The Indian Economy Blog

November 25, 2007

Indo-Russian Relations Not “Special”… They Never Were

Filed under: Economic History,Miscellaneous,Trade — Pragmatic @ 3:20 pm

Demolishing the myth of “historical ties” and “strategic partnership that has stood the test of time”.

Noted defence analyst Ajai Shukla, in his column for the Business Standard (reproduced on his blog Broadsword ), has highlighted the changing paradigm of the Indo-Russian relationship. He also suggests that India has been unable to come to terms with the altered relationship as the Russians have taken a more hard-nosed approach to their defence exports. The signs are ominous. It seems that India is operating in a timewarp and has been caught in the rhetoric of a historically “special” Indo-Russia relationship.

This perceptional error emanates from a failure to understand the basis of the “special” Indo-Russian relationship. The continued references by Indian officials (and parroted by the Russian officials) to the unique quality of Indo-Russian bipolar relations imply a common perspective in Indian and Russian strategic, diplomatic and economic interests. However, the Indo-Russian relationship has never been “special” when placed in a vacuum, devoid of outside influences. India and Russia have had, and will continue to have, certain common interests that are necessary for the development of a lasting bond; this commonality has not been in itself sufficient to solidify their relationship. Historically the glue in the Indo-Soviet/Russian “special” relationship was United States and western ambivalence towards India and Indian military needs. As the United States’ ambivalence has dissipated and India’s military-industrial complex has moved towards a higher level of self-reliance, the Indo-Russian bond has naturally cloven. The history of Indo-Soviet military cooperation can be thus summarised as a relationship determined by Indian military needs, Soviet/ Russian opportunism, and fueled by Western ambivalence.


As defined by Ken Booth, strategic culture is the product of a nation’s “history, geography and political culture,” and it helps to “shape behavior on such issues as the use of force in international politics, sensitivity to external dangers, civil-military relations and strategic doctrine.” History, geography, and political culture all played crucial roles in the development of India’s conventional forces and nuclear capabilities during the Cold War. India’s sudden emancipation in 1947 after centuries of subservience created “a fierce determination to preserve Indian independence no matter what the cost – an attitude often bordering on paranoia.” Any attempt by outside powers, whether Soviet or Western, to exert influence upon India was often met with open defiance. While the Soviet Union, especially under Khrushchev, would be more understanding of India’s “paranoia” and would treat India with respect, the United States often presented India with demands, even when providing food aid. Furthermore, the United States would exacerbate India’s geographic isolation by providing arms and technical data to both Pakistan and China, thus adding fuel to Indian militarism.

During the Cold War years, there existed a historical pattern in the Indo-Soviet relationship that supported India’s quest for regional security and independent global stature, and an oscillating Soviet vision of India based upon India’s changing geo-strategic and diplomatic significance. As a result, far from being an enduring and close “special relationship,” the historical foundations of the Indo-Soviet relationship reveal an opportunistic relationship in which India’s needs are a match for Soviet capabilities, and Soviet needs are a match for India’s strengths. Moreover, the strength of the Indo-Soviet relationship depended upon the short-term impact of Indo-US interactions. Additionally, major South Asian policy decisions made by the United States during the Cold War clearly depict that the cementing of the “special” Indo-Soviet relationship was a product of American inattention as much as Soviet perseverance.

When India commenced the rapid modernization of its armed forces following the 1962 Sino-Indian conflict, its initial objective was to continue and expand upon its historical Western supply-line. After failing to secure arms transfer agreements with the West, India turned to the Soviet Union out of “dire necessity.” For India, the agreement was a commercial one based on economics. Soviet military contracts usually had favorable financial terms and included provisions for production licensing. But in the long-run, these deals became a burden as India failed to secure a reliable supply of spare parts and also experienced a drop in operational readiness due to a void in indigenous maintenance capabilities. When India made a concerted effort in the 1980s to diversify its procurement portfolio, it found itself returning to the Soviet Union to satisfy its short-term military needs. With a long-term goal of self-reliance in military procurement, India had to use Soviet arms as a stepping stone between the bygone era of the British Raj and future Indian procurement autonomy.


The Soviet pullout from Afghanistan in 1989 and the end of the Cold War brought about a drastic change in India’s geo-strategic and diplomatic importance. It was during this transition period of the early 1990s that India emerged from centuries of subservience to (or, during the Cold War, dependence on) external powers to begin defining a global role for itself that was solely egocentric and not centered on India’s reliance on other states. On the strategic level, to rephrase Ashley Tellis’ Cold War depiction of India, the post-Cold War era became a time of transition as India evolved from being a consumer of security to being a producer of its own security. At the same time, India experienced internal economic turmoil which contributed to a sharp decrease in Indian military expenditures and arms imports. Furthermore, a rigid US approach to India, centered on nonproliferation concerns, that permeated all aspects of Indo-US relations and prevented a broadening of these relations.

As the transition from Soviet to Russian rule took place, the anti-India school of thought dominated Russian foreign policy-making. This domination resulted in a major shift in Soviet/Russian policy towards South Asia. In November 1991, when the Soviet Union was breathing its last, in a dramatic change of policy, Moscow suddenly supported the Pakistan-sponsored UN Resolution calling for the establishment of a nuclear-free zone in South Asia to the great consternation of New Delhi. The signal sent by the collapsing Soviet regime, with many of its leaders taking positions in the new Russian government, was that it sided with the West and Pakistan against India’s ambitions for regional leadership and security. In January 1992, one month after a delegation of Afghan Mujahideen traveled to Russia, Moscow severed all “military supplies, ordnance and fuel for military transport” that were sustaining the Najib government’s war effort against the Mujihadeen. India felt a certain sense of betrayal because of the reversal in Soviet policy since the Indian government had worked with the Soviet Union in supporting the Najib government and denying Pakistan the ‘strategic depth’ in Afghanistan.

