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Are Indo-Russian Ties the Next Casualty of Great-Power Shifts?


On his first trip abroad in 2014, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi traveled to Fortaleza, Brazil, to join a BRICS summit bringing together the leaders of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa. Meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin on the sidelines, Modi emphasized the depth of Indians’ goodwill toward Russia. Modi told Putin that “even a child in India, if asked to say who is India’s best friend, will reply it is Russia because Russia has been with India in times of crisis.”

That BRICS summit was a long time ago. Today, Modi has drawn India more closely than ever to the United States and the West and is locked in a deepening conflict with China under its President Xi Jinping. That also means Modi now has to manage a more complex relationship with Russia.

All these shifts will be on full view this month. On Wednesday, Modi will host Putin and Xi at the BRICS summit, where the mood is likely to be a lot tenser than it was in 2014. Modi is also preparing to join U.S. President Joe Biden for an in-person meeting at the White House later this month.

On his first trip abroad in 2014, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi traveled to Fortaleza, Brazil, to join a BRICS summit bringing together the leaders of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa. Meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin on the sidelines, Modi emphasized the depth of Indians’ goodwill toward Russia. Modi told Putin that “even a child in India, if asked to say who is India’s best friend, will reply it is Russia because Russia has been with India in times of crisis.”

That BRICS summit was a long time ago. Today, Modi has drawn India more closely than ever to the United States and the West and is locked in a deepening conflict with China under its President Xi Jinping. That also means Modi now has to manage a more complex relationship with Russia.

All these shifts will be on full view this month. On Wednesday, Modi will host Putin and Xi at the BRICS summit, where the mood is likely to be a lot tenser than it was in 2014. Modi is also preparing to join U.S. President Joe Biden for an in-person meeting at the White House later this month.

But while New Delhi’s ongoing conflict with Beijing and its growing closeness to Washington have attracted much attention, its third great power relationship with Moscow is undergoing a more complex yet less noted shift. That shift has accelerated in recent weeks amid an increasing political divergence over Afghanistan. At a meeting of the United Nations Security Council last week, India teamed up with the three Western powers—the United States, Britain, and France—to lay out some tough demands for the Taliban. Russia, in contrast, joined China in seeking to dilute the language of the resolution on Afghanistan and abstained in the vote on it.

That kind of divergence between New Delhi and Moscow used to be virtually unthinkable. India has long had a warm relationship with Russia, and the Soviet Union before it, rooted in a sense of enduring convergence of interests at both the global and regional levels. When the United States and Britain allied with India’s archrival Pakistan starting in the 1950s, New Delhi deeply appreciated Moscow’s support, including arms deliveries and its veto on Kashmir-related issues in the Security Council. Even after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia remained India’s main international political partner. As that much celebrated convergence breaks down, New Delhi is now learning to live with growing divergence with Moscow on key regional and global issues.

Modi, however, is not willing simply to abandon the longstanding partnership with Russia, despite the grumbling in Washington. But he also isn’t ready to let Russia have…



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