Ashley Tellis on Walking the Tightrope: India’s Complicated Relationship with Russia

Ashley J. Tellis holds the Tata Chair for Strategic Affairs and is a Senior Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, specializing in international security and U.S. foreign and defense policy with a special focus on Asia and the Indian subcontinent. While on assignment to the U.S. Department of State as Senior Adviser to the Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs, he was intimately involved in negotiating the civil nuclear agreement with India. Previously he was commissioned into the Foreign Service and served as Senior Adviser to the Ambassador at the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi. He also served on the National Security Council staff as Special Assistant to President George W. Bush and Senior Director for Strategic Planning and Southwest Asia. Prior to his government service, Tellis was Senior Policy Analyst at the RAND Corporation and Professor of Policy Analysis at the RAND Graduate School. He is a Counselor at the National Bureau of Asian Research, the Research Director of its Strategic Asia program and co-editor of the program’s sixteen most recent annual volumes, including this year’s Strategic Asia 2020: U.S.-China Competition for Global Influence. He is the author of India’s Emerging Nuclear Posture (2001) and co-author of Interpreting China’s Grand Strategy: Past, Present, and Future (2000). In addition to numerous Carnegie and RAND reports, his academic publications have appeared in many edited volumes and journals. Tellis serves on the Chief of Naval Operations Executive Panel. He is a member of several professional organizations related to defense and international studies including the Council on Foreign Relations, the International Institute of Strategic Studies, the United States Naval Institute, and the Navy League of the United States. He earned his Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of Chicago. He also holds an M.A. in Political Science from the University of Chicago and both B.A. and M.A. degrees in Economics from the University of Bombay.
Nohl Patterson CMC '22 interviewed Dr. Ashley Tellis on November 5, 2020.
Photograph and biography courtesy of Dr. Ashley Tellis.

The United States and India have grown closer over the last two decades, particularly in their military treaties and spending which sits at approximately $20 Billion for civilian nuclear technology, Boeing, and Lockheed Martin products. Is this a trend that is likely to continue under a different U.S. administration? What factors influence India’s thinking about its strategic ties with the U.S.?

This trend is now set in stone. Irrespective of the changes that may take place in Washington, the U.S.-India relationship is destined to flourish. The reason is that the interests of the two countries converge today in ways that they did not before. Both countries have a great desire to see a peaceful Indo-Pacific region and both countries recognize that they need each other to produce that stable Indo-Pacific region. India sees the United States as a critical source of advanced technology, which is very important for India’s economic growth and development. India sees the United States as a very significant constraint on Chinese and Pakistani misbehavior and it sees the United States as crucial to advance its own objectives of securing a place at the high table in global affairs. From Washington’s point of view, India is also important because it is a large and growing economy. The interests of the two countries are thus well-matched and that provides the foundation for a continued deepening of the partnership, regardless of who is in power in Washington or New Delhi. 

The U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Defense Mike Esper made a recent visit to India to sign the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement, allowing for geospatial-information sharing between each country’s armed forces. The Wall Street Journal stated this agreement was seen largely as a counter to an increasingly assertive China. Do you agree with this assessment? 

China figures into this calculation of course. The United States began the process of negotiating these foundational agreements almost two decades ago. The Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement is the last agreement in a group of four. China is very much a part of the calculus here but the larger foundation of the U.S.-India strategic partnership is built on preserving a free and open Indo-Pacific, however that is labeled. The U.S. desires to cooperate with India in a broad-based way in a variety of areas that include but go beyond China. These foundational agreements are designed to enhance that cooperation. 

In May 2020 you wrote a piece entitled “Between Beijing and Washington: India’s Geopolitical Challenges”. In this piece you wrote that “India has sought to diversify its strategic ties across Asia writ large – with Japan, Australia, Singapore, Vietnam, Indonesia and Russia – as a ‘second line of defense’ in its efforts to balance China.” This relationship with Russia is of increasing interest considering hostilities between the United States and an increasingly active Russia on the world stage. What do you make of this dynamic and how are India’s strategic interests weighing into their objectives with both Russia and the United States?

