Russian President Vladimir Putin with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization leaders’ summit in Samarkand September 16, 2022. “Today’s era is not an era of war and I spoke to you on the phone about it spoken that,” Modi told Putin at a televised meeting.
Aleksandr Demianchuk | AFP | Getty Images
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi may have publicly rebuked Russian President Vladimir Putin over the war in Ukraine, but the long-standing friendship between the two countries is not going away, analysts said.
“Today’s era is not an era of war, and I spoke to you about it on the phone,” Modi told Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin two weeks ago at a televised meeting at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in Samarkand, Uzbekistan.
This marked a shift in tone from the early days of the war, when India was seen as unwilling to criticize Russia, including abstention in a UN vote censuring the country for the invasion.
For his part, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov claimed a month after the invasion of Ukraine that Russia and India were “friends”.
But despite India’s apparent changed attitude towards the war, India still needs Russia, analysts told CNBC.
“India is in a unique position where it needs Russia to administer China in the short term,” said Harsh V. Pant, vice president for studies and foreign policy at the Observer Research Foundation, a Delhi-based think tank.
Pant added that India needs the West in the long-term to manage its relations with China, citing the latter as “the main strategic challenger to India”.
China and India are locked in a two-year border dispute in the Himalayas, although troops from both sides have recently begun withdrawing from the western side. But both still had thousands of soldiers along the de facto border known as the Line of Actual Control (LAC).
The future of China-India relations will be difficult, said Raymond Vickery, a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
At a regular Indian Foreign Ministry press conference in August, when asked about Delhi’s approach to the “One China” policy, the spokesman confirmed that India’s policy was “consistent” and “needed no repetition”.
“On top of that, there’s a whole Belt and Road initiative aimed at ultimately giving China control of the Indo-Pacific,” Vickery said.
The BRI is China’s ambitious program to build physical and digital infrastructure to connect hundreds of countries from Asia to the Middle East, Africa and Europe. Critics say it is Chinese President Xi Jinping’s foreign policy to expand his country’s global influence.
During the recent SCO meeting, India refrained from reaffirming support for China’s BRI.
According to analysts, Russia is a key military partner and main arms supplier to India.
“Most of India’s conventional arms come from Russia,” said Sameer Lalwani, a senior expert at the US Institute of Peace. “[This] means it has relied heavily on Russia for years for maintaining the armed forces, including spares, maintenance and upgrades.
According to data company Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, India was the largest importer of Russian arms from 2017 to 2021, and Russian equipment accounted for 46% of India’s arms imports.
While it’s a far cry from the 80 percent figure seen during the Cold War, it still reflects India’s “heavy dependence” on Russia, Pant said, especially given that tensions between India and China over the LAC linger are “very active”.
“Russia remains India’s most important country [military] partners,” he added.
India also increased its purchases of Russian oil after the Kremlin’s invasion of Ukraine, benefiting from discounted prices.
Connections will “last for decades”
India’s longstanding friendship with Russia is not going away – and that’s thanks to its military dependency, according to Lalwani.
“Even as India seeks greater indigenization of its defense capabilities, without a stunning and financially exorbitant overhaul of its force structure, it will remain dependent on Russian arms, ammunition and sub-components for decades to come,” Lalwani said.
He added that India’s cruise missile exports to Southeast Asian countries could not function without Russian propulsion systems.
“Even if the military relationship between India and Russia is on the wane, it will last for decades.”