its own set of calculations and concerns with regard to the Russia-Ukraine conflict. There are, however, several overlapping reasons which many of these governments share, even though some of these reasons may be more important to some states than to others.

  • China, Bandung, and the War in Ukraine

    One year into the Russian-initiated war in Ukraine, the Chinese government issued “China’s Position on the Political Settlement of the Ukraine Crisis,” a statement proposing how this war should end. Several major US press outlets dismissed it as largely inconsequential. The New York Times described it as a diplomatic paper that called for peace negotiations “only in broad terms,” without clarifying how Russian claims on Ukrainian territory and Ukrainian insistence on Russian withdrawal might be reconciled.