Conventional wisdom holds that New Delhi will turn to Washington as it increases competition with Beijing. But Moscow’s importance cannot be ignored

In December 1971, India and Pakistan fought for 13 days—one of the shortest wars in history—over the humanitarian crisis in East Pakistan, now Bangladesh. India had, for months, been trying to convince the world that West Pakistan’s subjugation of East Pakistan was an emergency. Refugees from East Pakistan were pouring into India, and the situation would only be improved with a resolution of the political predicament between West and East Pakistan.

The Soviet Union was the only country that listened. In August of that year, Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi signed the India-Soviet Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Cooperation. Gandhi had held off on completing the agreement for domestic political reasons; she had not wanted to give fodder to those political opponents who accused her of being too cozy with the Soviet Union. But international concerns were soon more pressing: With the signing of the treaty, the Soviet Union provided India both the diplomatic and arms support it needed for the war Gandhi knew was coming, helping India over Pakistan.

While the world in 2020 is in many ways changed from that time, 1971 looms large in the India-Russia relationship today. Moscow was a reliable partner for New Delhi when no one else was. And the United States, meanwhile, actively ignored India’s pleas to deal with the situation in East Pakistan: President Richard Nixon and National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger considered Pakistan a key go-between in opening relations with China.

Even today, in 2020, it is Moscow that organised a trilateral meeting among the foreign ministers of Russia, India, and China on June 23, bringing New Delhi and Beijing together following deadly clashes between their countries’ armed forces in the Galwan Valley in the disputed territory of Ladakh. Once again, amid an increasingly tense international problem, Moscow has stepped in. And what’s more, Russia assured India that, on New Delhi’s request, it would deliver new defence equipment in two to three months.

While the world in 2020 is in many ways changed from that time, 1971 looms large in the India-Russia relationship today.

There are some who see Moscow’s importance as little more than a fond memory. While the Indian government maintains that it must have good relations with both the United States and Russia, there are others in India today who insist its future is solely, or at least primarily, with the United States.

The “best” and “most substantive” relationship that India has is with the United States, said C. Raja Mohan, the director of the Institute of South Asian Studies at the National University of Singapore. India “is not going to sacrifice that to say, ‘I was once married to the Russians.’” Certainly, that U.S. President Donald Trump’s secretaries of state, Rex Tillerson and Mike Pompeo, both gave major speeches about India and the Indo-Pacific early on in their tenures suggests that India is important to the United States; that Trump went to India in February of this year on a visit that was heavy on ceremony (if light on substance) suggests the same.

But being friendly with Washington does not mean New Delhi can’t maintain important ties with Moscow. The world has changed, but India and Russia have found ways for their relationship to hold firm, standing steady for each other at times when the rest of the world wouldn’t, maintaining largely consistent foreign policies despite changing leaderships, and refusing to bury a historic partnership.

“The Russians,” said the New Delhi-based defence journalist Saurabh Joshi, “are in the best position they’ve been in in this town since the fall of the Soviet Union.”

The India-Russia relationship did not begin in 1971. Moscow and Delhi had been strengthening ties, with some interruptions and hiccups, over the course of the 1950s and 1960s. The Soviet Union provided development assistance in the post-Stalin 1950s and military assistance in the 1960s, said Anuradha Chenoy, a Russia expert and former dean of the School of International Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University. That Nehru, India’s first prime minister, envisioned his country as non-capitalist and at least partially socialist helped too, she said.

But the former Indian diplomat Ronen Sen, who served twice in the Soviet Union between 1968 and 1985 and was the ambassador to the Russian Federation from 1992 to 1998, said that the country with which India had a common ideology—or was expected to have shared values and views that go along with it—was the United States. “The expectations,” he said, “were higher on both sides.” That, by extension, meant that the frustrations when those expectations were not met were more deeply felt, too.

The Soviet Union, meanwhile, was exceeding expectations it was never meant to meet. When India conducted its first nuclear tests in the 1970s, it created tensions with the United States; while Washington disapproved of New Delhi’s attempt to acquire nuclear weapons, Indian diplomats resented their American counterparts’ lecturing. The Soviet Union, by comparison, publicly stressed the tests’ peaceful nature, though historical records show the Soviets privately tried to persuade India not to go ahead with them.

The Soviet Union did not just provide tacit support for, or at least less vocal disapproval of, India’s nuclear program. It also helped build out India’s defence force. Historians describe India as having been “addicted” to Soviet defence machinery in the 1970s and 1980s. And the addiction came at little cost: Soviet machinery was often bought on credit.

India mattered quite a lot to the Soviet Union, which considered it more consistently than the United States did.

There was also the reality that India mattered quite a lot to the Soviet Union, which considered it more consistently than the United States did. While there might have been moments where the United States decided to pay attention to India, they were sporadic and need-based; the Soviet Union’s focus was sustained. That not one but two chapters of the second volume of The Mitrokhin Archive, a look at the KGB files and plans from Soviet times, is dedicated to India suggests just how important Delhi was to Moscow. Famously, the conspiracy theory that the CIA created the HIV/AIDS epidemic was planted by Moscow in an Indian newspaper.

There was also the added bonus that India and the Soviet Union did not impose their morals on one another. India, which was quick to point out the evils and ills of Western imperialism, held its tongue when the Soviet Union quashed the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 and again when it invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968. But the Soviet Union more than repaid India for its relative quiet. It backed India on Kashmir, the status of which India and Pakistan have disputed since their independence in 1947.

