South Asian countries1 are given a prominent role in several Russian doctrines and strategies. The 2008 Russian Foreign Policy Concept, which outlines Russian foreign policy goals and objectives, dwells at some length on India and other countries in the region. It sets out several objectives with regard to India on bilateral, trilateral and multilateral levels:

  • “Russia pursues a closer strategic partnership with India and aims to strengthen cooperation on pressing international issues; its goal is to foster mutually beneficial bilateral ties in all areas, with a focus on trade and economic cooperation.”
  • “Russia shares China’s and India’s interest in establishing effective foreign-policy and economic cooperation in the trilateral Russia-India-China format.”
  • Since Russia “regards improving the quality of international governance and creating a self-regulating international system as an important priority”, it intends to “step up cooperation in such formats as the G8... The Big Three (Russia, India, China) and BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, China)”.
Petr Topychkanov
Topychkanov was a fellow in the Carnegie Moscow Center’s Nonproliferation Program.
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Russia’s strategies in South Asia and the nearby regions are also outlined in the Russian Naval Doctrine Up To 2020 and the Russian National Security Strategy Up To 2020. The 2001 Naval Doctrine states the following long-term Russian goals in the Indian Ocean:

  • “Strengthening the Russian shipping and fishing industries, and undertaking joint efforts with other countries to protect shipping from piracy”.
  • “Pursuing a deliberate strategy of turning the Indian Ocean into a zone of peace, stability and good-neighborly relations; ensuring periodic Russian naval presence in the Indian Ocean”.2

The National Security Strategy predicts that conflicts in several South Asian countries will have a negative impact on international security in the medium time frame.3

The Russian strategy in South Asia is further fleshed out in President Putin’s keynote article “Russia and the Changing World”. The article says that Russia is an “inalienable and integral part of Greater Europe”, which also aims to capitalize on economic growth in Asia Pacific, especially in China and India. It dwells at some length on China — but devotes only two sentences to India, saying that the country is Russia’s privileged strategic partner, and that Russian-Indian relations have a major impact on the formation of a poly-centric world.4

On the whole, the following conclusions can be made about South Asia’s role in Russian foreign-policy strategy based on the Russian political declarations:

  • For the next decade at the very least, the region will be a source of threats to Russian security such as political instability, international conflicts, terrorism and drug trafficking.
  • Russia intends to respond to these threats, while also developing closer bilateral relations with South Asian countries, and playing a more prominent role in various international political formats.
  • South Asia is seen as a region where integration processes are very important for Russia and for the Russian economy (with a recognition that India is the main engine of economic growth in the region).
  • Russia has clear priorities in South Asia. India is seen as a privileged strategic partner; Afghanistan as a close neighbor; Pakistan as a leading regional power, roughly on a par with Turkey, Egypt, Algeria, Iran or Saudi Arabia as far as Russian foreign policy is concerned.

Preparations for countering regional security threats by military instruments are being made in the following three areas:

  • Russia intends to achieve an adequate presence for its armed forces in the southern theater, which is part of the remit of the new South Operational-Strategic Command, established in 2010.
  • The Russian naval forces intend to establish a permanent presence in the Indian Ocean — probably using ships and submarines of the Black Sea Fleet, which became part of the South Operational-Strategic Command in 2010.5
  • The 2010 Russian Military Doctrine states that Moscow intends to provide “troops for the CSTO Collective Rapid Response Forces in order to ensure rapid response to military threats facing the CSTO member states and to achieve other objectives set out by the CSTO Collective Security Council, to be used in accordance with the procedures outlined in the Agreement on Rapid Deployment, Use and Comprehensive Support of the Collective Rapid Response Forces of the Central Asian Collective Security Region”.6

This has been a brief summary of Russia’s stated policy goals in South Asia. Let us now look at whether these stated goals match policies on the ground, using Russian-Indian relations as a case study.

