India “Bets Big” On Russia Despite US Lure & Chinese Fear; Here Is Why Delhi & Moscow Remain ‘Trusted Pals’

OPED By Karan Sharma

The foundation of the China-Russia “no-limits” alliance is rooted in the evolving global power structure since the early 2010s. Both nations perceived a need to collaborate against the United States’ hegemonic, albeit declining, influence.

Under President Vladimir Putin, Russia has skillfully maneuvered the international landscape to enhance its global standing. Utilizing its substantial hard power — conventional military strength, extensive nuclear deterrence, private militias, energy resources, and strategic geopolitical moves — Russia seeks to maximize its bargaining power and extend its influence.

The Russo-China alliance is visibly strengthening through joint military exercises and defense agreements. This military cooperation serves multiple purposes, such as enhancing capabilities and deterring Western military intervention in their respective spheres of influence.

Economically, the alliance is bolstered by robust trade relations, particularly in energy and natural resources, where Russia is a critical supplier to China. China’s vast energy demands are met by Russian oil and gas exports, securing a stable supply while reducing dependency on potentially hostile Western sources.

Sukhoi Su-57: Junked By India In 2018, IAF Likely To Evaluate Russian Stealth Fighters To Counter J-20

Moscow’s strategy in the Russian war against Ukraine aims to disrupt the European security architecture. In Asia, China plans to focus on solidifying its dominance, including the strategic objectives of reunifying Taiwan, asserting control over the South China Sea and East China Sea, and ensuring unimpeded access to vital sea lanes in the Pacific and Indian Ocean.

A critical component of the China-Russia strategy is the concerted effort to undermine US-led global governance. This includes challenging American influence in international organizations like the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) and promoting alternative frameworks like BRICS+ and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO).

By doing so, Russia and China aim to create a multipolar world order that dilutes Western dominance. Economic collaboration between the two nations is equally significant. By increasing bilateral trade using national currencies — currently 92% in yuan and ruble — Russia and China are countering Western sanctions and reducing their reliance on the US dollar. This economic strategy extends to advanced technological collaboration, particularly in areas like artificial intelligence, quantum computing, and telecommunications.

The strategic partnership between China and Russia, even if transactional, poses a significant challenge to the US. This alliance creates a two-front scenario for Washington, compelling it to navigate a belligerent Russia in Europe and an increasingly aggressive China in the Indo-Pacific region.

The primary objective of the China-Russia alliance is to counterbalance US influence in international politics, compelling the US to divide its focus from a single theatre, be it in Europe or the Indo-Pacific.

Implications For India

As the 21st-century global dynamics evolve, India finds itself navigating an increasingly unstable international landscape. It is evident that neither a unipolar world dominated by the United States nor a bipolar order centered around US-China rivalry is in India’s strategic interest.

Instead, a multipolar world with a diminished yet strategically relevant Russian pole presents the most favorable scenario for India’s geopolitical aspirations.

However, Russia’s increasing closeness to China over recent years has been a cause for concern in New Delhi. India views this relationship with caution, mainly due to its extensive military and defense ties with Russia and the ongoing standoff with China. For New Delhi, managing the Russia-China axis presents a significant foreign policy challenge, altering its strategic outlook in fundamental ways.

Furthermore, a strengthened Sino-Russian economic collaboration might marginalize India in regional infrastructure projects and trade routes. Also, closer China-Russia cooperation on the global stage diminishes Indian influence in regional forums such as the SCO and BRICS.

This emerging configuration necessitates that India carefully recalibrate its foreign policy to maintain its space within these forums while safeguarding its national interests.

It is understood that Russia, China, and India seek a multipolar world order that diminishes the post-World War II hegemony of the United States. However, while India’s vision of a multipolar world is non-West, the one sought by Russia with China is anti-West.

This marks a significant divergence in their strategic interests. In forums like the SCO and BRICS, India aims to amplify the voice of the Global South, positioning itself as a bridge between the developed and developing worlds. This role was evident during the COVID-19 pandemic, where India partnered with the US, Australia, and Japan under the Quad framework to assist Indo-Pacific nations with vaccines.

Conversely, China and Russia seek to form an anti-Western bloc through their partnerships with the Global South, aiming to undermine the West. The differences between India and the China-Russia-Iran-North Korea bloc are fundamental.

India emphasizes multi-alignment, strategic autonomy, and constructive mini-lateralisms through groupings like the Quad and BIMSTEC. In contrast, the China-Russia axis approaches values, norms, and institutions from an anti-West perspective, aimed at militarily and economically countering the US and its allies, which does not precisely align with India’s approach.

Amidst these developments, the signs of a shifting India-Russia relationship are already evident. Despite Russia’s initial offer to mediate between India and China during the Eastern Ladakh crisis, India opted to handle the situation independently.

During the near-wartime mobilization against China in Galwan, India’s emergency supplies of winter clothing, advanced gear, and weapons came from the West, not Russia. The Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) with the US was activated, facilitating these supplies. Moreover, most of the military intelligence during the skirmishes in Ladakh and Doklam was shared by the US.