“Since the 1950s, the Russian position on Kashmir has been the key driving force,” said Phunchok Stobdan, a former Indian ambassador to Kyrgyzstan. When China or, until more recently, the United States might have censured India over Kashmir at the United Nations, the Soviet Union (and now Russia) could use its veto to protect India. And it did. In 1957, 1962, and 1971, the Soviet Union was the only country to veto resolutions seeking U.N. intervention over Kashmir; in the summer of 2019, when India revoked Kashmir’s special status and plunged the state into lock-down and an information blackout, Russia was the first to describe it as an internal matter.

In the 1990s, the story goes, times changed. The Soviet Union dissolved, and the Russian Federation was more interested, at least for most of a decade, with looking west than with developing its special relationship with India. And India, which was undertaking major fiscal reforms and opening up its economy, was looking to the United States again, too.

But there are a few ways in which this story—of a lost decade between India and Russia—is incomplete. The reality is that India, which used Russian arms and weaponry for its Army, Navy, and Air Force, needed the Russian defence industry—and essentially kept it afloat during Russia’s chaotic transition.

There was, of course, another reality that could not be discounted, which was that in 1998 India conducted a second round of nuclear tests. That year, after the tests, relations between India and the United States cooled yet again. Russia, by comparison, accepted which way the wind was blowing and, with it, the idea of a nuclear India.

It was Russian President Vladimir Putin who, by all accounts, made clear to Delhi that the road to India being accepted as a nuclear power ran through Washington. And, in 2006, U.S. President George W. Bush and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh did indeed complete a civil nuclear deal, a major milestone in U.S.-Indian relations.

But the real beneficiary of that deal, said Asoke Mukerji, a former permanent representative of India to the United Nations, was Russia: Moscow, and not Washington, has worked with New Delhi on the construction of nuclear reactors and has plans to build more.

Critically, Russia leases India its only nuclear attack submarine. According to a defence journalist and former Indian Army colonel, as long as Russia is the only country willing to do so—and is the only one willing to provide India crucial technologies that go into building its own line of nuclear missile submarines—the India-Russia relationship will continue.

The same is true for the defence relationship more broadly. While India under Prime Minister Narendra Modi has diversified the sources of its arms and defence procurement—such as a recent $3 billion deal with the United States following Trump’s visit in February—it still counts on Russia for a reported 60 percent of its supplies. And India is still buying from Russia for the future. In 2018, Putin and Modi appeared to careful observers to recommit to the relationship with an informal summit in the Russian city of Sochi. Both because it wanted a missile defence system and to make a point to the United States, India approved a purchase of Russia’s S-400 missile defence system that year, blocking off the opportunity to buy other equipment from the United States because, as the White House put it, “the [American] F-35 cannot coexist with a Russian intelligence collection platform that will be used to learn about its advanced capabilities.” That was a risk. New Delhi decided it was a risk worth taking.

Russia, one is told time and again in India, is a dependable partner. It will not pursue policy that will drag India into conflict. It will not, say, kill an Iranian general without bothering to so much as pick up the phone to let New Delhi know. (That it, say, annexed Crimea is of less concern to New Delhi, which did not issue a statement against the move back in 2014.) It will not change its foreign policy with each new president, because it will not have new presidents, and Russia will hold its tongue when it comes to what India regards as its internal affairs.

The same cannot be said for the United States. Even with Trump at the helm, many in the United States advance criticisms on human rights in India. Rep. Ilhan Omar, a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives, has been critical of India’s actions in and on Kashmir. Rep. Pramila Jayapal has been, too—as a result, S. Jaishankar, India’s external affairs minister, refused to meet with Jayapal and the House Foreign Affairs Committee, saying he had “no interest in meeting her.” And despite Modi and Trump’s professed affinity for each other, some Republicans, including Sens. Lindsey Graham and Todd Young, have criticized what they see as human rights violations in Modi’s India.

Russia, by comparison, has no prominent politician (save, perhaps, Chechnya’s mini-dictator Ramzan Kadyrov) who would criticise India. Russia will call Kashmir and the treatment of Muslims in India internal matters; it will defend India at the U.N. Security Council. And so the relationship will endure.

And there are, if not large trade numbers, then particular industries such as energy in which India and Russia can work together. And perhaps the sector most emblematic of the India-Russia relationship is the diamond trade, a unique situation and opportunity—diamond mining in the far east—where only Russians and Indians can help one another. The diamonds are in the Russian far east; the people who know how to polish them are in India. (Ninety percent of the world’s diamonds pass through India—and specifically through Modi’s home state of Gujarat—for exactly that reason.)

Further, and most importantly, while the trade partnership continues to not be what either side would want, you can’t measure Russia’s importance in terms of the business value. “When they say Russia is not so important, they are not looking at a world map,” said PS Raghavan, another former Indian ambassador to Russia.

“Geography dictates good relations,” he said. “America is a distant power.” And one could add that the United States, despite its ongoing military cooperation with Australia, India, and Japan as part of the so-called Quad, is an ally whose security umbrella may get diverted by other preoccupations.

Neither India—nor Russia, for that matter—wants to be a junior partner to China or the United States. And one way that they can try to avoid that outcome is to remind China and the United States, and the rest of the world, that they can turn back to and bolster each other. India, following recent tensions with China, may want to turn more fully to the United States. But if past is prologue and the present is any indication, it will not give up on its ties with Russia.

The year is not 1971. The relationship may not be as robust as it once was or as all-consuming as it once was—and, certainly, defence expenditures and even cultural ties between the two are not what they were.

But the rest of the world is not in 1971, either. There’s the United States under Trump and an increasingly aggressive China. And neither India nor Russia needs it to be 1971 to remain to each other now what they were then: of consistently unique use.