India: Russia’s Privileged Strategic Partner

There were several articles focusing on Russian-Indian relations ahead of President Putin’s visit to New Delhi on December 24, 2012. One piece, with an ominous headline “Relations with Delhi Souring”, quotes T.L Shaumyan, head of the Indian Studies Center and the Oriental Institute in Moscow, as saying that “the current situation in Russian-Indian relations is quite dramatic; it is very different from what we have got used to seeing over the past decades”.7 Similar sentiment has been voiced by Indian experts. N. Unnikrishnan, Vice President of the Observer Research Foundation, says that "superficially, it appeared that bilateral ties were beset by several problems that defied a satisfactory resolution".8 M.K Bhadrakumar, the former Indian ambassador to Turkey and Uzbekistan, calls for urgent measures "to arrest and reverse the free fall of the Indian-Russian relationship".9

Such assessments appear overly pessimistic — although they do reflect serious problems the Russian-Indian relationship is currently facing. These problems affect the strategic partnership between the two countries, but they do not undermine its foundations, i.e. mutual trust, a spirit of equality, and a consensus between politicians in Moscow and New Delhi about the inadmissibility of any damage to bilateral relations. President Putin is determined to preserve and take forward Russia’s strategic partnership with India — witness, for example, the headline of his article in the Hindu newspaper: "For Russia, Deepening Friendship with India is a Top Foreign Policy Priority".10 It has to be recognized, however, that the article skirts the existing problems between the two countries, and does not offer any solutions.

Most of the areas of Russian-Indian cooperation — including military-technical cooperation and energy — are dominated by government agencies and state-owned companies. The BrahMos cruise missile and the Kudankulam nuclear power plant are just two of the numerous examples. In areas where the government’s presence is less obvious or totally absent, examples of cooperation are few and far between. The most prominent of them was MTS India, which provided mobile communications services in India until 2012, when the country’s Supreme Court annulled 122 licenses over irregularities during the licensing process. Even though MTS India had not done anything illegal, its business in India has suffered serious damage.11

There are many pieces of evidence pointing to a serious imbalance between government-led and private sector cooperation between Russia and India. Despite official proclamations of “strategic partnership” by Moscow and New Delhi, Russia accounted for a measly 0.86 per cent of India’s foreign trade in 2011. According to the Indian Ministry of Trade statistics, in April-November 2012 Russia ranked 27th on imports from India, and 35th on exports — well behind countries such as China, the United States, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Germany, and others.12 Bilateral trade between Russia and India is only just approaching 10 bn dollars — a modest target the two countries hoped to reach back in 2010. According to Russia’s Federal Customs Service, trade with India stood at 8.9 bn dollars in 2011, and 8.7 bn in January-October 2012;13 the optimistic projection for 2015 is 20 bn dollars.14

In March 2012 Russian defense contractors had 10.8 bn dollars worth of Indian orders; the figure was announced by V.K. Dzirkaln, deputy head of the Russian Federal Service for Military and Technical Cooperation.15 Additional contracts were signed during President Putin’s Indian trip in late 2012, including a 1.3 bn dollar order for 71 Mi-17V-5 helicopters, and a 1.6 bn dollar order for 42 Su-30MKI aircraft assembly kits.16

The imbalance between government-led and private-sector cooperation projects suggests that the existing understanding of “strategic partnership” is largely limited to the arms trade and energy projects (especially nuclear power). The importance of these areas should not be underestimated. But by focusing on them to the exclusion of all else, the Russian and Indian governments make their partnership vulnerable to unpredictable ups and downs.

It is obvious, for example, that a possible downturn in arms trade and defense industry cooperation can have a major adverse impact on all other areas of cooperation. In 2011 Russia crashed out of the bidding for an Indian contract for 126 medium multirole jets; its MiG-35 was rejected at the very first round of the tender. Shortly afterwards Moscow cancelled two rounds of joint Russian-Indian military exercises: a naval exercise in April and ground maneuvers in June. Many experts and journalists immediately jumped to the erroneous conclusion that the cancellation was linked to the Indian tender decision. As a result, Russia’s fairly predictable failure to win the Indian Air Force contract, and government officials’ failure to explain in a timely manner the true reasons for the cancellation of joint exercises had led the media to wrong conclusions about the state of the Russian-Indian relationship.


