Make No Mistake, Russia Values China Over India

Make No Mistake, Russia Values China Over India

Despite rhetoric about a “time-tested friendship,” Russia has never supported India without taking into account its own relationship with China.

“Russia has never hurt India’s interests,” India’s External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar recently asserted on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference. India and Russia have had a Treaty of Friendship since 1971 and a Special and Privileged Strategic Partnership since 2010. However, India must soon face some hard facts about its longstanding ties with Russia.

An expansionist China, not India, has been more important to Russian foreign policy for many years. The knotty problem is that India must reconcile its long dependence on Russia for most of its weapons to secure its territory against a predatory China. Russia’s arms sales to India have been the mainstay of the bilateral relationship, and although Russian arms deliveries have stalled since it launched its illegal invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, more than sixty percent of India’s defense forces remain equipped with Russian military equipment.

So, India is in the awkward position of being highly dependent on Russia for weapons and, since 2022, for oil to support its economy while relying on America’s military presence in Asia to keep China at bay in the Indo-Pacific.

India’s relationship with Russia has always been an uncomfortable double harness. Moscow and Beijing have written India off for supporting Washington’s Indo-Pacific concept and joining the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue with the United States and its old allies Japan and Australia. India is the non-ally in the Quad, and it is not specifically directed against China. However, India has distanced itself from the Australia–UK–U.S. grouping (AUKUS). Nonetheless, history shows that despite the longstanding military relationship, Russia has never viewed India as its top strategic partner.

The place of India—and China, Moscow’s Comprehensive Strategic Partner—in Russia’s global strategy was obvious during the official visit of Russian President Vladimir Putin to New Delhi on December 6, 2021. Were India and its top strategic partner, the United States, aware of Putin’s assertion just one week before, on November 30, 2021, that it is “natural” that China’s “military might grow along with the rise in the economic potential,” and that China’s growing might “first of all … relates to its economic might. But why should we follow third countries’ interests in building our policy?” That was, in effect, an endorsement of China’s expansionism in Asia—which challenges the territorial integrity of many of its neighbors, including India.

Indeed, India must contend with the Chinese iron in Russia’s fire. The GDP of an economically and militarily strong China—also hostile to the United States—is $17 trillion; its defense expenditure is $232 billion. A weaker India has a $3 trillion-plus economy and will fork out about $75 billion for defense in 2025. China’s defense spending has risen despite its ongoing economic struggles. Moreover, China’s GDP per capita is $12,720.2, India’s $2,410.9.

India cannot be expected to drive a wedge between Moscow and Beijing. India’s top strategic concern is its contested borders with China and Pakistan in South Asia. Geographically a Pacific power, China offers stiff competition to India even in New Delhi’s immediate Indian Ocean neighborhood and asserts that the region is not India’s “backyard.”

Russian help to India in countering China has always been limited. Russia’s war in Ukraine has made it effectively China’s junior partner and heavily dependent on Beijing economically as an investor and energy buyer. They make common cause against American global primacy. As a result, India cannot set Russia against China by buying unprecedentedly large quantities of Russian oil. Instead, like Russia, China has welcomed India’s “neutrality” on Ukraine in the United Nations because it displeases Washington. India needs to craft a strategy to counter their divisive machinations.

Economics and trade have contributed to shaping China-Russian ties. China’s need for gas and oil has long entailed amicable relations with neighboring Russia, one of the world’s largest energy producers.

Since Moscow annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, Chinese investments in Russia have helped it bypass sanctions imposed by the West. With Moscow’s consent, China has established its economic presence in Russia and Central Asia. It has built railways in Russia and constructed railway lines connecting Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan to China. 

In fact, despite the rhetoric about “time-tested friendship,” Russia has never supported India without taking into account its own relationship with China. Moscow was neutral when Chinese and Indian troops clashed on their shared border in June 2020. Nearly four decades earlier, Moscow sided with Beijing in the 1962 Sino-Indian War and provided China with diplomatic and intelligence support. It also delayed delivery of MiG fighter jets to India. Russia’s 1971 Treaty of Friendship with India was facilitated by the fact that Chinese and Soviet troops skirmished on the Sino-Russian border in 1969. At another level, Russia’s decision to sell the S-400 air defense system to China in 2014 reflected their shared aim of challenging the United States’s international pre-eminence. In 2018, Moscow and New Delhi also signed a deal for India to buy the S-400 system. However, in early 2023, the Indian Air Force revealed that Russia had informed India that it could not complete delivery of the system owing to the exigencies of the war in Ukraine.

Moscow has also counseled New Delhi to join China’s Belt-and-Road Initiative, which India views as a unilateral push to advance China’s interests and a threat to India’s sovereignty because it cuts across disputed territory India claims in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir.

Since February 4, 2022, strong economic and military ties have defined the “no-limits Russia-China partnership, raising questions about whether President Xi Jinping knew Russia was on the verge of launching the biggest land invasion in Europe since World War II.

While their joint statement reiterated Russia’s already established backing for Beijing’s position on Taiwan, it did not mention China’s claims to the territories of neighboring countries in the South China Sea or China’s border dispute with India. On an official trip to New Delhi in April 2021, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov asserted that Russia is the only country “that actually provides India with cutting-edge defense technologies.” That situation has dramatically changed after Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022.

Since then, Russia’s failure to deliver its promised military equipment to India has left New Delhi exploring Western options, including France, Israel, and the United States, its next largest arms suppliers, without replicating its previous dependence on one importer alone. 

Despite India’s neutrality on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and its vast oil purchases from Russia over the last two years, its relations with the United States and the European Union (EU) remain friendly.

But with Putin warning of nuclear strikes, complications posed by Western sanctions, and China-Russia technological cooperation could affect India and its ties with the West. Russia’s offensive in Ukraine threatens Europe. The West is concerned that Russian missile strikes on Ukraine have been made possible with Chinese help. China is providing Russia—if not with weapons—with components that enable Russia to manufacture them.

In early February, the Russian government released a video of Chinese Defense Minister Dong Jun’s message to Russia’s Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, in which he said China would stand with Russia on the Ukraine issue despite pressure from the United States and Europe. Dong Jun confirmed China’s support to Russia during a bilateral video meeting. The readout of the meeting by China’s Ministry of Defense did not mention the comments about China’s support for Russia’s Ukraine war.

Recently, the EU announced that it would sanction companies or people in twenty-seven countries, including India, Iran, China, and Syria, with connections to Russia’s defense and security sector. They are helping Russia to get around Western sanctions with dual-use items that can be used for both civilian and military applications, such as technology, satellites, or drones. An India that is simultaneously Russia-friendly and America-friendly should be realistic about the international priorities of both.

The outstanding fact is that an economically strong and technologically advanced China can help Russia more than India. New Delhi’s timeworn talk of Russia as India’s reliable friend—even as it tries to buy more arms from the West—is unrealistic as Moscow’s eyes are fixed eastward toward Beijing.

Anita Inder Singh, a citizen of Sweden, has been a Founding Professor of the Center for Peace and Conflict Resolution in New Delhi. She has been a Fellow at the International Forum for Democratic Studies in Washington, DC. She has taught international relations at the graduate level at Oxford and the London School of Economics and is currently writing a book on the United States and Asia. More of her work may be viewed at

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