There was a symbolic touch to President Vladimir Putin’s visit to India. Exactly 50 years ago, Indian troops were advancing on Dhaka and India had just recognised Bangladesh. Would India’s battlefield moves have been possible without the Indo-Soviet treaty and full-throated Soviet support? Possibly, but India might have had a tougher time and faced censure without the Soviet Union to defend it in the Security Council.

Obviously, times have changed. India is no longer as impoverished as it was in 1971 and is demanding recognition as a muscular regional power. Russia, meanwhile, is diminished from the global superpower that the sprawling Soviet Union once was. Both sides are getting used to the new realities but, as one analyst says: “Comparisons shouldn’t be made with Indo-Soviet relations but we are still in a good place.”

Now, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has engaged in a delicate balancing act. He’s moved closer to the US and wants its presence in Asia’s seas to keep a check on the Chinese dragon. But on our land borders, the US has only been able to help in a limited way. Certainly, it hasn’t made any major moves to distract the Chinese from the eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation in the snowy Ladakh wastelands. In New Delhi, there’s certainly a feeling membership in the Quad alliance hasn’t delivered all the hoped-for benefits.

Putin is playing an even tougher high-wire act. Even as he made only his second trip outside Russia since the pandemic began 21 months ago, underscoring the emphasis Moscow puts on its India relationship, the action is hotting up in Ukraine. The Russian Army has Ukraine surrounded on three sides and Putin has recruited Ukrainian opposition leaders into his United Russia party. Putin went straight from Delhi to a video meeting with US President Joe Biden, who’s lining up sanctions and threatening military action if Russia enters Ukraine.

That puts an even bigger question mark over Russia’s India arms sales. The Americans say anyone buying Russian arms will face sanctions under CAATSA (Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act). Delhi is hoping Washington will turn a blind eye due to India’s urgent need for modern weaponry in its border face-off with China and is taking delivery on a $5.4-billion 2018 deal to acquire Russian S-400 missiles.

India is also pushing ahead with a $600-million joint-venture agreement to make AK-203 rifles for the Indian Army. With these deals, Russia is firmly in top position as India’s main arms supplier. The countries also inked a pact to extend a military technology cooperation agreement for a further decade which isn’t likely to be viewed enthusiastically by the US.

Oddly, it’s China bringing India and Russia together. Both countries have long land borders with China that, in some ways, make them natural allies against their superpower neighbour.

But the Russians have developed a mutually advantageous relationship with the Chinese who give easy finance to Russian firms and are a natural market for Russian raw materials and other goods. Bilateral trade has soared to $100 billion, a not inconsiderable sum and certainly not one India can match in the foreseeable future. India and Russia, in fact, have set themselves a much more modest $30-billion trade target and that too, only by decade-end.

The Russians have their strong reasons for signalling they aren’t being reduced to being China’s sidekick while Beijing does the heavy lifting and faces off against the US. Signing deals with India and selling the country weapons sends out the right messages for Russia. (In 2019, the Russians awarded Modi the Order of St Andrew, a singular honour as he’s the only foreign leader to receive it).

Favour returned

Besides that, India has surprised international observers by voting with the Russians more than once at the UN in recent times. Says Nandan Unnikrishnan, Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation: “They committed themselves to us in the conflict with China covertly, if not overtly, by supplying arms. We have returned the favour and they’ve realised India is interested in the relationship.”

One of the inescapable facts of international diplomacy is you can’t change geography. China is a nervous-aggressive superpower because it has 14 land-based neighbours and other powers that don’t like what it does in the South China Sea. Its two neighbouring countries with the strongest armies are unquestionably Russia and India. The third is Vietnam which gave the Chinese a bloody nose back in 1979. India’s border with China stretches across mostly inhospitable mountainous terrain for 3,400 km. Russia has an even longer 4,200 km border and in 1969 had an undeclared seven-month war with it. Off the record, Russian diplomats concede they’re not entirely happy with the new aggressive China that’s emerged in recent years. They’ve worked quietly to reduce the differences between China and India.

For Russia, there’s also the tricky question of the Quad. On this subject, Russian views have been more aligned to China which views it as the US muscling into Asia to contain Beijing. Pointedly, it’s been described as an alliance of democratic powers. But from India’s side, there’s disappointment about the Quad as it appears to have been upstaged by the strange-sounding Aukus (Australia, UK, US) alliance. The fact is everyone’s playing high-wire games. It could be, too, the US has doubts about how far India is willing to go to contain China. Also, the Biden administration might like to have a less confrontational relationship with China and so isn’t keen on openly offering India more help militarily.

But India has definitely abandoned its earlier hesitations about the Quad after the Ladakh stand-off. Before, its official statements wouldn’t even acknowledge the Quad’s existence. It’s now dropped all such pretences.

This is Putin’s third lightning trip to India during which he’s spent less than 24 hours in the country. Some observers reckon that’s sending out the signal that Russia considers India an important but not utterly crucial ally. This time, too, the signing of Relos, an agreement aimed at sharing military logistics, was put off.

The Russian counter-argument is this was only Putin’s second foreign trip during the pandemic (the other was to Geneva was to meet Biden). He skipped the climate summit and even put off a meeting with China’s Xi Jinping. Says Unnikrishnan: “The Russians were making a statement you’re very important for us. Putin’s making his first bilateral country visit in two years.”

The fluid state of international relations is also a reminder of the old maxim that, in high-level diplomacy, there are no permanent friends, only permanent interests. And India and Russia’s interests have been closely aligned in the past and could come closer in the future too.