India’s friendship with the then-Soviet Union became official in 1971, after the two countries signed a Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Cooperation. That year, the Soviets backed India in a war that ultimately led to the independence of Bangladesh. Around this time, the US was also pursuing its opening to China (with Pakistan, India’s foe, as the go-between), and both the USSR and India saw a common interest in balancing against China, said Sumit Ganguly, a political science professor at Indiana University Bloomington.
This friendship pact with Russia was about as close to an alliance as India was comfortable enough to get at the time, experts said. During the Cold War, India practiced a foreign policy of non-alignment, an approach embraced by many newly independent states following decolonization after World War II.
The Soviet Union and the US were battling for spheres of influence in these countries, so non-aligned countries sought to stay out of the superpower conflict and assert their right to independently run their foreign and domestic policy, with varying degrees of success. India saw itself as a leader in this movement, but that also didn’t preclude it from swaying toward Moscow when it made sense for India’s own interests.
The Soviet Union and India saw a benefit in relying on each other to counter China and a possible US-China partnership. But India got another perk: Soviet weaponry at what Ganguly called “bargain basement” prices. From the 1970s onward, India built up its military with Soviet, and later Russian, arms and equipment. Even today, the majority of India’s weaponry is of Soviet or Russian origin. Since 2010, Russia makes up two-thirds of India’s arms imports. New Delhi remains Moscow’s biggest arms importer, according to data compiled from the Congressional Research Service.
India has tried to diversify, going to the United Kingdom and France and Israel, and especially, the United States. As the relationship between the US and India grew in the past few decades, so, too, did defense cooperation — to the tune of billions in arms sales. But it’s still nowhere near the amount Russia provides. It’s also not as simple as just swapping out Russian stuff with new, US-made stuff. “Over the last 10 years, Indians have been steadily trying to reduce their dependence on Russia,” Ganguly said. “But it’s damn difficult.”
India needs spare parts to maintain the equipment it already has; arms imports from the US or elsewhere may be inoperable with Russian equipment. India also doesn’t have unlimited funds for defense, and US arms may not come as cheap as Russia’s. “It’s not [as though] you can just turn it off and stop the purchases now,” said Deepa Ollapally, a political scientist specializing in Indian foreign policy at George Washington University. “You’ve got to take care of your entire arsenal, which it won’t be that easy to do.”
Even as India weans itself off Russian arms, it is a slow and long-term process. And slow and long-term processes can feel very risky when India worries about protecting itself in its own neighborhood, from China and Pakistan. “It’s not just a case of being reliant on Russia,” said Michael Kugelman, deputy director and senior associate for South Asia at the Wilson Center. “But it’s a case of being reliant on Russian arms at a moment when India faces multiple immediate security threats.”
The United States gets this dilemma, to a degree. India recently purchased the S-400, a Russian missile defense system, which makes it subject to a particular type of US sanction. (The US imposed these sanctions on NATO-ally Turkey for making the same purchase.) But President Joe Biden can waive those, and Democrats and Republicans in Congress have asked him to do that, largely because they say it would undermine India’s ability to counter China.
As Unnikrishnan pointed out, the United States isn’t offering unlimited defense support to India. Basically, if India wants something like nuclear submarines, where else is it going to get them? “If tomorrow, the United States declares that ‘okay, we will include India in the AUKUS, [the deal it made to supply fellow Quad member Australia]’ you watch — I’m sure the Russia relationship will start diluting. But that’s not happening, is it?”
Experts also cautioned against completely pigeonholing India’s connection to Russia as solely transactional. India’s history of being brutally colonized by the British still makes it somewhat wary of being told what to do by the West.
India wants to balance its partnerships, in the world and its neighborhood, and it sees value in an empowered Russia, especially as a way to prevent Chinese hegemony in the region. “India is concerned about Russia completely collapsing, and becoming a very, very weak state in the global system, because India’s preference is for a multipolar global system where you have more than one overweening power,” Ollapally said.
Kugelman also noted that Indian officials regularly describe the relationship as one of the most trusted and consistent New Delhi has. Russia has backed up India on the global stage, from the start of their friendship, in 1971, to the present day, with Russia assisting India during the peak of its Covid-19 catastrophe last summer. Putin and Modi have met more than a dozen times, most recently in December 2021, when Putin traveled to New Delhi. Putin himself described India as “a great power, a friendly nation, and a time-tested friend.”
“India is not ready to turn on Russia, just because of those very powerful affinities that endure,” Kugelman said.
“A lot of it is nostalgia-driven,” he added. “But still it’s very powerful.”