India and China are among several countries taking part in Russia’s weeklong joint military drills scheduled to get underway on Thursday in the east of the country, according to Russia’s state-owned news agency Tass.
While India has previously taken part in multinational military drills in Russia — an Indian contingent was part of Zapad military exercises held in September 2021 — analysts say its participation in the “Vostok-2022” military exercises in the midst of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine reaffirms New Delhi’s friendly ties with Moscow despite a tightening strategic partnership with the United States.
“India’s participation in exercises in Russia is not unusual, but this time, they are also making a political point,” said Manoj Joshi, distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi. “New Delhi is emphasizing that it will adhere to the independent position that it has taken in the wake of the Ukraine crisis and continue to remain neutral between the U.S. and Russia.”
India has refrained from condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and has not joined Western sanctions against Moscow. Its oil imports from Moscow have risen sharply this year as it takes advantage of deep discounts.
India has defended its oil purchases as necessary for what it says is an energy deficient, developing country like India. “We have been very honest about our interests,” India’s Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar said earlier this month in Bangkok. “I have a country with a per capita income of $2,000. These aren’t people who can afford higher energy prices.”
Although India is currently purchasing weapons from other countries, including Israel and the United States, much of its existing weaponry is of Russian origin.
Analysts point out that India is unlikely to turn away from Russia anytime soon.
“India has an important relationship with Moscow with regard to defense and it has really no direct stake in the Ukraine crisis,” said Joshi. “If our national interest is served by maintaining ties with Russia, we will do so — that is India’s position.”
For the time being, Washington appears to have accepted India’s position. Questioned about India’s participation in the Vostok military exercises earlier this month, State Department spokesman, Ned Price, said that the U.S. recognizes that reorienting a country’s foreign policy is a long-term challenge.
“At the same time, we also recognize that there are countries around the world that have longstanding relationships, including security relationships, with countries like Russia, for example,” he told reporters at a press briefing. “Reorienting a country’s foreign policy or a country’s security establishment or defense procurement practices away from a country like Russia is not something that we can do overnight.”
However, there are questions about how long India can continue to walk the middle ground between the United States and Russia amid the deepening tensions between the two countries.
Analysts in Washington say that the U.S. appears to be taking a long view, with an eye toward trying to convince New Delhi that a long-term security partnership with Moscow is untenable.
“Washington certainly worries about New Delhi’s enduring security partnership with Moscow,” said Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia program at the Wilson Center. “In the coming months, we can expect Washington to make the case to New Delhi that eventually Russia, sanctioned and cash-strapped, will no longer have the capacity to keep manufacturing and exporting weaponry to India.”
India for its part has maintained a low profile about the Russian drills — there has been no official word on its participation but sources in the Defense Ministry have confirmed that a contingent from India will take part.
India’s military partnership with the United States is growing rapidly amid mutual worries over China. In mid-October, India and the U.S. will hold a joint military exercise as part of an annual military exercise known as “Yudh Abhyas” or “War Practice.” The location of the exercises — which according to reports will be 100 kilometers from the disputed India China border — is significant.
For New Delhi, striking a balance between Russia and its partners in the Quad grouping that consists of India, U.S., Japan and Australia is also challenging. According to a report in the Deccan Herald newspaper, India will not take part in naval drills in the Sea of Japan that are part of the military exercises. New Delhi has close ties with Tokyo, which along with the U.S. and Australia is an important partner in efforts to counter China’s expansionism in the Indo-Pacific.
The strengthening Russia-China relationship could also emerge as a concern for New Delhi as tensions between India and Beijing over their border disputes show no signs of abating. While Beijing has joined drills with Moscow earlier, its participation in the Vostok military exercises reflects growing defense ties between the two countries amid tensions with the West, analysts say.
“It is the first time the PLA (People’s Liberation Army) has sent its Army, Navy and Air Force at the same time to a joint drill with Russia,” points out Bonnie S. Glaser, director with the Asia Program at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. “With the alignment between Moscow and Beijing growing closer, it can be expected that bilateral military ties will also likely increase.”
From Russia’s point of view, the participation of both India and China, who have tense bilateral ties with each other, underscores the country’s efforts to strengthen ties with both the large Asian economies.
Jagannath Panda, head of the Stockholm Center for South Asian and Indo-Pacific Affairs said Moscow is hoping to ensure “Eurasian unity” against the West, “owing to its traditional partnership with India and the ideological friendship with China.
“Such a role has served Moscow well amidst Ukraine, as both countries have refrained from condemning Russian actions,” Panda said.