India and Russia have enjoyed a strong relationship since the collapse of the Soviet Union, partially as a legacy of the Indo–Soviet partnership during the Cold War. But how will this invasion impact future relations between New Delhi and Moscow? We argue that the war will likely harm this relationship over the long term, although some scenarios might minimize this harm. Western sanctions and Russian material losses in the war will make it difficult for Russia to fulfill Indian arms orders, especially if the sanctions regime remains in place for several years, forcing India to turn to other sources of weapons, including the United States. Its increasing isolation from Europe could also force Russia to move even closer to India’s rival China, making India less secure. There may be opportunities to improve energy ties between India and Russia, but Western sanctions and geographic barriers will limit any energy gains.
New Delhi and Moscow have enjoyed largely close relations since the early days of the Cold War. The signing of the 20-year treaty of “peace, friendship, and cooperation” in 1971, at the height of the East Pakistan crisis, significantly bolstered this relationship (Kennedy 2011). Despite the end of the Cold War and subsequent growing ties between India and the United States in recent years, Russia has remained a critical partner and is the leading source of Indian arms imports. A desire to preserve strong relations with Russia due to a wide range of issues—including Moscow’s long-standing support for India’s position on Kashmir and India’s reliance on the Russian arms industry—has led India to avoid condemnation of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine (Ganguly 2022b). While these close ties are influencing India’s current strategic calculations, what prospects do they have in the wake of the Russia–Ukraine War? In this article, we will argue that the invasion of Ukraine will most likely harm India–Russia relations, especially in the not-so-distant future. The war will threaten India–Russia defense ties, and Russia’s increasing reliance on China, with which India is still engaged in a standoff along the Line of Actual Control in the Himalayas, could pose significant risks to India’s future security. Russia–India energy ties could improve as Russia attempts to pivot its hydrocarbon and nuclear exports to Asia. These gains, however, are likely to be minimal due to constraints imposed by Western sanctions and the geography of energy infrastructure. And Russia’s search for new buyers for its oil and natural gas exports will likely improve Russia’s ties with both of India’s rivals, China and Pakistan, due to existing and planned oil and gas pipelines (Javed 2022; Sukhanknin 2021; Tsafos 2022).
Several potential challenges to India’s relations with Russia have emerged in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Sanctions on Russia have removed many Russian firms, especially defense enterprises, from the international banking system and limited Russian access to key materials and technologies for manufacturing advanced weapons systems, complicating Russian arms sales to India (Detsch and Gramer 2022). Russian materiel losses in Ukraine have been staggering. These include some of the same systems used by the Indian military, which will likely limit the export of systems and spare parts to India as Russia prioritizes replacement and repair (Malhotra 2022). Russia’s political and economic isolation will increase Russian reliance on China, potentially placing Moscow increasingly on the wrong side (from New Delhi’s vantage point) of the Doklam standoff (Ganguly 2022b). Meanwhile, delays or cancellations of Russian arms sales to India will decrease Indian readiness and capabilities (Malhotra 2022). This will likely increase pressure on the Indian government to align more closely with Russian rivals such as the US and Japan.
These new challenges will complicate issues that were already arising in India–Russia relations. Russia had been pursuing closer ties with China to balance the US for several years. Korolev (2019) argues that Moscow and Beijing have formed a partnership that is on the verge of evolving into a full military alliance, an alliance that would complicate India–Russia relations given its rivalry and ongoing border standoff with China. India, meanwhile, has sought to improve ties with the US and American partners—most importantly Japan and Australia—to balance China. Both the US and Japan are significant Russian rivals. Russia has also made overtures to Pakistan for several strategic and economic reasons—including to compete with the US for influence in Islamabad, to improve relations with an important player in Afghan politics, and to sell Russian oil and gas to Pakistani consumers—despite Pakistan’s rivalry with India (Gill 2021; Javed 2022). Finally, India has attempted to reduce its reliance on Russian-origin weapons to improve ties with the US, get access to higher-quality American, Israeli, or European weapons, and invest in an indigenous arms industry (Malhotra 2022). Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will strengthen these trends.
