The US–India relationship—described as “a defining partnership for the 21st century”—has seen a dramatic rise over the past two decades.1Statements by President Obama and Prime Minister Modi of the Republic of India, New Delhi, India, 25 January 2015, https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/. Seeing India as a “natural ally” with “shared values,” the United States undertook great efforts, beginning in 2005, “to help India to become a major world power in the 21stcentury.”2Address by Shri Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Prime Minister of India, Asia Society, New York, 7 September 2000, https://asiasociety.org/; Narendra Modi, “For the U.S. and India, a Convergence of Interests and Values,” Wall Street Journal, 25 June 2017, https://www.wsj.com/; and David C. Mulford, “US-India Relationship to Reach New Heights,” Times of India, 31 March 2005. To that end, Washington has sought to boost New Delhi’s standing in the global order and international institutions, bolster India’s arms capabilities and technology base, and enable interoperability for military operations. Today, India has been designated a “major defense partner” on par with NATO allies, apex national security officials underscore how “vital” and “critical” India is to US strategy, and US officials contend India has a “pre-eminent role in the Administration’s Indo-Pacific vision.”3US Department of State, A Free and Open Indo-Pacific: Advancing a Shared Vision, 4 November 2019, 9; and Statement of Alice G. Wells Senior Bureau Official for South and Central Asian Affairs Before the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee for Asia, the Pacific, and Nonproliferation, “U.S. Interests in South Asia and the FY 2020 Budget,” 13 June 2019. A lead author of the NDS has echoed this sentiment. See: Elbridge Colby, “Take India’s Side, America,” Wall Street Journal, 12 March 2019. Despite the American embrace, India also professes a great friendship and unprecedented “strategic partnership” with Russia, a country explicitly regarded by the United States as a hostile revisionist adversary and long-term strategic competitor.4James Mattis, Summary of the 2018 National Defense Strategy of the United States of America, Washington, DC: Department of Defense.
India has embraced Russia in a “special and privileged strategic partnership” that features regular dialogues between the heads of state as well as ministries, substantial advanced arms sales, and intergovernmental commissions to cooperate in trade, energy, science, technology, and culture. India has also joined Russia in new institutions and “minilaterals” (for example, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation [SCO]; the Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa [BRICS] grouping; and Russia–India–China [RIC] trilateral meeting), demurred from opposing Russia’s revisionist assault on the global order (from Crimea/Ukraine, to democratic election interference, to the Skripal chemical weapons attack), and extolled the partners’ shared “civilizational values,” pledging “new heights of cooperation through trust and friendship.”5Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India, “India-Russia Joint Statement during Visit of Prime Minister to Vladivostok,” 5 September 2019, https://www.mea.gov.in/.
Strategic promiscuity aside, that a democratic, rule-bound, status-quo country like India would so strongly identify with an autocratic, rule-breaking, revisionist country like Russia is certainly “anomalous” and has baffled and frustrated American analysts and policy makers.6The term anomalous is used by Commodore C. Uday Bhaskar, “Why India’s relationship with Russia is so special,” South China Morning Post, 12 September 2019. Bewilderment comes through in discussions of this subject with US defense officials but also in analysis like Sumit Ganguly, “To Fight China, India Needs to Forget Russia,” Foreign Policy, 16 July 2020, https://foreignpolicy.com/; and Vikram Singh, “How to Keep the US-India Defense Relationship Moving Ahead,” Defense One, 7 August 2018, https://www.defenseone.com/. Moreover, these seemingly dissonant leanings—between the chief proponent of the rules-based international order and one of its principal antagonists—present a fundamental puzzle and question for policy makers. Given different interests, institutions, and ideas about global order, what has kept India and Russia bound together and why? This line of inquiry should be of interest to US policy makers seeking to make sense of Russia’s enduring appeal as well as expanding the strategic relationship with India.
Read the full article in The Journal of Indo-Pacific Affairs.