The Cable

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Is India Playing the United States Against Russia?

Not exactly. But it will continue its military relationship with Russia, even as it tightens ties with the United States.


India’s finance minister, who is also India’s defense minister, has some financial business to attend to this week in United States. And then he’s got some defense matters to deal with — in Russia.

According to official sources, Arun Jaitley will be in the Washington for World Bank-IMF meetings from April 21 to 23. From there, he will head straight to Moscow for a two-day visit to tighten military ties.

Is India playing the two countries — both of which wail about U.S.-Russia relations being at an all-time low — off one another?

Not exactly. But it is a residual effect of Soviet days, and a reminder that, for all of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s apparent move toward the United States and its allies, India values above all freedom of action in its foreign policy.

After India gained its independence in 1947, the United States was New Delhi’s strongest partner, said Rick Rossow of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Only two decades later, after the United States decided to privilege partnerships with China and Pakistan, did Russia offer overt support, opening “the spigot” on supporting India with military gear.

But the United States is again, much like the days after Partition, “clearly the number one partner for India,” said Sadanand Dhume of the American Enterprise Institute. This particular visit to Moscow, likely planned long before Jaitley became defense minister, is different in nature than those that took place during the Cold War, when a visit to Washington was immediately followed by a reassuring trip to Moscow.

Still, despite Modi’s overtures to the United States, one of the durable vestiges of Soviet days is India’s military relationship with Russia. There are only a handful of countries with the advanced defense technology that India covets, and that are willing to share, Rossow noted.

And, though the United States (and Israel) have made inroads — including promises from the Pentagon to share more advanced technology for next-generation aircraft carriers — Russia is still India’s the main arms supplier. Modi’s Make in India campaign seeks to onshore all sorts of domestic manufacturing, but surface to air missiles and stealth frigates for the Indian navy will be made with help from Russia.

Military assistance from Russia, as opposed to the United States, comes with fewer strings: Moscow is less likely care just how or against whom India uses those weapons.

Strategic autonomy is what India values above all else in its foreign policy. Modi’s government may have preferred a successful rapprochement between President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin, just as American resistance to Chinese aggression would be most welcome in New Delhi. But it can live with a chilly U.S.-Russian relationship and a seemingly chummy start to Trump’s relationship with Chinese President Xi Jinping — as long as Washington never demands that India stop working so closely with Russia.

Had that been the cost of doing business,” Dhume said, “there’d much smaller constituency for closer U.S.-India relations.”

Photo credit: PRAKASH SINGH/AFP/Getty Images

Emily Tamkin is the U.S. editor of the New Statesman and the author of The Influence of Soros, published July 2020. Twitter: @emilyctamkin