The rest of the article proceeds as follows. The next section discusses the factors that have driven the relationship between India and Russia and the Soviet Union. The following section focuses on the Indo–Russian arms relationship, arguing that sanctions, combined with increased demand for parts and weapons by Russia’s military, will undermine this relationship. The next section then looks at the potential for closer Russia–China alignment, arguing that such an alignment is possible and would threaten Indian security, although it is not guaranteed. While this section will discuss the impact of Russia–China ties on India–Russia relations, it does not provide a full analysis of Russia–China or India–China relations following the Ukraine War. Two other contributions to this special issue provide such analyses (Greitens 2022; Markey 2022). The next section discusses the potential impact on Russia–India energy relations, arguing that there is an opportunity to improve these relations but that sanctions and geography will limit improvements. The final section discusses which impacts are more likely, as well as what factors could alter the impacts of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
India–Russia Relations Since 1947
Stalin’s suspicion of postcolonial states had hampered relations between the Soviet Union and India, but relations improved following the rise of Nikita Khrushchev (Horn 1982; Mastny 2010; Menon 2015). Converging geopolitical interests rather than shared values were the primary drivers of Soviet–Indian relations (Mastny 2010). For the Soviets, India represented a stable and populous postcolonial country that was an emerging leader among both nonaligned and anticolonial countries and could also be a partner in countering American ambitions in Asia (Horn 1982; Nadkarni 2010, 2020). For India, the Soviet Union was an important economic and defense partner, aiding both development and security (Horn 1982; Kennedy 2011; Mastny 2010; Nadkarni 2010). Moscow and New Delhi also provided mutual diplomatic support, with the Soviet government backing India’s claim to Kashmir and India voting with (or abstaining from votes to condemn) the Soviet Union during key Cold War events, including the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia (Malek 2004; Nayudu 2017).
Finally, China emerged as a rival of both India and the Soviet Union. The Sino–Soviet split originated in the early 1960s and was driven by ideological disagreements, Chinese status aspirations, Mao’s personal aspirations to become the leader of the communist world, and border disputes in the Russian Far East, with a series of border clashes in 1969 (Luthi 2008; Zagoria 1962). India’s rivalry with China began following China’s annexation of Tibet, which contributed to India’s perception of China as an expansionist power, and a series of border disputes, including the 1962 border war, beginning in the late 1960s (Pardesi 2019). These converging interests drove negotiations for a formal treaty of friendship beginning in 1969, leading to the Indo–Soviet Treaty of Peace, Friendship, and Cooperation in 1971 (Kennedy 2011). The treaty remained in effect until the collapse of the Soviet Union.
It was replaced in 1993 by the Treaty of Indo–Russian Friendship and Cooperation, which did not include the security features of the Indo–Soviet treaty (Katju 2021). Russia’s initial foreign policy orientation following the collapse of the Soviet Union focused on relations with the US and Western Europe, resulting in a period of neglect of the Russia–India relationship (Menon 2015; Nadkarni 2010). This stance shifted during the 1990s, driven by increasing tensions with the US due to NATO engagement in Kosovo and the replacement of Russia’s pro-Western foreign minister Andrei Kozyrev with Yevgeny Primakov, a skeptic of the US and a staunch supporter of engaging with Asian powers, especially India and China (Arbatov 2000; Nadkarni 2010). Following this shift, India and Russia gradually developed a deep strategic relationship, formalized with the signing of the Indo–Russian Strategic Partnership in 2000, which has enjoyed strong support across party lines in India (Nadkarni 2010). The emphasis on relations with China and India increased again following the imposition of US and EU sanctions in response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 (Shagina 2022).
India’s behavior toward Russia, however, appears to be changing. Public comments that Modi has made at a summit, and Indian voting behavior at the UN, signal a pivot away from India’s long-standing practice of voting with Russia or abstaining from votes to condemn Moscow’s war in Ukraine (Ilyushin 2022). At the September 2022 summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), in Samarkand, Modi upbraided Putin’s decision to invade—his first public criticism of Putin since the invasion (Joshi 2022b). India also voted to allow Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky to address the UN General Assembly by video, a vote that placed it in opposition to Russia (NDTV 2022). This was the first vote related to the war where India neither sided with Russia nor abstained.
Whether India’s position on the Russian invasion continues to evolve will depend on a congeries of factors domestic and international. At an internal level, possible debates among foreign policy elites on India’s continuing dependence on Russia will shape the contours of future policy. Externally, India’s ability to reduce its dependence on Russia for arms and hydrocarbons will also affect its stance on this issue.
Four main factors have driven India’s relations with Russia: a desire to balance against threatening neighbors, a continued residual distrust of the US in some quarters of the Indian political elite, a shared desire to create a multipolar world order, and a path-dependent arms relationship. Changes to these four factors caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine would result in significant changes for the Russia–India relationship. However, certain converging interests are likely to remain and may provide a degree of continuity in the relationship.
All of these factors have roots in the Soviet–Indian relationship. The first, balancing against the threat of Pakistan and China, was especially important in the 1960s and 1970s (Horn 1982; Nadkarni 2010, 2020). According to the central premises of neoclassical realist theory, states in an anarchic, self-help international system must provide for their own security (Waltz 1979). One way of enhancing a state’s security is to align with another state to balance against rival states (Walt 1985). India pursued a strategic partnership with the Soviet Union to counter the threat of China and Pakistan, a threat made more severe by US backing of Pakistan and rapprochement with China. For the Soviet Union, India provided a partner that could balance against both American and Chinese power in South Asia (Horn 1982; Nadkarni 2010, 2020). The 1971 Indo–Soviet Treaty included an article on security cooperation. Article 9 did not establish a formal Soviet nuclear umbrella over India but was perceived by the Indian government as an informal but real and credible Soviet security guarantee for most of the 1970s (Kennedy 2011). Thus the Soviet Union appeared to be an effective and reliable balancer against Pakistan and China (Ganguly 1999).