China Threatens India’s Hold Over Siachen, Kashmir As Beijing ‘Creeps Into’ Shaksgam Valley Using CPEC

Hence, India has been quietly addressing the issue of the China-Russia bonhomie. Historically, much of the India-Russia relationship revolved around military and security affairs. However, the centrality of Russia in these areas has diminished recently.

According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), Russia’s share of India’s military imports fell from 76% during 2009-13 to 36% in 2019-23. India is increasingly replacing Russia with Western partners (mainly France, the US, and Israel) for new orders or has begun sourcing it from domestic manufacturers.

It is important to note that, despite Russia’s growing reliance on China, it has not taken any antagonistic steps against India, which might suggest that Russian proximity to China does not directly affect India.

Moreover, there is still potential in India-Russia relations despite Moscow’s increasing dependence on China. By investing further in its relations with India and strong growth in trade with India (Russia has become India’s fourth largest trade partner), it is evident that Russia seeks to avoid putting all its eggs in one basket.

By having India as a second major partner, Russia aims to mitigate the risks of total dependence on China. This strategic diversification is crucial for Russia to maintain a balanced geopolitical stance.

India, in turn, values Russian support as a means to avoid multisectoral (economic, defense, and technological) reliance on the US and the EU and thus aims to prevent entrenchment in the Western bloc.

The Indo-Russia alliance might not match the dimensions of the Sino-Russia partnership, but several initiatives indicate Russia’s commitment to strengthening ties with India. These initiatives include enhancing trade through INSTC and exploring visa-free travel agreements, joint ventures, and collaborations across various sectors, particularly atomic energy. Such efforts underscore Russia’s recognition of India as a vital partner.

Russia’s role in the international arena, though diminished from its peak in the Cold War era, remains crucial. Its existence as a counterbalance to American and Chinese dominance aligns with India’s strategic interests.

Russia’s alignment with China is primarily aimed at countering American influence, much like India’s strategic cooperation with the U.S. seeks to counterbalance China. However, the intricacies of these alliances suggest that Russia’s support for India in a potential conflict with China would be limited or, at the most, covert or indirect. Russia would back India only to the extent that it does not compromise its own strategic relations with China.

Despite these limitations, Russia remains a valuable partner for India; Russian engagement is devoid of moralistic judgments on India’s actions in the international arena.

A pertinent example of this pragmatic partnership is the sale of the BrahMos missile, a joint Indo-Russian venture, to the Philippines—a move clearly aimed at countering Chinese influence.

From a realist account, Russia should have vetoed this military deal since it compromises the security of its principal partner, China; however, Russia did not intervene. This underscores Russia’s willingness to support India in ways Western powers might hesitate.

On the other hand, when it comes to defense cooperation with the US, it always has some strings attached. For example, it was observed that the US had deferred the 31 MQ-9B Predator drone deal with India after it suspected Indian involvement in a plot to assassinate the Khalistani terrorist Gurpatwant Singh Pannun.

File Image: Modi-Biden

Nonetheless, India’s dependence on Russian weapon systems and spare parts is a vital pillar of the Indo-Russian relationship. Russia remains not only a steadfast supplier but has also emerged as a source of those critical defense technologies that the West has been reluctant to offer.

For example, there have been reports of Russian (although muted) assistance in developing India’s nuclear ballistic missile submarines (Arihant class SSBNs), sharing of critical rocket motor technology of Zircon hypersonic missiles for the BrahMos 2 variant, transfer of technology of jet engines such as RD-33 that power Mig-29, AL-31FP which powers Su-30 MKI, along with the successive lending of Akula class (SSN) nuclear attack submarines to the Indian Navy (Rechristened as Chakra I, Chakra II, and the awaited Chakra III).

Joint development and sharing of such critical defense equipment and technologies demonstrate the level of cooperation and mutual trust between India and Russia, unseen and incomparable in scope and depth to India’s defense cooperations with the West. This mutual trust reinforces the strategic importance of maintaining strong ties with Russia.


India’s strategic path lies in fostering a multipolar world where no single power, whether the U.S. or China, can dominate the global order. This involves maintaining balanced relations with multiple powers, leveraging convergences where they exist, and managing divergences pragmatically.

Russia’s role as a counterbalance to the China-US bipolarity is indispensable despite its limitations. India’s foreign policy thus hinges on a realistic appraisal of international relations, eschewing idealistic notions of permanent alliances in favor of flexible, interest-based partnerships.

This approach ensures that India retains strategic autonomy, minimizing risks and maximizing opportunities in an increasingly unstable world order marked by increasing great-power competition. A multipolar world offers India the best global environment to secure its national interests.

By balancing relations with the U.S. and Russia, along with successfully managing China, India can navigate the current challenges and seize the opportunities of the 21st-century geopolitical landscape.

  • Karan Sharma is a Senior Research Fellow at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences at BITS-Pilani Goa. 
  • Views personal of the author