India has had a long-standing partnership with Russia, first as the Soviet Union during the Cold War, and now as Russia as its political successor. The Indian strategy of maintaining good relations with Russia is part of its overall strategy of maintaining good relations with multiple power centers in the international system. As long as U.S.-Russia relations are not too competitive, the Indian strategy of maintaining good ties with both can move forward easily. Today, as U.S-Russia relations have become testy, India’s strategy has come under stress. It is obvious that India needs the U.S. and Russia for different reasons. I discussed the reasons for India’s partnership with the United States. The reasons for the Indian partnership with Russia are also significant and need to be appreciated. India maintains a very large inventory of Russian military equipment, which need continued Russian spare parts.  Russia also assists India with its strategic programs and Russia has traditionally provided strong political support to India. India cannot give up on Russia. Because U.S-Russia ties are complicated, the best India can do is manage a tightrope walk—India cannot choose one to the absolute neglect of the other. 

Russia has continued to supply new conventional military equipment to India and recently facilitated a dialogue between India and China following a clash in the Galwan Valley over disputed territory. What strategic value does India believe Russia can provide the Indian government and where do they see Russia fitting into their long-term strategy?

Today, Russia-India relations are devoid of sentiment. There is no longer the warmth that India and the Soviet Union enjoyed in a previous era. The Russians have made some choices that undermine Indian calculations. The most important choice here is the Russian decision to tie its fortunes to China, which is an Indian rival. When you look at Indian foreign policy today, you must consider not only Russia-U.S. competition but also Russia-China convergence. India does not have an easy solution to either problem. Ideally, India would like to peel Russia away from China, but India does not have the leverage to do so in the face of the growing Russia-China alignment. In response, therefore, India has attempted to do three things. It has continued to maintain strong diplomatic engagement with Russia in the hopes of preventing Russia from growing closer to China. Second, it has continued to treat Russia as a source of important military equipment, building in the process some equity in Russia through arms sales. Third, it has looked for ways to increase its trade relations with Russia, though this is still the weakest part of the equation. All told, however, India is not in a very pleasant place since India needs Russia more than Russia needs India. 

What steps has India taken to preserve its long-standing and robust ties with Russia in this new strategic environment? How has Russia reacted to India’s thriving strategic ties with the U.S.? What would be the markers you would use to gauge the health of India-Russia relations and U.S-India relations in the coming years?

The Russians are very uncomfortable with the Indian shift toward the United States. Moscow has communicated that discomfort in polite ways. However, both countries find themselves in a symmetrical position. India cannot peel Russia away from China and Russia cannot peel India away from the United States. Both have to learn to live with the fact that they are partners with others with whom they share stronger interests and commitments. There is no way out of this conundrum. Both have to find ways to manage it because they cannot resolve it in any decisive way to their satisfaction. What would I look for going forward? One good metric is the Russian willingness to sell advanced military equipment to India that is superior to that sold to China. That is the best metric to judge whether the Indian efforts at maintaining ties with Russia is paying off. An alternative metric would be looking for whether Russia takes sides with China over India in the bilateral rivalries between the latter. Both metrics would give us clues about whether India’s efforts to walk the tightrope with Russia are succeeding.  

On the flip side, there are three big issues that shape the U.S.-India relationship. First, what is the character of U.S.-China competition? Depending on how the U.S.-China relationship evolves, India’s saliency to the U.S. increases or decreases. That is not something that is entirely within India’s control. How Washington manages its competition with China, however, will have  important consequences for the character of the relationship the U.S. enjoys with India. That is the first factor that I would flag. The second issue involves economic engagement. The U.S. and India have many economic disagreements, largely because India’s economy is much more protectionist than the U.S. That is partly a function of the disparities in per capita income between the two countries. If the U.S. and India cannot find ways of overcoming their economic disagreements and building deeper economic ties, the strategic relationship will always be buffeted. I would look to see what kind of progress is made on both sides with respect to resolving disagreements about trade, market access, and so on. The third area that I would flag, which will be increasingly important in the years to come, is the character of India’s democracy. An important dimension of the U.S.-India relationship is their shared values. If future U.S. administrations begin to see India moving away from liberal politics, there will be disquiet in Washington about the relationship. 

Nohl Patterson CMC '22Student Journalist, CC BY 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

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