The Soviet Union, or Russia today, is not the only state that could act as an external balancer. The US has acted as an offshore balancer in Europe, the Middle East, and East Asia (Mearsheimer 2001). The US has assisted India with arms sales, intelligence, and other strategic support, including during and shortly after the 1962 war between India and China (Kennedy 2011). However, Indian leaders have a long history of not trusting the American commitment to India. Two factors contributed to this distrust. First, American promises of weapons and aid have often failed to materialize (Joshi 2022a). Second, the US maintained close ties with Pakistan during much of the Cold War era and following 9/11 was perceived as prioritizing a strategic partnership with Pakistan over one with India (Ganguly and Mason 2019). Distrust of the US was also exacerbated during the Cold War by Washington’s attempts to improve ties with China following the Sino–Soviet split (Madan 2020).
Russia’s ability to serve as a balancer against the threat of China and Pakistan has weakened since the end of the Cold War, as Russia has sought to build closer ties with both China and Pakistan while maintaining its security ties to India. Under Gorbachev, the Soviet Union declared that it would not be a counterweight to China, and post-Soviet Russian leaders have not altered that stance (Ganguly 2020). Converging interests in opposing American unipolarity and promoting a multipolar world order have allowed Russia, India, and China to develop several trilateral and multilateral institutions. Russian foreign policy is driven to a significant degree by a quest for a multipolar world order where Russia is granted its rightful place among the world’s great powers (Stent 2019; Stoner 2020). This outcome would further Russia’s desire for greater security by weakening relative American power (Stent 2019); Russia’s status ambitions, by creating an alternative to the US-dominated world order that largely excludes Russia (Larson and Shevchenko 2018; Tsygankov 2012); and Russia’s interests in re-establishing regional hegemony in what many Russian leaders believe is Russia’s natural sphere of influence in Eastern Europe and Central Asia (Spechler and Spechler 2019; Stent 2019; Stoner 2020). Russia’s emphasis on eroding unipolarity and establishing a multipolar world coincides with Indian interests, as India’s status ambitions conflict with a unipolar status quo (Nadkarni 2010).
Part of Russia’s strategy for promoting multipolarity has been the creation of Russian-led institutions and strategic partnerships with rising powers that might serve as balancers against the US. In the 2000s, two key multilateral forums—RIC (the Russia–India–China trilateral forum) and BRICS (Brazil–Russia–India–China–South Africa)—were formed with both Indian and Russian participation to advance multipolarity in the security and financial realms, respectively (O’Donnell and Papa 2021). Russian leaders perceived both RIC and BRICS as important fora for creating an alternative to the US-led international system and sought to counterbalance the US through external balancing with China and India. India had two security goals in its partnerships with Russia and China in RIC and BRICS: coordinating counterterrorism strategy in Afghanistan, a goal Russia also sought through RIC; and constraining Chinese territorial ambitions in South Asia (O’Donnell and Papa 2021).
A third forum, the SCO, was formed in the early 2000s without Indian participation but later expanded to include both India and Pakistan, alongside Russia, China, and the post-Soviet states of Central Asia. Russia was a strong advocate for incorporating both India and Pakistan in the SCO, seeing both as important partners toward key Russian goals related to the SCO, such as balancing against US and NATO involvement in Afghanistan and Central Asia, countering terrorism from Afghanistan, and improving economic ties (largely through increased investment in infrastructure and energy projects) in South and Central Asia (Kundu 2009). Indian interest in joining the SCO was driven by a combination of interests: gaining access to energy resources in Central Asia; building strategic partnerships with both SCO members and SCO observers, such as Iran; and increasing involvement in the reconstruction of Afghanistan (Ahmed, Ahmed, and Bhatnagar 2019).
In addition to engaging China and India in its efforts to create a multipolar world, Russia has been able to maintain its security ties with India due to their arms relationship. Lalwani et al. (2021, 3) find that this is the “strongest and most durable” driver of India–Russia relations. The relationship has endured despite India’s attempts to diversify its arms imports and increase the indigenization of arms procurement. The close arms ties, including reliance on Russia for spare parts, the familiarity of Indian operators with Soviet and Russian military technology, and business interests for Russian and Indian defense firms engaged in joint projects, exhibit characteristics of path dependence (North 1993).
