The USSR, later Russia, has been the toast of India’s strategic policy and defence planning since the 1970s, forming a huge share of India’s basket of arms purchases. However, in the coming months and years, things are set to change at a faster pace than ever before.
Notwithstanding the fears expressed in the past about the Joe Biden administration coming to power, India and the US are looking to deepen their bilateral and multilateral cooperation, and take it to the next level rather than just talking about it. The main factor driving this increased focus is China.
Ironically, it is China again that is putting India’s historic relations with Russia under stress. However, this is not India’s doing. It is Russia, which is increasingly getting close to China to counter their common threat — the US — and not taking India’s interest into account.
The fact that Lloyd Austin is the first US Secretary of Defense to include India on his maiden trip abroad, usually reserved to meeting American allies, is an indication of the importance that the US places on relations with New Delhi, irrespective of having Republicans or Democrats at the helm.
“India, in particular, is an increasingly important partner amid today’s rapidly shifting international dynamics. And I reaffirmed our commitment to a comprehensive and forward-looking defense partnership with India as a central pillar of our approach to the region,” Austin said in New Delhi after meeting Defence Minister Rajnath Singh.
On his part, Singh said: “We are keen to work together to realise the full potential of the India-US Comprehensive Global Strategic Partnership.”
India-US ties under upgrade
People in the Indian defence, security and strategic establishment say that the above two statements — by Austin and Singh — clearly enunciate where the Indo-US relations are headed.
They say that both countries are looking beyond providing lip service to each other’s cause and expand the seller-buyer relationship to jointly focus on the threats of present and future.
So what can be expected in the months to come is more multilateral military exercises involving US and others countries, full operationalisation of the three foundational agreements signed between Delhi and Washington, access to hi-tech equipment via arms sale, greater collaboration at the global forums, and increase in India’s say in Afghanistan peace process, among others.
While yes, Indo-US ties have grown a lot during the last decade-and-half, it was never able to take off fully despite the historic nuclear deal for which former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh even staked his government.
Since 1947, Indo-US ties have weathered the Cold War-era distrust, Washington’s blind reliance on Pakistan, and estrangement over India’s nuclear programme.
But in recent years, especially under the Narendra Modi government, the partnership has seen a steady progress.
C Raja Mohan, Director, Institute of South Asian Studies, writes that there is a “growing gap between India’s foreign policy debate and policy”. He says, “the roots of this problem, on the Indian side, lie in the enduring reluctance of Delhi’s foreign policy community to either acknowledge or accept the unfolding transformation of India’s ties with the US.”
But India still values Russia
While everyone in the Indian defence, security and strategic establishment talks about the growing India-US ties and its potential, they make it clear that this is not happening at the cost of relations with Russia.
They argue that India has always nurtured its ties with Russia. So while India does the “tango with the US”, its “ballet with Russia” also continues.
Even defence deals are worked out in such a manner that both sides remain happy and India gets the best. But then Russia has been feeling a bit insecure over the past few years as India’s ties with the US grow close.
The discussions around the Indo-US relationship often come up during press interactions with the Russian defence and strategic community, or the government itself.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s words characterising the Quad as an anti-China game that the US is pushing India towards, was a clear statement from Moscow about how uncomfortable it is with this grouping.
However, as far as India is concerned, the grouping is a necessary response to China.
Interestingly, Russia had earlier this month denied a report claiming that Moscow kept India away from the Afghan talk table that included China.
This came after US Secretary of State Antony Blinken sent a letter to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and chairman of the High Council for National Reconciliation, Abdullah Abdullah, proposing a regional conference under the UN with foreign ministers of US, India, Russia, China, Pakistan and Iran to discuss a “unified approach” on Afghanistan.
Forced to clarify, Russia said that India plays a “very important role” in Afghanistan, and its “eventual deeper involvement” in dedicated dialogue formats is “natural”.
However, Russia’s clarification did not stand for long. Afghan Foreign Minister Haneef Atmar, in an interview to The Hindu, clarified that it was a “mistake not to invite India to Moscow, and we made it clear [to the organisers] (Russia) that peace and stability in our region and regional connectivity and prosperity cannot happen without India”.
Rajesh Rajagopalan, professor of International Politics at Jawaharlal Nehru University, writes that disagreements between India and Russia, on geopolitics, are only likely to grow, and Afghanistan is just one among many such issues. He argues that “while India and Russia do have some common interests, Moscow has its own imperatives that New Delhi should understand. Russian confrontation with the West broadly, and with the US in particular, forces Moscow to lean more heavily on Beijing. That makes India and Russia less useful to each other for some time to come.”
While India continues to give importance to its ties with Russia, which is playing the role of a spurned lover, as Raja Mohan says, “official Delhi has moved away from the legacy of anti-Americanism.”
Views are personal.
Edited by Anurag Chaubey