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Transformations of Indo-Russian Relations
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in a 2007 photo. (Eduard Pesov/Russian MInistry of Foreign Affairs via WIkimedia Commons)

Transformations of Indo-Russian Relations

Al-Etihad, UAE, April 23

Russia was once a close ally of India, especially during the Cold War era. But this time-tested friendship has come under pressure and has taken a dramatic turn over the past few years. With the rapprochement between India and the United States, Russia has strengthened its relations with South Asia, including with India’s neighbors. This transformation accelerated with great might over the past few years, following Russia’s rapprochement with China and Pakistan. Recently, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov conducted a visit to India and Pakistan in an effort to confirm Moscow’s growing influence in South Asia. Russia’s new influence in the region included its mediation in border talks between India and China and its increasing role in the Afghan peace process alongside China and Pakistan. Lavrov’s visit to India comes days after the “Quadrilateral Security Dialogue,” an informal gathering of India, the United States, Japan and Australia. But at the same time, there is a history of Indo-Russian relations. The two countries were close allies during the Cold War, and their bilateral relations date back to the 1950s. For years, India relied on Russia for all of its military supplies. The two nations formed a strong friendship that lost momentum in the past decade, with each party strengthening its ties with the other’s rival camp: India strengthened its relations with the United States, and Russia strengthened its relations with China. The growing rapprochement between India and the United States has also affected relations between the two countries. Yet in the midst of these transformations, defense ties between India and Russia continue to unfold, and the two countries remain major military partners. It is true that India is increasingly dependent on other countries such as the United States and France for many of its weapons, but most of the Indian military equipment is still sourced in Russia, and India relies on Russia for spare weapons parts. Defense cooperation remains the basis of Russian-Indian relations. In 2018, India agreed to a deal with Russia to buy five S-400 missile systems despite the US warning of sanctions against India. India has insisted so far on proceeding with obtaining these systems. In addition, during Lavrov’s visit, the two countries also discussed the possibility of signing additional arms deals. However, compared to political and military relations, trade between the two countries remained modest. Russo-Indian trade reached $10.11 billion between 2019 and 2020. The two countries want to reach $30 billion in trade annually by 2025. But it is also a fairly modest goal, compared to the $110 billion trade volume between Russia and China in 2019. Lavrov left India and then went to Pakistan on the first visit of a Russian foreign minister to Islamabad in nine years. The visit focused on Afghanistan, where the peace process has reached a pivotal stage. But cooperation in the defense and energy sectors between the two countries was an important topic in those discussions as well. Russian support for the Pakistani energy sector included a number of plans to invest $14 billion in gas infrastructure, specifically aimed at strengthening Moscow’s influence in the country. The Russian foreign minister spoke of the two countries’ concerted positions in the Afghan peace process, which includes “the establishment of inclusive power structures.” This could signal the formation of an unelected transitional government to monitor the peace process, an idea that Kabul has rejected. India advocated a peace process based on democratic elections. Lavrov’s visit to the two countries shows that Moscow’s influence in South Asia is growing. The impending departure of US forces from Afghanistan, accompanied by Russia’s warm relations with China, should put Moscow in a strong position to shape the geopolitics of the region. And for India, the uncomfortable truth is that Russia is getting closer to Pakistan and China. In the past, Russia did not supply defense equipment to Pakistan, taking into account the possibility of India’s displeasure. But that era is past. Relations between the two countries have strengthened. And Russia needs Pakistan to return as an influential party in Afghanistan, in which the withdrawal of US forces next September will leave a vacuum for regional actors. Russia will become a major party in Afghanistan, and its dependence on Pakistan is expected to increase, and this may lead to more rapprochement between the two countries, a development that India will closely watch. – Zikru Al-Rahman (translated by Asaf Zilberfarb)


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