This arms relationship provided significant benefits for Indian security in the past. These weapons sales and transfers have been crucial for developing and maintaining India’s military. Soviet and Russian weapons systems were cheaper than their Western counterparts, allowing India to afford a large and well-armed military, and attempts to buy weapons from the West or develop domestic weapons systems yielded disappointing results, although newer attempts to move away from Russian arms have been more successful (Joshi 2022a). Exports of remote sensing technology have boosted Indian intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities and provided the Indian military with a reliable alternative to the US Global Positioning System (Lalwani et al. 2021). This has also provided significant economic benefits, as the Indian space program is a major investor in India’s domestic heavy industry and economic development (Gupta and Raju 2016).
Three of these four factors have seen significant changes over the past several years, which Russia’s invasion of Ukraine could exacerbate. The shared desire to create a multipolar world has not, and will not, fade in Russian and Indian foreign policy. Both countries will continue to have a significant shared interest in the emergence of a multipolar international system. This could provide a degree of continuity in the relationship. However, the changes in the remaining three factors will result in some shifts in Russia–India relations.
Both Russia’s ability to serve as a credible balancer vis-à-vis China and Pakistan and India’s distrust of the US are weakening. Russia’s war in Ukraine caused neither of these trends, but it has exacerbated them. Russia is leaning closer to China. Aligning with China due to isolation from the US and Europe would make it difficult for Russia to maintain its current security ties with India. It is also not as necessary for India to maintain these relations, as the US could now be a reliable offshore balancer. US–India relations, including security ties, have improved significantly in the past couple of decades (Ganguly and Mason 2021; Samaranayake 2021).
Furthermore, India is already seeking to decrease its reliance on Russian arms. This also predates the invasion of Ukraine but could be exacerbated by it. Sanctions on the Russian economy, combined with increased demand for parts and weapons by the Russian military, have already hampered Russian arms sales and transfers to India and other arms recipients. If sanctions continue to affect the Russian arms industry, and/or the war in Ukraine becomes a long-term, protracted conflict, and the Russian military’s demand for parts and weapons remains high, Russian arms exports could be hampered for several years. The next section will build on the potential impact on the Indo–Russian arms relationship.
The Indo–Russian Arms Transfer Relationship
Russia is currently the main source of Indian arms imports. According to data from the Stockholm Institute of Peace Research (SIPRI 2022), between 2000 and 2021 nearly 65% of Indian arms imports came from Russia (based on SIPRI’s estimates of the value of the imported weapons systems). SIPRI also estimates that Russia was India’s most valuable arms supplier for each year between 2000 and 2020. Russia’s share of Indian arms imports declined over this period. However, Indian arms imports from Russia in 2021 were nearly 64% lower than at their peak in 2013. Less than one-third of Indian arms imports came from Russia in 2021, down from over two-thirds each year between 2007 and 2013; in 2021 the estimated value of arms imports from Russia was smaller than the estimated value of imports from France.
Despite this decrease, Russian weapons remain an important component of India’s military hardware. Russia remained the largest supplier on average between 2017 and 2021, supplying 46% of Indian arms imports (SIPRI 2022, cited in Malhotra 2022). Russian-origin weapons also continue to make up the majority of Indian weapons systems. Indian officials estimate that between 60% and 70% of Indian weapons systems are of Soviet or Russian origin (Chaudhury 2020). This exacerbates India’s reliance on the Russian arms industry, as Russian-manufactured spare parts are necessary to maintain Indian military readiness (Malhotra 2022).
Reversing path-dependent processes is possible but difficult (North 1993). Decreasing Indian reliance on Russian weapons is not an exception. Disentangling India from Russia’s weapons supply would be a lengthy and potentially costly process. Narang (2021) estimates that a realistic time frame would last decades. Furthermore, Indian condemnation of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine or an attempt to disentangle itself from Russian arms imports would risk Russian retaliation, potentially including the cessation of important weapons transfers (O’Donnell and Vasudeva 2022). The high potential costs of disentanglement create incentives to maintain the Russia–India arms relationship if possible and pose serious challenges for India should the global sanctions regime make it impossible in the long run.
Global Sanctions and Russian Arms Exports
The isolation of Russia’s financial system and restrictions on Russia’s ability to import certain sensitive materials have already had an impact on Russia’s arms industry, although there are factors that could reduce this impact over time. Russia has had trouble selling to other importers due to the isolation of the Russian financial system, which makes it difficult to fulfill new orders for Russian military hardware, or to support existing contracts between Russian and non-Russian defense enterprises (Khanylle 2022). The same financial and technical constraints imposed by Western sanctions could result in the delayed delivery of new Russian weapons or the cancellation of projects to repair or upgrade systems already imported from or developed with Russia (O’Donnell and Vasudeva 2022).
