Ties between the two countries go back to the Cold War
When the United Nations General Assembly voted yesterday overwhelmingly in favour of a resolution condemning the Russian invasion of Ukraine, few were surprised by China’s abstention. More surprising, though, when India, the world’s largest democracy and strategic partner of the United States, followed suit.
India’s abstention may seem peculiar, especially after the confirmation that an Indian student had died in the Russian shelling of Ukraine’s second-largest city Kharkiv. But close Moscow-Delhi relations date back to 1955 and have been strong ever since. During the Cold War, India and the Soviet Union shared a strong diplomatic, military, strategic and economic relationship, including actively supporting Bangladesh’s 1971 liberation struggle against America- and China-backed Pakistan. In the later stages of the 1971 war, the Soviet Ambassador to Pakistan, Alexei Rodionov, made Soviet allegiances clear, warning Pakistan that it would be “embarking on a suicidal course” if it continued to escalate problems on the Indian subcontinent.
Following the dissolution of the USSR, Russia — as the successor state to the Soviet Union — inherited this ‘special and privileged’ strategic partnership. Former Indian foreign secretary and Indian High Commissioner of the UK, Ranjan Mathai, went as far as to describe Russia as “perhaps the most vital, most decisive” of India’s global partners in 2012.
Much of the work done between the two countries in the post-Cold War system has been through the India-Russia Intergovernmental Commission (IRIGC). Traditionally, the Indo-Russian ‘strategic pentagon’ is built on five core components: politics, defence, anti-terrorism, civil nuclear energy and space, with a recent deepening of bilateral trade adding a sixth ‘economic’ component. Both ‘BRIC’ nations are also members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation — a mutual political, economic and security alliance which also includes China, and a number of former Soviet nation-states: Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.
Moscow-Delhi relations have remained especially close under Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Indeed, Putin only made two international visits last year — a June summit meeting with US President Joe Biden in Geneva, and his more recent diplomatic trip to New Delhi in December. Modi and Putin, who share a similar vision of muscular nationalism, have met a remarkable twenty times since the former assumed office in May 2014. In May 2017 before one of Modi’s visits to Russia, Putin published an article for The Times of India celebrating the 70th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between India and the USSR.
A further indication of the value Russia places on their Indian partnership is the reservations the Kremlin has expressed over growing US-India relations — especially over India’s joining of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD) alongside the US, Australia and Japan. While the four QUAD nations speak of working together for a ‘free and open Indo-Pacific’ amid shared concerns over Beijing, Russian foreign secretary Sergei Lavrov has accused the West of trying the engage India in “anti-China games”.
India’s abstention over the UN resolution is part of a long-standing foreign policy pattern of maintaining a ‘special’ partnership that dates from the Cold War. And with increasing talk of a return to the multipolar diplomacy that defined that era, it is the sort of historic relationship the West would do well to be aware of.