Russian President Vladimir Putin and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi attend a session of the St Petersburg International Economic Forum on June 2, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Stanislav Krasilnikov/Tass/Host Photo Agency/Pool

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi will visit Russia for an informal summit with President Vladimir Putin in on May 21. This previously unannounced visit follows Indian Defense Minister Nirmala Sitharaman’s visit to Moscow in April to finalize the procurement of five S-400 Triumf air defense systems, a deal that may very well breach US sanctions against Russia.

Against this backdrop, India is playing a careful game balancing these two powers. But with India pivoting toward the US and Russia warming up to Pakistan and China, the long-standing India-Russia relationship must be viewed through a new strategic framework that reflects changing geopolitical realities.

To understand India’s delicate balancing act between the US and Russia, we have to ask a simple question: What do these countries want from each other?

Russia’s grand strategy under President Vladimir Putin is aimed at keeping the US occupied by high-stakes battles on multiple fronts, with the hopes that it would exhaust American financial and diplomatic capital. Russia wants the US to become open to influence and concessions that it can use closer to home. For example, at the height of the US troop surge in Iraq, Russia decided to invade Georgia, and later carved out two of its autonomous territories.

More recently, Russia’s involvement in Syria and elsewhere highlights its strategic need to keep the US bogged down in this region as long as possible. In doing so, it seeks to buy time and build leverage over its core foreign-policy objective – maintaining and increasing the buffer zone between Moscow and Brussels.

Based on this strategic intent, Russia’s decision to sell arms to and hold joint military drills with Pakistan, while undoubtedly boosting Islamabad’s military might, has little to do with India cozying up to the US. Moscow is more concerned about keeping the Americans and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization busy and finding for itself new sources of revenue amid Western sanctions and declining oil prices.

Similarly, Russia’s partnership with China has resulted from Moscow’s need to offset the impact of the sanctions on its flagging economy, and more broadly to dilute US influence. Yet this partnership is hampered by deep mutual mistrust; Russia is increasingly wary of China’s growing influence, particularly in Central Asia, which Russia perceives as its own back yard.

Just as it needs China to push back against the US and buy Russian oil, Moscow values India’s role as a balancer against China and for its energy- and arms-thirsty market

Just as it needs China to push back against the US and buy Russian oil, Moscow values India’s role as a balancer against China and for its energy- and arms-thirsty market. For example, to constrain China’s growing clout, Russia pushed for India’s permanent membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.

For the US, the desire to bring India closer into its orbit has more to do with curbing Chinese influence than with containing Russia. For this same reason, both Russia and the US have become important for India to balance a rising China, although the former is actively upsetting this balance.

In this regard, Russia’s growing strategic convergence with Pakistan and China is built on a common goal to counter US influence and has little to do with India. Nevertheless, it has had significant bearing on Indian security interests.

There is no question that India has had a very long and close relationship with Russia, dating back to Soviet times when the two countries were de facto allies. From seeing the Soviet Union as the strategic counterweight to China and Western powers in the Cold War days to as recent as the cooperation over the Brahmos missile project and the Essar-Rosneft oil deal, India has benefited immensely from its relations with Russia.

But India also needs to realize that as it moves up on the world stage, the strategic component of its relationship with Russia is slowly deteriorating; Russia can now only provide India with arms and can no longer sustain its value as a strategic counterweight to China.

On the contrary, Russia-China relations have been warming considerably since the end of the Cold War, and have been in an upward swing over the last few years. As Russia becomes more beholden to China, the contours of India-Russian ties in the future will be increasingly shaped by Beijing-Moscow relations.

Furthermore, Putin’s adventures in the Middle East and Eastern Europe have created unease in New Delhi at a time when it seeks to form new strategic relationships with the West. In fact, India is forced to take a position where it can neither condemn nor defend Moscow’s actions, but ignore them altogether.

In this light, the Modi administration has clearly taken steps to reduce over-reliance on Russia. Since defense remains central to India-Russia relations, the prime minister has sought to diversify India’s military suppliers to include countries such as the US and Israel. India is also now a “major defense partner” of the US, a distinction that gives it “access to a wide range of dual-use technologies” at “a level commensurate with that of [America’s] closest allies and partners.”

In actual numbers, annual US-India defense trade had increased from around US$1 billion in 2008 to more than $15 billion by 2016. And although Russia remains India’s largest arms supplier to date, it has been steadily losing its share of India’s arms imports, dropping from 79% in 2008-2012 to 62% in 2013-2017. By comparison, US arms exports to India increased by 557% between 2008-2012 and 2013-2017.

As the US seeks closer defense ties with India and calls upon the country to shoulder responsibilities commensurate with its growing economic and military heft, it wouldn’t serve American interests to push India deeper into Russia’s arms by imposing sanctions on New Delhi because of the S-400 deal.

But as evidenced by this deal, India is still dependent on Russia’s advanced technology to expand its military inventory of fighter jets, submarines and artillery systems. And unlike China, which is well on the way to self-sufficiency in the production of arms, India’s reliance on arms imports is unlikely to change any time soon.

Politically, Russian offers also come with fewer strings attached than American ones, making it easier for New Delhi to decide how and against whom those weapons will be employed.

Given India’s concern over China and Pakistan’s military modernization and buildup, and more broadly the transformation of the Asian geopolitical landscape, New Delhi may find it difficult yet necessary to maintain robust ties with Moscow in order to achieve its national-security objectives and maintain its leverage with other powers.

At the same time, it needs to weigh carefully the benefits and risks of forever vacillating between a Russia that will continue to exploit its friendship and an uncertain US led by a man whose policies don’t always match his bombastic rhetoric and political posturing.

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Tenzin Topden

Tenzin Topden is a program assistant at the Asia Society Policy Institute in New York.

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