The creation of alternative financial infrastructure between Russia and India and an increase in ruble–rupee trade could alleviate some of the disruption caused by Russia’s financial isolation (Shagina 2022). However, these arrangements will take time to implement, are not entirely immune to Western sanctions, and do not address the issues related to export controls. Export controls on high-end semiconductors, for example, have hampered Russia’s ability to produce precision weapons. They have prevented Russia’s defense industry from replacing precision weapons and other advanced military technologies used in Ukraine (Detsch and Gramer 2022). Russian defense enterprises, which were already facing pressures related to the global semiconductor shortage caused by COVID-19, have lost all access to the high-end semiconductors required for advanced weapons systems due to export controls imposed by Taiwan and South Korea (Williams 2022). Before the invasion, Russia’s sole source of high-end semiconductors was TMSC (the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company), and the only other semiconductor manufacturer capable of meeting the Russian defense industry’s high-end semiconductor demand is South Korea–based Samsung (Williams 2022). Both Taiwan and South Korea now have strict export controls on sensitive technologies.
Air defense, air power, armor, maritime capabilities, and small arms could all be impacted by these financial and technical constraints. India has pending orders for S-400 surface-to-air missile systems, Russian naval technology (including frigates and attack submarines), MIG-29 fighters, and more than half a million assault rifles (Joshi 2022a). And its existing air, land, and naval systems of Russian origin mostly depend on Russian firms for spare parts. Among the most important of these systems are Russian-manufactured tanks and aircraft and the jointly produced BrahMos missile, which India is currently attempting to upgrade to hypersonic speed (Davenport 2020). Here Russian support is key, as Russia has achieved more success than other potential partners at developing hypersonic weapons (Boyd 2022; Warren 2020). Work on the BrahMos has continued since the invasion of Ukraine, with India successfully test-firing an updated version from a Sukhoi fighter in May (Singh 2022).
Issues with payment transfers and expected production problems in the wake of Western sanctions have already resulted in the cancellation of an order for 10 Kamov Ka-31 early warning helicopters, placed by the Indian Navy in 2019 (Raghuvanshi 2022). India is reportedly considering the cancellation of contracts for other Russian weapons systems, as Western sanctions have pushed up their prices and constrained Russia’s ability to develop and sell them, at the same time that the Indian Ministry of Defence is undertaking a review of defense acquisitions to decrease costs and promote indigenization of arms procurement (Peri 2022). These cancellations could be reversed in the future if Russia finds ways to circumvent the sanctions regime or if sanctions are gradually weakened. But if neither happens, India will need to find alternative sources of weapons systems.
Options for India
While India cannot fully disentangle itself from Russian arms transfers and cooperation in the short term, it may need to begin decreasing its reliance on Russian weapons and components. In such a scenario, India will need to find alternative sources for the production and maintenance of several weapons systems, especially high-end weapons systems that require materials unavailable to Russia due to recent sanctions. These alternative sources could include both India’s domestic defense industry and foreign arms exporters.
India will need to speed up its indigenization efforts, a step that the Indian government is already taking, if the Indian defense industry is to play a significant role in overcoming a decrease in Russian arms imports (Panag 2022). India has sought to develop an indigenous defense industry since the 1950s but had limited success for several decades (Jaishankar 2019). Recent years have seen some progress, and indigenization efforts such as the Modi government’s Self-Reliant India initiative allowed the government to cancel contracts for several imported weapons systems in January 2022 (Mukherjee 2022; Zaffar 2022). While these efforts predate Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the impact of Western sanctions has increased both support for these efforts and the urgency of completing them (Mukherjee 2022). This is a high priority of the Modi government. However, it will take an estimated 10 years to reach the level necessary to overcome India’s dependence on Russia. To meet its short-term needs, it may need to find alternative international partners (Panag 2022).
In such a scenario, potential partners include the US, France, and the United Kingdom. India has recently increased its strategic engagement with and arms imports from the US (Ganguly and Mason 2019; Menon 2015). The US provided less than 7% of Indian arms imports every year between 2000 and 2012 but nearly 15% between 2019 and 2021 (SIPRI 2022). Increasing US–Indian arms trade would require the US and India to overcome a series of legal and strategic challenges. Banerjee and Tkach (2022a) list several potential obstacles to US–India arms sales. These include Indian trade restrictions against imports that do not contribute to domestic industries, American prioritization of arms sales to NATO members, and American interests in avoiding conflict with allies that wish to sell weapons to India. However, 2+2 dialogues between American secretaries of state and defense and Indian ministers of external affairs and defense provide an opportunity for progress on these issues (Banerjee and Tkach 2022a). American engagement with India’s defense industry could also improve Indian arms exports, resulting in India filling part of the gap in the value arms market—the market for lower-end, lower-price weapons—left by the reduction of Russian arms exports (Banerjee and Tkach 2022b).
