It has been said that as Russia’s problems with the US become sharper and its alliance with China deeper, the old ties between New Delhi and Moscow have become the geopolitical equivalent of a square peg trying to fit into a round hole

To an Indophile geopolitical observer, nothing is more fascinating than India’s ability to juggle seemingly incompatible international relations. On one hand, India’s long relationship with Russia has burnished its nonaligned credentials and serves as an example to other countries that want to promote shared interests with the US, but who don’t want to appear to pick sides or join a treaty alliance. On the other hand, with Russia appearing to cuddle up to China, a country becoming increasingly hostile to India, it’s possible that instead of India creating a wedge between China and Russia, Beijing might end up creating a gulf between New Delhi and Moscow. India and Russia have opposite positions on China, and that is becoming a source of major stress in the relationship.

It’s now seventy years since Pakistan, facing enormous challenges to ensure its survival and cope with the power asymmetries in the region, reached out to the US for economic assistance. This suited the US well, as it was then trying to curb Soviet influence in the region by promoting a strategic alliance of Asian States. At the same time, India, Pakistan’s arch-rival, developed a warm relationship with Russia, deeply appreciating Moscow’s support in delivering arms and vetoing Kashmir-related issues in the UN Security Council. Even after the collapse of the Soviet Union thirty years ago, Russia remained India’s main international partner and a key arms supplier. When Prime Minister Modi met with President Vladimir Putin in the sidelines of a BRICS summit in Brazil back in 2014, he told the Russian President that “even a child in India, if asked to say who is India’s best friend, will reply it is Russia, because Russia has always been with India in a time of crisis”. But now, to an outside observer, India’s relationship with Moscow appears to be undergoing a subtle shift, while Pakistan has become deferential to China.

At a meeting of the UN Security Council last September to discuss the crisis in Afghanistan, India teamed up with the US, Britain, and France in laying out some tough demands on the Taliban, while Russia joined China in abstaining in the vote, arguing that the language should be diluted. Observers were taken aback by India’s move, as such a divergence from Russia was previously unthinkable. They should not have been, as India’s growing problems over the past decade with a rapidly rising and increasingly assertive China, compelled a major shift in New Delhi’s attitude to Beijing, inevitably turning to Washington as a balance. When former President Donald Trump put India at the heart of Washington’s new strategy in the Indo-Pacific, New Delhi was acknowledged as a significant player in the US world-view.

In the meantime, relations between Moscow and the West have sunk to new lows not seen since the Cold War, severely strained by issues over Ukraine. President Putin engaged with the West after his first election in 2000, but later grew increasingly critical of the US, the EU, and NATO, frequently accusing them of shunning Moscow’s offers of cooperation, fostering hostility, and trying to side-line and weaken Russia.

So it’s not surprising that Russia has now turned eastwards to embrace China. Reports on the summit between Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin on 4 February, amid the spectacle of the start of the Winter Olympics in Beijing, claim to have marked a “new era” in ties between Beijing and Moscow that “continue to strengthen politically, economically and militarily”. In a joint declaration, Putin and Xi heralded their relationship and sought to show a common front against rising Western pressure amid the Kremlin’s showdown with the West over Ukraine, both blaming the West in general, and NATO in particular, for recreating the “ideology of a new Cold War”. Beijing has expressed support for Moscow’s grievances and even joined Moscow in trying to block action on Ukraine at the UN Security Council.

Will this lead to a formal alliance? Probably not, as the arrangement appears only to serve the national interests of both countries. The problem for the Kremlin is that as the relationship deepens, things become more asymmetric in China’s favour, from trade to the economy to politics. Much will depend on Ukraine. A military conflict there will almost certainly trigger a new round of sanctions against Russia, which in turn will lead to two consequences for China. The first is that Russia will have to rely more on China to offset Western sanctions triggered by an invasion into Ukraine. Moscow will have to look to Beijing for injections of cash and new projects if it wants its economy to grow, which in turn will cause Moscow to be worried about becoming too dependent on China. The second consequence is also probably a good one for Xi. A large-scale security conflict with Russia will dominate the second half of US President Biden’s presidency and suck up significant oxygen in decision-making rooms in the White House, leaving little time to spend on China, the main foreign policy goal of his administration.

How would this affect India? Few would disagree that another Russian invasion of Ukraine would put paid to any near-term rapprochement between the West and Russia, which would further complicate India’s efforts to maintain a delicate balance between its partnerships with the US, Europe and Russia. If Delhi continues its policy of neither openly criticising nor endorsing Russian actions in Ukraine, silence could be seen as an endorsement, an outcome likely to be trumpeted by Moscow. Further western sanctions on Russia could also hinder India’s ability to develop and diversify business ties with Russia, although existing business is relatively small by comparison with India’s trade with the US. Currently, India’s bilateral trade with the US, at around $80 billion annually, is nearly ten times the volume with Russia. The US is India’s top trading partner, while Russia languishes at number twenty-five.

Arms imports also show a long-term shift by India away from Russian weapons systems. Data collected by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute shows Russia’s share in Indian arms imports decreased from 70% between 2011 and 2015, to 49% between 2016 and 2020. Meanwhile India has sought and secured the US designation of “major defence partner”, which makes it easier for New Delhi to access high-tech, sensitive US military technology that would otherwise be subject to stricter export controls.

Still, India’s legacy weapons platforms require Russian maintenance and supplies, so New Delhi needs to maintain a strong military partnership with Moscow. Russia is also willing to allow joint production of its trademarked military equipment, such as the AK-203 rifle, something which the US is yet to commit to doing. There is also a broad consensus within the Indian strategic community that the Russian S-400 anti-missile system is the best of its kind, although the US had previously tried to offer US alternatives, such as the Lockheed-Martin “terminal high-altitude area defence system”. Nevertheless, the long-term shift away from Russian weapons systems is one of the arguments that some influential US Republican Senators used when introducing an amendment to make it harder for the Biden administration to sanction India for procuring the S-400. The other argument is China.

A major irritant in India’s relationship with Russia is that Moscow continues to refuse to acknowledge India’s concerns over China’s increasingly aggressive behaviour in the Ladakh region, where last year at least 20 Indian and four Chinese died in clashes. Moscow also continues to criticise New Delhi over its membership of the Quad, which it sees as an anti-China construct. “We expressed our serious concerns to our Indian friends over the US activity under the slogan of the so-called Indo-Pacific strategies and the creation of the Quad”, said Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov last December, as Narendra Modi and Vladimir Putin shook hands after their summit. Russia sees China as an important partner in the creation of a bipolar autocratic world, and therefore the Quad as an attempt to isolate Russia as well as China.

It has been said that as Russia’s problems with the US become sharper and its alliance with China deeper, the old ties between New Delhi and Moscow have become the geopolitical equivalent of a square peg trying to fit into a round hole. Maybe so, but as Russia and China’s rivalries with the West bring the two countries closer than ever, does this mean that India should abandon its policy of non-alignment? Faced with the birth of a potent autocratic alliance on track to see the world sheer into two spheres of competing influence, is non-alignment even the best policy for New Delhi? Worse still, if China, with some Russian help, succeeds in dethroning the US and becomes the world’s strongest superpower, where would that leave India? India unquestionably has the stature, but does it have the time to carefully chart a course with an emerging autocratic Russia/China partnership, or a democratic US, or somewhere in the middle? Perhaps now is the perfect time for the world’s two great democracies, India and the US, to get very close. After all, as the old saying goes, if you travel down the middle of the road, you are likely to be hit by traffic from both directions.