Indians share with Americans a fondness for litigation and with Russians a sense of black humor. India is the world’s most populous democracy, the United States is the most powerful and one of the oldest, and Russia is one of the newest. A joke making the rounds in India is that the services of the Russian election commission have been called in to clean up the mess of the U.S. presidential election. At last count, the leading candidate was Russian President Vladimir Putin.

In October, Putin paid a visit to India to restore a flagging relationship. Seventeen agreements were signed, including defense purchases worth $2 billion. India finds Russian arms to be cheap, rugged and reliable, whereas Washington’s willingness to sell products and technologies fluctuates with changing political winds in the U.S. and the subcontinent.

India and Russia have been struggling to come to terms with a world that has changed fundamentally since the Cold War. Then, ties between them were broad, deep and durable. Now India has to deal with a Russia that is erratic, Eurocentric, economically dependent on Western largess, and has neither the interest nor the resources to prop up Third World regimes. Bilateral trade has collapsed to less than one-third of its 1990 level of $5.5 billion.

Some previously convergent interests have dissipated and there is potential for a clash of some redefined interests. But on the other hand, some previous differences have now disappeared, some interests that were common have survived the transition to the new era and fresh complementarities are emerging.

In the 1980s, Moscow began to reassess its relations with the Third World. Benefits were uncertain and gains remained elusive, but the economic, political and international costs were high. Defense was reined in as an instrument of Soviet foreign policy because it alarmed the West and contributed to Soviet impoverishment. This damaged Moscow’s relationship with India, 70 percent of whose arms came from Moscow.

The quasi-alliance between India and the Soviet Union aimed in part to counter common antagonists. Soviet interests in checking U.S. alliances and containing Chinese influence once dovetailed with India’s policy of nonalignment. The 1990s completed the triumph of the U.S. political, economic and diplomatic systems. Both Russia and India now attach higher priority to relations with the U.S. than with each other and have greatly improved relations with China.

In entering into economic relations with India, the Soviet Union sought to erode Western influence, export socialism and secure an outlet for its own expanding economy. Now Moscow courts the West, acknowledges the bankruptcy of socialism and has a contracting economy. India, in turn, imported Soviet-style inefficiencies and distortions into its large public sector, while its private sector’s needs exceeded Soviet capacity as a supplier and as a market.

With the demise of the Soviet Union, India and Russia became competitors in capital markets, but the double mismatch — of a parliamentary democracy-communist regime and a mixed economy-command economy — was removed. There is accumulated goodwill and a reservoir of mutual affection on both sides from the days when India was the centerpiece of Moscow’s Asian policy.

A rapid restructuring of the economic relationship caused painful dislocations in both countries. Yet India remains a reliable and low-cost supplier of some traditional products and a market for some long-established Russian exports.

A second measure of permanence lies in Russia’s Asian identity. The three giants of Asia are China, Japan and India. China and Japan are more crucial to Russia’s security and economy, but unlike relations with these two, there is neither a history nor prospect of military or territorial conflict between India and Russia. China, India and Russia were among the most prominent opponents of NATO’s war over Kosovo last year.

Russia’s GDP is contracting; India’s is growing at around 7 percent. Both are struggling to achieve success with a market-oriented liberalizing economy functioning within a federal democracy. A modernized, dynamic and vibrant Indian economy could prove useful to a Russia interested in throwing off its own economic shackles. Similarly, success for Russia in forging closer links with Western economies would ameliorate the growing gap between the needs and stages of the Indian and Russian economies.

Moscow and New Delhi are also united in opposition to fundamentalist and ethnic movements. Turbulence from Afghanistan has affected Kashmir and Central Asia. Conflicts in the region involve ethnic groups spread across several political frontiers and jeopardize the safety of large numbers of Russians and Indians. There is thus a fresh basis for India and Russia to establish a bridge across the fundamentalist world in Southwest and Central Asia that threatens their border regions.

Moscow wants to reverse its declining role in the global arms-market to earn hard currency and salvage a contracting defense industry in a world where major arms exporters have not halted their trade. India remains the biggest market for Russian military hardware and offers the best prospects for a major new base from which to export jointly manufactured equipment to other Asian Pacific countries. Moscow’s plans mesh neatly with India’s drive to expand arms exports so as to earn hard currency, cut defense costs by exploiting scale economies and perhaps gain political influence in recipient countries.

The old Delhi-Moscow relationship was based on common interests. Should India and Russia succeed in achieving economic prosperity and political stability, their relations could continue to be substantial and mutually beneficial. Whether Putin’s recent visit to India will prove to have been a case of marking time or a milestone in reviving a tried and tested relationship remains to be seen.

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