France replaced Russia as the largest supplier of arms in 2021 (SIPRI 2022). This was largely due to the fulfillment of a 2016 order for French fighter aircraft (Gupta 2021). Even without considering the unusually high imports in 2021, France has significantly increased its share of the arms imported by India. France was responsible for 16% of Indian arms imports between 2016 and 2020, compared to just shy of 2% between 2000 and 2015 (SIPRI 2022). Arms imports from the United Kingdom continue to be minor in comparison to Russia, the US, and France. They made up approximately 3% of Indian arms imports in 2021 and less than 2% for the period between 2016 and 2021 (SIPRI 2022). Indian and British officials have met since the Russian invasion of Ukraine to discuss improving UK–India defense ties and reducing Indian dependence on Russia for weapons (Sharma 2022).
The other major arms issue for India is the procurement of spare parts. If sanctions and/or demand from the Russian military prevent Russia from exporting spare parts to India, India will need to find alternative sources to maintain military readiness. States that were members of the Soviet Union or Warsaw Pact are potential sources of spare parts for Russian-produced aircraft, tanks, and armored vehicles, and Indian officials are already considering Poland, Bulgaria, Ukraine, Georgia, and Kazakhstan as potential partners (Sharma 2022). Israel is a potential source of spare parts for India’s MiG aircraft (Banerjee and Tkach 2022a).
The Russian invasion of Ukraine has already complicated arms relations between Russia and India. Should the effectiveness of the sanctions be eroded in the short term, India would still have the option of a robust arms relationship with Russia, and the high costs of disentangling from Russia would create incentives to maintain such a relationship. But if the sanctions regime continues to complicate this relationship, India may be forced to find alternative sources of weapons, including from Russia’s traditional rivals. This would undermine what Lalwani et al. (2021) characterize as the most important aspect of the Indo–Russian relationship and increase India’s alignment with Russian adversaries. Both would degrade India–Russia relations. But this may not be the only factor that could degrade relations between Moscow and New Delhi. Just as India may need to align more closely with the US if sanctions degrade India–Russia arms relations, Russia may need to align more closely with a rival of India: China. The next section discusses this possibility and what it could mean for Indo–Russian relations.
Russia, China, and The Future of Indo–Russian Relations
Sino–Russian relations were deepening before the Ukraine crisis. By the late 2000s and early 2010s, China and Russia began to see each other as potential security partners, while Russian energy resources and Chinese energy needs made economic partnership natural as well (Kuchins 2014). China and Russia significantly increased their military cooperation in the wake of Russian interventions in Syria and Ukraine (Wishnick 2016). The imposition of sanctions by several Western countries after the 2014 invasion of Ukraine also resulted in a marked increase in Russia–China economic ties (Shagina 2022). By 2019, Russia and China had forged a deep partnership that was nearly an outright alliance (Korolev 2019). Its greater political and economic isolation from Europe and the US will likely force Russia to turn further toward China.
This pivot could manifest itself along both economic and military lines. Economically, the US and its European partners are increasingly severing financial ties with Russia and Russian institutions, while Europe decreases its reliance on Russian agricultural and raw materials, most importantly natural gas, forcing Russia to find alternative financial and export markets. While some of these exports may end up elsewhere, including India, China provides a larger market for Russian goods and a more robust alternative to the Western financial system.
Militarily, Russian weapons systems largely rely on advanced technology imports from the US and Western Europe. Russia is currently modernizing its conventional capabilities, a process that seems more pressing given the underperformance of the Russian military in Ukraine. Russia will need to import the advanced components required to replace lost materiel and modernize the Russian conventional arsenal from alternative sources. China is the most likely source of these materials, including heavy metals and microchips (Banerjee and Tkach 2022a; Detsch and Gramer 2022). These imports would mitigate the impact of sanctions on Russia’s defense industry, but would not make them ineffective. Russia’s production of advanced weapons would continue to be heavily impeded, as Chinese microchips are not technologically advanced enough to replace high-end Taiwanese semiconductors (Williams 2022). Also, the underperformance of Russian forces in Ukraine will likely increase Russian interest in deeper security cooperation with China, at least for the time being, as external balancing by aligning more closely with China is the most realistic means of addressing Russian conventional inferiority vis-à-vis the US and NATO in the short term.
There are two ways that a growing Russian reliance on China could undermine India’s national security. First, India has historically relied on Russia for leverage that limits the occurrence and intensity of Chinese aggression toward India when Sino–Russian relations are good, and as a potential balancer against China when Sino–Russian relations are bad (Jacob 2022; Mastny 2010; Tellis 2022). A Russia that is closer to China might be less reliable as a source of leverage in Beijing, with potentially serious implications for the ongoing border standoff in Ladakh or future crises along the Sino–Indian border. Russia has remained neutral on the standoff in Ladakh, but there is no guarantee that its position will not change in the future.