Political relations between Russia and India remain constructive; there is a climate of trust and a spirit of equal partnership. But trade relations — including arms trade and defense industry cooperation — are facing problems which create the impression of a crisis in the Russian-Indian relationship.

To resolve these problems, to prevent them from reappearing in the future, and to preserve the climate of trust and good will, the following recommendations should be taken into account:

The Russian government should always keep a close eye on Russian policies in South Asia.

It should carefully select candidates for missions to South Asian countries; Russian representatives should not depend on the interests of individual companies, and they must have a direct line to the top Russian leadership.

Russia should transition from ad-hoc policies to a comprehensive and overarching strategy in South Asia; that strategy should be clearly communicated to all the government agencies, companies and other interested parties.

Russia should inform the South Asian audience about its positions, plans and approaches in a timely manner.

There should be ongoing informal or semi-formal dialogue between experts and politicians in Russia and South Asian countries.


1 Russia traditionally categorizes Afghanistan as a Middle Eastern country; for example, Afghan studies are the domain of Russia’s Oriental institutes, such as the Middle East History department of the Institute of Asian and African Countries, or the Middle Eastern Studies Center at the Oriental Institute. But according to the UN classification, Afghanistan is part of South Asia (Composition of macro geographical (continental) regions, geographical sub-regions, and selected economic and other groupings // Millennium Development Goals Indicators ( The Russian Foreign Ministry shares the UN approach; the remit of the ministry’s Second Asia Department includes Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.

2 Russian Naval Doctrine Until 2020, July 27, 2011 // Russian Foreign Ministry (!OpenDocument).

3 Russian National Security Strategy Until 2020, May 13, 2009 // Russian President ( 

4 Putin V.V. Russia and the Changing World. February 27, 2012 // Moscovskie Novosti (

5 Boltenkov D.E. Reform of the Russian Navy // Boltenkov D.E., Gayday A.M., Karnaukhov A.A., Lavrov A.V., Tseluyko V.A. Russia’s New Army // Edited by M.S. Barabanov. Moscow: Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, 2010. P. 87.

6 Russian Military Doctrine, February 5, 2010 // Russian President (

7 Gabuyev A., Strokan S. Relations with Delhi Souring // Vlast. December 24, 2012. No 51 (1005).

8 Unnikrishnan N. India, Russia Cannot Give Up on Each Other, Dec. 28, 2012 // Observer Research Foundation (

9 Bhadrakumar M.K. Wanted: an Ambassador to Russia, Dec. 25, 2012 // Russia & India Report ( 

10 Putin V. For Russia, Deepening Friendship with India is a Top Foreign Policy Priority // the Hindu. Dec. 24, 2012.

11 Part of the blame lies with executives of AFK Sistema, the Russian parent of MTS India. They have threatened to pull out of India and warned of consequences in other areas of bilateral relations (Aulakh G. Sistema Threatens to Exit India if Trai’s Proposal to Auction is Accepted // the Economic Times. May 18, 2012; Russia’s Sistema Says India Straining Ties before Putin Trip // Reuters. Dec. 10, 2012).

12 System on Foreign Trade Performance Analysis, Jan. 1, 2013 // Department of Commerce (

13 The Far-Abroad Countries: January-October 2012, December 11, 2012 // Federal Customs Service (

14 Putin V. Op. cit.

15 India accounts for almost a third of Russian defense export orders // RIA Novosti, March 30, 2012 (

16 Results of Vladimir Putin’s visit to India on December 24, 2012 // Russian Embassy in India (

This article originally appeared in Moscow Defense Brief.