It was in this atmosphere of uncertain Russian foreign policy objectives that the post-Cold War relations between Russia and India were further strained by two events. The first was the cancellation of the Glavkosmos deal for cryogenic engines by Boris Yeltsin under US pressure. The conclusion the Indians drew was that Russia’s overriding need for American economic aid has made it susceptible to American pressure. In Indian eyes, Russia was unreliable, and it had lost its international stature. During the same time frame as the cryogenic engine fiasco, the “rupee versus ruble” debate flared up in Indo-Russian relations.

The primary short-term military concern for India in the early 1990s was its limited supply of spare parts and supplies for its Soviet-produced armaments. After three decades of reliance on Soviet-produced hardware, India was in a position in 1991 in which seventy percent of Army armaments, eighty percent of Air Force armaments, and eight-five percent of Navy armaments were of Soviet origin. Lacking the indigenous capability to produce spare parts and supplies for these systems, India’s military faced an immediate crisis. In response to its economic crisis in 1990-91, India imposed a reduction in defense expenditures and a sharp reduction in arms import. After having been the top importer of conventional weapons in the world during the period from 1988 to 1992, India was ranked as the twenty-third largest importer of conventional arms by 1996. The inability of Russia to continue the Soviet flow of military hardware, coupled with the sharp reduction in Indian military expenditures, weakened the primary bond that had united India and the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

During the Cold War, decisions to sell Soviet weaponry abroad had been made by the Politburo. But in the post-Cold War era, the choice of where and when to sell Russian arms rested with the power-brokers of the Russian military-industrial complex. As Vitaly Kataev, the General Director of Russia’s Center of Military Industrial Complex, remarked, “Economics dictate the routes of trade.”

During the late 1990s, the Russian interest groups dictated military cooperation with India as India procured more hardware from the Russian defense industry than Russia’s own military forces. It was estimated that about eight hundred Russian defense production facilities were kept in operation by Indian defense contracts. During the early part of this century, Russian exports to China and India amounted to about three-fourths of the total revenue brought in by Russia’s defense industry. The foundations of the Indo-Soviet/Russian military relationship had thus experienced a tectonic shift since the end of Cold War – from Indian needs and Soviet opportunism to Russian economic needs and Indian military needs and opportunism.


The rising oil prices, the Russian resurgence under Putin with a more pragmatic foreign policy, coupled with the current US embroilment in Iraq and Afghanistan, have changed the rules of the game. There is also disillusionment in the Russian establishment with the ‘softness’ of the Indian state and its proclivity to align with US interests. The “special” relationship between India and Putin’s Russia exists only as a meaningless palaver nowadays.

Until the communist collapse, the Indo-Soviet relationship prospered because of the need for a balance against the West, and shared security and geopolitical concerns. The new Indo-Russian relationship is based primarily on business interests, and coloured only marginally by geopolitics and security. Outside the paradigm of arms sales, there are not many emerging trends that will promote strong Indo-Russia cooperation nowadays. The history of Indo-Russian cooperation provides a foundation for understanding the current rift in Indo-Russian relations. Indian strategic culture dictates that the likely courses of action for India in the current geopolitical context do not merge with Russian interests anymore. As Indian military needs, Soviet/ Russian opportunism, and US ambivalence do not exist to drive the Indo-Russian relationship, this relationship isn’t “special” anymore. In fact, it never was.


Reference –
Jerome M. Conley, Indo-Russian Military and Nuclear Cooperation: Lessons and Options for U.S. Policy in South Asia, Lexington Books, 2001.


  1. The balance of power between Russia and India will shift rapidly in India’s favor in coming years, relative to the terms of engagement today.

    Russia is an oil economy with a powerful military industrial sector. The rest of the economy is not very impressive and is certainly not moving ahead in terms of competitiveness. High oil prices disguise this weakness.

    India, on the other hand, is rapidly industrializing and building more competitive firms with better technology. It lacks Russia’s two big advantages (oil and sophisticated weapons) but is building up the rest of the economy in a much better way than is Russia.

    Over the long-term, meaning 10 years, India will gain overall strength as an economy and will have created a respectable military-industrial complex, including by then some major private sector firms. Russia by then may suffer from lower oil revenues but may still have a world-class weapons building sector. India may still depend on Russian guns at that time but will surely be in a better position to both bargain with Russia and to make more weapons on its own.

    There is likely to be nothing ‘special’ in Indo-Russian relations in future, even less than there was in the past.

    Comment by Joydeep — November 26, 2007 @ 8:19 am

  2. [...] Cross posted at the Indian Economy Blog [...]

    Pingback by Pragmatic Euphony » Blog Archive » Indo-Russian relations Not “Special”… they never were — November 26, 2007 @ 11:42 am

  3. As an indian who lived in Russia for 7 years,i know that majority of Russians look towards india and indians with contempt.There we indians understand that majority of Russians care only about nationality,religion,race and ethnicity of the person rather than the character of the person.Russia has got very backward thinking.India should have been friends with multicultural America rather than racist Russians.I think that it is good for developing countries to be friends with western countries rather than Russia where one can easily be killed just because of their skin colour.

    Comment by bobby — March 26, 2008 @ 1:28 pm

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