Second, closer ties between Beijing and Moscow will give China greater influence over Russian policy. Then China could pressure Russia to halt the sale of new systems or the transfer of spare parts to India. This would greatly reduce Indian military capabilities until India could pivot to other suppliers such as the US or Israel. China could also pressure Russia to recognize Chinese claims over disputed territory in northern and northeastern India or to change its traditionally pro-India stance on Kashmir. Relatedly, China could influence Russia to increase its partnership with Pakistan, especially in energy, as China has invested in the development of Pakistan’s economy and infrastructure as part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (Ali 2020).
Closer Russian alignment with China will likely prompt greater Indian reliance on the US. As mentioned earlier, Indian distrust of the US partially stemmed from American alignment with India’s rivals, just as Russia would be doing if it becomes increasingly aligned with China. India would need a new offshore balancer to counter Pakistan and China. Greater Sino–Russian alignment would increase the importance of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (the Quad) for Indian security, with the US, Japan, and Australia being natural choices for balancing against a potential China–Russia–Pakistan axis. And closer alignment with the US would likely cause even greater long-term harm to the Russia–India relationship.
While this scenario is a possible result of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, it is not guaranteed. Russia may quickly tire of being the junior partner in a Russia–China alliance. And Russia may be able to maintain its important arms relationship with India, giving it an incentive to maintain good relations with both China and India, if possible. The mutual Russian, Chinese, and Indian interest in establishing a multipolar world order would remain and could mitigate tensions between the three, even if it does not prevent them altogether.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine poses a serious threat to Indo–Russian relations due to the potential for closer Sino–Russian alignment and the potential for the war to undermine the Indo–Russian arms relationship. However, there is also a chance that the invasion could improve Indo–Russian energy relations. This is the subject of the next section.
Indo–Russian Energy Relations
Russia is not the primary source of oil or gas imported by India. According to statistics from the Indian Ministry of Commerce and Industry’s Export Import Data Bank, oil imports from Russia comprised less than 0.4% of Indian oil and natural gas imports in fiscal year 2019-20 (Ministry of Commerce and Industry 2022). However, India has sought to increase these imports and Indian investment in hydrocarbon extraction—though this investment remains small. Indian officials estimated that 10% of India’s May 2022 crude oil imports came from Russia, making Russia the second-largest source of imported oil for the month (Mint 2022). India’s state-run Oil and Natural Gas Commission (ONGC) is currently participating in the extraction of oil and gas off Sakhalin in the Pacific and has invested in a planned liquified natural gas facility near Saint Petersburg (Ganguly 2022a; Kutcherov et al. 2020). Indian firms, including the ONGC, have also invested in natural gas fields in Eastern Siberia and the Arctic (Kasturi 2022).
This investment remains small. But Russian engagement in India’s nuclear energy sector has been more significant. India’s restrictive nuclear liability laws have limited Western investment in the small but growing civilian nuclear industry, allowing Russia—whose government has agreed to assume liability in the case of a nuclear accident—to emerge as a key nuclear energy partner for India (Ganguly 2022a). Vladimir Putin and Narendra Modi agreed to expand Russian investment in India’s nuclear energy sector in 2015, with Putin pledging at the 2014 SCO summit to double the number of civilian nuclear plants that Russia had previously agreed to build in India (Wishnick 2016). And in December 2021 Modi and Putin agreed to build on civilian nuclear cooperation to expand India–Russia scientific ties, especially in fields related to energy and the environment (Mallapaty et al. 2022).
There is an opportunity to improve hydrocarbon ties and maintain nuclear energy relations between India and Russia because of the Western sanctions and European divestment from Russian energy following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. However, geographic obstacles and Western sanctions will limit the improvement of hydrocarbon relations. Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, European countries have taken steps to reduce their dependence on Russian oil and natural gas. As a result of European and American sanctions, the Russian government estimates that it will reduce its exports of oil by 1.2%, oil products by 20%, and natural gas by 10% (Griffin and Jackson 2022). Russia has sought new customers, discounting oil and natural gas sales to countries in Asia, to prevent steeper reductions in its hydrocarbon export volume. Indian imports of Russian crude have surged since the invasion of Ukraine, with Indian purchases largely making up for the decrease in demand from Northwest Europe—as have Indian exports of diesel and other refined oil products. Many European buyers are wary of purchasing oil from Russia but are willing to buy it after it is refined in India (Schmall and Reed 2022). These refined oil exports have significantly boosted the profits of Indian refiners, as they can purchase deeply discounted oil from Russian sources and then sell the finished product at high international prices (Kim and Krauss 2022).
