Russia in India’s foreign policy.

By Vinícius Tavares de Oliveira*

One of the greatest aspirations of India involves ensuring the country’s emergence as a Great autonomous, influential power respected by other nations. These aspirations are based mostly on gaining parity with other great powers such as China and the United States and a permanent seat in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). Underlying these aspirations, there is the fear of having a limited influence in South Asia, to be used as a pawn in a game of current Great Powers (fear arising largely from the Cold War period) or lose its strategic autonomy (Ogden, 2011).

Although these interests are not part of a Grand Strategy, they are deeply rooted in Indian bureaucrat community (especially among those of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of India), political thinkers, politicians, journalists and academics, which has permeated the country’s post-independence history. Continued economic and political growth ensures that these objectives continue to permeate and direct the actions of the country and its status as an emerging power and also conduct foreign policy goals and actions. (Ogden, 2011).

Regarding Indo-Russia relations, one can state that it has been one of understanding and positive sum in several areas as India poses as a time-tested partner, according to President Putin’s statement while his official visit to India in December 2014. The roots of this relationship lies at Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s first visit to the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) in 1955 that marked the beginning of India Russia relations as two independent countries. Nehru was impressed with Russia’s planned economy and the growth that the Soviet country was experimenting and decided to apply this economic model to the newly independent India.

Subsequently to this visit, relations with Russia flourished. On the political aspect of the relationship, in 1962, after India’s war against China, Russia came out supporting a peaceful solution between what the country called “brother China” and “friend India”, not taking sides or accusing any of them as being the main or sole guilt of the conflict. This clearly upset China that accused Russia of betraying communist solidarity, leading latter to the split between the two countries.

This Sino-Soviet split lead to an US-China rapprochement, which made both Russia and India cautious about the consequences of this renewed relation, and led to the 1971 Indo-Soviet Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Cooperation “which provided immediate consultation in case of military action against parties to the Treaty”(p.214). (Sachdeva, 2011)

The value of the treaty was evidenced in the same year with the Indo-Pakistan war when Russia firmly supported India and even sent ships to the Indian Ocean in order to counterbalance a US attempt to help Pakistan. As Sachdeva (2011)  points, both countries advocated for a nuclear-free world. The biggest test to both the Treaty and the Indo-Russian relations came only in 1979, however, with the Russia-Afghanistan war, when India was required to support Russia but could not do so because of its prominent role in the non-aligned movement.

Later on, when President Yeltsin took office right after the USSR collapse, it replaced the Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Cooperation into the Treaty of Friendship in 1993. It was in some waya downsizing of relations as it vaguely called for joint coordination between the two sides in case of any threat instead of the idea of immediate consultation in the event of a military action against each other by any third party. This also changed when President Putin took office. He altered the treaty into a Declaration on Strategic Partnership in 2000 showing clearly that “Moscow realized that as a Eurasian power, an active Russian role and influence in dynamic Asia would be limited without a solid partnership with old friends like India.” (Sachdeva, 2011.p.214)

The Declaration was a broad agreement that urged for cooperation in several fields such as trade, defense and energy. It also called for annual meetings between high-level authorities with the objective of “deepening and diversifying cooperation in sectors such as metallurgy, fuel and energy, information technology, communications and transport, including merchant shipping and civil aviation”. (India; Russia, 2000)

Trade and commerce

In the commercial and trade aspect, it is worth saying that the Soviet Union was a major trading partner that provided India – in exchange for other commodities – oil and arms. Commercial relations between the two countries was based in the Rupee Trade System, where the exchange rate of the currencies were established through periodic bureaucratic negotiations. (Kohli, 2006)

After the collapse of USSR, and the consequent falling of the Rupee Trade System, the two countries found themselves in a very delicate situation. Russia had to deal with its change from a planned economy to a market economy and, as for India, it is not difficult to say that the liberalization of Indian economy was an unintended consequence of the fall of the USSR as the country now needed US help to sustain growth. Improve diplomatic relations with the United States required necessarily an economic opening for goods and US capital. (Ganguly; Mukherji, 2011)

The liberalization of both economies brought new challenges. The entire Rupee Trading System had to be redesigned and in 1993, it was replaced and by another one that demanded that all trade would be conducted on a hard currency basis. The problem was that India had to pay for all the loans that it took while under the Rupee Trading System and it was solved after several rounds of negotiations. “Finally, after prolonged negotiations, the rouble credit was denominated in rupees and a repayment schedule was drawn up” (Sachdeva, 2011. p. 218)

The 1993 agreement also created an Indo-Russian Inter-Governmental Commission on Trade, Economic, Scientific, Technological and Cultural Cooperation (IRIGC-TEC) that aimed at improving economic relationship. IRIGC-TEC has 11 joint working groups: trade and economic co-operation; pharmaceuticals; petroleum; the coal industry; metallurgy; science and technology; cultural cooperation; information technology; power and energy; the environment and natural resources; and co-operation with the regions. (MEA, 2002)

Despite all these efforts, however, trade between the two countries could not reach desirable levels as it is now lower than Indian trade with countries such as Kenya, Israel and Vietnam for example. This is because nearly 70% of Russia economic activity is located at the private sector while the agreements established with India aims to improve state-to-state trade. It poses, then, as a challenge to be yet addressed.

