Balancing between great powers: India’s relationship with Russia and the US

India's relations with other great power are transforming. India has long-standing ties with Russia, but the changing global order has left it to look in other directions for new allies; namely strengthening ties with such Western allies as the US has been on top of the Indian agenda for a while. However, the question remains, is balancing between two Great powers for the sole purpose of sustaining relations, or is it for grander ambitions that require enhanced military power?

If you ask India’s Prime minister Narendra Modi, he will most likely be shocked about such a notion, taking into consideration that his main issue is building India’s brand and elevating the perception that the global arena has of India. Taking into account his approach to foreign affairs, it might be surprising to see India on a pathway to gaining more military power (through buying arms, conducting the military exercise, and boosting its military budget), but one must not be fooled by the first impression Narendra Modi and his administration have given. Reshaping India’s brand is also interconnected with gaining military leverage in the region, which India has now clearly indicated by placing an embargo on more than 100 types of weapons, to strengthen its own military production branch. In the meantime, a separate budget to allocate necessary funds to these manufactures has already been developed.[1]

"Increased capabilities in defense production not only offer a great economic opportunity for the domestic industry but also give an immense strategic advantage to the country in a fast-evolving geopolitical situation," said the Assocham Secretary General Deepak Sood, therefore one might wonder, how did India manage to become so reliant on itself in the military field. First and foremost, looking at India’s military expenditures in the recent year, a fact that cannot go unnoticed is that it has risen its defense budget by more than 20 billion USD in just 4 years’ time, placing India as the third-largest country by military expenditures just after the US and China.

Another point here that must be taken into consideration is the way India balances between two global great powers Russia and the US. It is not a secret, that India and Russia share a strong bond that was shaped almost right after India was established as an independent state, therefore the friendship between the two countries, does not surprise anyone. However, just recently they have taken this friendship even further. For example, even though these countries have had many military trainings, in 2017 they organized the first and up-to-date largest tri-service exercise (including maritime, air, and land forces) INDRA-2017. Modi later described this event as a “pathway to an even stronger bond” between these countries.[2]

But it does not end just there. India has also been one of the largest arms importers (both from Russia and - looking at the statistics - in the world), and in 2018 they signed a new deal, in order for India to buy five S-400 (an anti-aircraft system) with the price of more than 5 billion USD. This not only gives a great boost to the Indian defense system (especially from threats from such nuclear countries as Pakistan and China), but also marks another step towards a stronger and more sustained Indo-Russian relationship.

Regarding the complex nature of the relationship between Russia and the US, one must wonder, how can India balance between these two rivals without seemingly putting much thought into it. The answer lies within the strategic importance of India to the US. Indo-American relationships do not have a history as extended, as the Indo-Russian one, but it is still worth noting some of the details. Like the deal both countries signed in 2005, which marks various points; First, the US recognizes India as a nuclear country. Second, this deal openly shows the US recognition of the ambitions India has, namely, to become a global power, and in the meantime undermines India’s strategic autonomy, to choose its own partners, without fear of consequences.[3]

This deal in large explains the fact why some of India’s military officials were so convinced (as it turned out to be true) that no sanctions from the US will follow if they close a deal with Russia. But this does not show how India manages to balance between these two powers. Another interesting point, that can somewhat point at the strategic meaning of India, is a new deal signed between the US and India - Communications, Compatibility and Security Agreement. This deal in general is about intelligence exchange as well as establishing new communication channels between countries. It shines a light on the fact that India has a strategic meaning – it is the biggest partner of the US in the South-East region, whilst also its biggest asset in trying to counter China.

But such deals are not the only traits that show in-depth how complex the relationship between India and the US actually is. Just two years after INDRA-2017 India had similar training, but this time with the US. The “Tiger Triumph” tri-service military exercise was somewhat similar to the training India took part in a year ago, although this time, at least as it is stated in several different sources, that the main goal was to develop comprehensive humanitarian aid in a case of an emergency. [4]

Overall, this is just the tip of the iceberg, that one might call India’s relationship with global great powers. Even though it is no secret that India has the ambition to become a global great power, there is still much to be done in order for it to succeed. This does not stop India from trying to boost its military through different alliances, however. Whilst the new embargo placed on imports of different arms is a step towards helping and developing its internal military branch without having to rely on foreign support, the question of how India managed to have such a developed military today, is still a topic to be explored further in the future.


[1] Economic Times. 09.08.2020. Defense reforms to steer India towards self-reliance, boost indigenous production: Industry,

[2] The Economic Times. 21.10.2017. First Indo-Russia tri-services exercise INDRA-2017 begins,

[3] Blank S. 13.02.2007. The Geostrategic Implications of the Indo-American Strategic Partnership. In: India review. 6:1, 1-24;

[4] Rajagopalan P.J. 15.11.2019. Tiger Triumph: US-India Military Relations Get More Complex,

Published 10 December 2020

Author Juris Jurāns