The opportunity to purchase discounted Russian oil is a benefit for India. However, two factors will limit the positive impact of the war on Russia–India energy relations. First, the existing energy infrastructure is not suited for drastically increasing Russian oil and gas exports to India. This is especially true for natural gas. Redirecting natural gas exports from Europe to India and other Asian countries would require significant financial and material investment in the construction of new natural gas pipelines linking oil and gas fields in Siberia and the Russian Far East to destinations in East and South Asia (Kutcherov et al. 2020). And given the geography of South Asia, a Russia-to-India pipeline would need to cross Pakistan and Afghanistan, risking interference from the Pakistani or Taliban governments, or terrorist groups based in those countries.
The second complicating factor is Western sanctions. The unwillingness of insurance companies to risk violating international sanctions has complicated existing Indian investment in Russia’s oilfields near Sakhalin, an island in the northern Pacific Ocean. Transporting oil from Sakhalin requires the use of ice-class tankers (Verma and Saul 2022). While not true icebreakers, these have hulls designed for navigating through weaker ice without an escort or through moderate or heavy ice with an icebreaker escort (Ghosh 2019). These tankers require insurance to operate, but due to Western sanctions Russian firms have been unable to insure their ice-class tankers (Verma and Saul 2022). Future investment in oil or gas transportation would require a larger fleet of tankers, which would be susceptible to the same insurance problems.
Nuclear energy relations will not see positive or negative impacts, at least in the short term. The war in Ukraine is unlikely to significantly impact nuclear fuel and civilian technology sales. Western sanctions have intentionally ignored the civilian nuclear sector, lest they cripple the sector globally (Lorenzini and Giovanni 2022). Russia has built its global dominance over the last several decades due to opposition to nuclear energy in the US, combined with structural factors that made competition for influence over the nuclear energy market more important for Russia and less important for the US (Miller and Volpe, forthcoming). India, specifically, will continue to depend on fuel and technology sales from Rosatom, Russia’s state-owned nuclear energy company, because India’s Kudankulam reactors are Russian-made and depend on Russian-produced fuel and Russian spare parts to function (Lorenzini and Giovanni 2022).
The Russian invasion of Ukraine threatens the relationship between India and Russia. Three trends—decreasing reliability of Russia as a balancer against Pakistan and China, improving relations between India and the US, and decreasing Indian reliance on Russian weapons—will likely be exacerbated by the invasion. Russia will likely need greater alignment with China for military and economic reasons, although how much closer they will get remains uncertain. Closer Russian alignment with China would increase Indian distrust of Russia, requiring India to seek alternative partners and offshore balancers, including the US. And problems with Russia’s supply of weapons could undermine the Indo–Russian arms relationship, the most important aspect of Russia–India relations.
While we argue these are the most likely effects of the Russian invasion of Ukraine on Indo–Russian relations, they are not inevitable. Russia may be able to maintain a robust arms relationship with India if the sanctions regime can be circumvented or is eroded over time. This would not prevent the reduction of the arms relationship indefinitely, but it would reduce the demand for short-term diversification of arms imports and indigenization of arms procurement. The dangers of such an alignment would be mitigated if the Sino–Soviet rivalry impedes greater alignment between Beijing and Moscow, possibly due to Russian concerns about becoming a junior partner of China.
The war will also not change Russian or Indian interest in creating a multipolar world. Thus there will remain some mutual interest, even if Russia and India drift apart due to the erosion of the Indo–Russian arms relationship and/or greater Russia–China alignment. If the eventual impact of the war on Russia–China alignment or the Indo–Russian arms trade remains minimal, this shared interest could sustain a strong Indo–Russian relationship. And if these factors severely strain Indo–Russian relations, this common concern will provide a reason for some engagement between New Delhi and Moscow, potentially limiting the damage to the India–Russia relationship.
Finally, there is an opportunity to increase energy ties—specifically hydrocarbon ties—between Russia and India. Indian investment in and imports of Russian hydrocarbons are minimal but have increased over the past few years. This trend has been assisted by the invasion, as Russia has increased hydrocarbon exports to India—among other countries—to offset smaller European oil and gas purchases. However, geography and sanctions will limit this opportunity.
The decline of the Russia–India relationship would have significant implications for India’s relations with other states. India’s relations with other members of the Quad—the US, Japan, and Australia—would improve, as India would rely on these partners to balance against China. Relations with the United Kingdom, which entered into an anti-China security partnership with two Quad members (AUKUS, with the US and Australia) in 2021 (Fraser 2022), are also likely to improve, as are relations with New Zealand, a close ally of both the US and Australia. Beyond members of the Quad, an eroding arms and diplomatic relationship with Russia incentivizes India to increase its strategic and economic engagement with two additional groups of potential partners: regional actors who could serve in a balancing coalition against Russia and China, and potential arms suppliers. The former may include the Philippines (Gill 2020) and/or Vietnam (Brown 2021). The latter would include Israel, states in Western Europe, and former members of the Soviet Union (Banerjee and Tkach 2022a).
Published online: October 14, 2022