Defense, energy and political relations

In the defense and energy sector, however, Indo-Russian relations are more vigorous as India poses as number one country in arms import, having surpassed China in 2007. “India’s major purchases from Russia over the last 18 years have been varied and extensive, including aircraft (MIG 29, MIG 29 SMT, SU 30K, SU MK1), helicopters (Mi-17, Mi-18, etc.) and air-defence systems (AK 630 30mm, etc.)”. (Sachdeva, 2011. p. 217)

The two countries are now moving fast from the buyer-seller relation  in order to achieve joint production of defense equipment. Joint military training and exercises are also conducted and cooperation in outer space is now being developed. (MEA, 2014)

Regarding energy, Indo-Russia relations are growing, especially in the oil and gas and nuclear sectors, as Russia state owned nuclear energy corporation Rosatom recently pledged to build 12 nuclear reactors and Rosneft, a Russia state owned oil company, signed a 10-year crude supply deal with Indian oil company Essar Oil. (BUSVINE; DYOMKIN, 2014)

In the political realm, Indo-Russian relation have gained a different aspect since the Ukrainian crisis. India refused to agree with the west and did not accept the US-led sanctions to Russia. “India, along with the other BRICS nations, showed remarkable bonhomie and camaraderie with Russia on this issue.” Alternatively, Russia have shown support for Indian application to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and the UN Security Council.  (Pillalamarri, 2014)

Preliminary remarks

This close political relation between India and Russia is justified by two factors regarding each one of the countries: New Delhi sees with caution the new Sino-Russia reapproachment while Moscow dislikes the fact that India have recently reached comprehensive agreements with the USA regarding military and defense issues. In the political realm, as both countries are part of new and different forms of interstate relation (BRICS and SCO for example) relations are expected to deepen and to become more institutionalized.

As Mahapatra (2015) states about India-Russia relations for 2015:

 “climate change, Arctic exploration, drug trafficking and money laundering too need attention of both the countries. It may not be a surprise that in 2015 both the countries push for a comprehensive convention on international terrorism at the 70th anniversary of the United Nations, and strengthen bilateral mechanisms to counter the menace.” (Mahapatra, 2015)

In the trade and commercial sector, as was showed before, relations are still minor as neither Russia or India poses as great partners to each other, despite the goal of achieving a mark of US$ 15 billion in trade by 2015. This is due to the lack of the private sector in the agreements made. India has been putting efforts to enhance and develop its new Make in India program, but the initiative is relatively new and therefore one cannot account for its success or failure yet.

India and Russia enjoy stable relations despite major transformations that the countries underwent in the 1990s. As Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi noted during the last Annual Meeting held under the auspices of the Declaration of Strategic Partnership: “if you ask anyone among the more than one billion people living in India who is our country’s greatest friend, every person, every child knows that it is Russia.” Both countries have a lot to win from cooperation: by Indian side, access to natural resources – specially in the energy sector –, support for applications in the UNSC and SCO; by the Russian side, the access of a billion people market is highly attractive as well as the option of not being entirely isolated in the Ukrainian crisis.

Both countries have already shown that they can achieve cooperation and the potential benefits are likely to grow and be enjoyed in the near future.

* Doutorando em Relações Internacionais pela PUC Minas


BUSVINE, DOUGLAS; DYOMKIN, DENIS. Modi to Putin: Russia to stay India’s top defence partner: Reuters India, New Delhi 2014.

Ganguly, S.; Mukherji, R. India Since 1980.   Cambridge University Press, 2011.  ISBN 9781139498661. Disponível em: < >.

India, Republic of; Russia, Federation. Decleration Strategic Partnership, New Delhi 2000.

Kohli, Atul. Politics of Economic Growth in India 1980-2005.  2006.  Disponível em: < >. Acesso em: 10/03/2015.

Mahapatra, Debidatta Aurobinda. India-Russia relations set to grow in 2015: Russia and India Report, Russia 2015.

MEA. India-Russia Relations, New Delhi 2014.

MEA, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of India. Indo-Russian Inter-Session Review Meeting of the IRIGC. MEA 2002.

Ogden, Chris. International ‘aspirations’ of a rising power. In: SCOTT, D. (Ed.). Handbook of India’s International Relations. Londres: Routledge, v.1, 2011. cap. 1, p.11.  ISBN 9781857435528.

Pillalamarri, Akhilesh. India and Russia Reinforce Ties: Can Russia serve as the bridge between China and India?: The Diplomat, Japan 2014.

Sachdeva, Gulshan. India’s relations with Russia. In: SCOTT, D. (Ed.). Handbook of India’s International Relations. London: Routledge, 2011.

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