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Russia and India: Understanding Soft Power

At present, soft relations between Russia and India cover areas such as cultural relations, tourism, education, training, people-to-people exchanges, and a mutual approach to multilateral institutions.

The post-Soviet Russian Federation, or Russia, and the Republic of India, or India, of the contemporary times, profess to strong, committed, hardened, and long-term bilateral relations across several diverse fields that indicate their importance in unequivocal terms. Russia and India are, and have always been, committed partners who share a Special and Privileged Strategic Partnership that is now over a decade old. Since the end of the Soviet Union, despite perceptions of a certain drift by India towards the United States of America owing to an increasing congruence in their worldview, non-western Russia has had more than a say in the (ongoing) rise of India all through the 90s and well into the twenty-first century.

It is self-evident from the current form of bilateral relations and diplomacy between countries and the way these aspects are taking shape that any form of power serves a specific purpose and works towards the overall objective of fostering healthy bilateralism. Understandably, soft power is not any different from hard or other forms of power. Soft power highlights significantly neglected areas such as cultural relations, people-to-people contacts, and active cooperation in areas such as entertainment (television, drama, theatre, films, etc.), sports, science and technology, and the liberal arts. This critically enables and facilitates cooperation in other areas too as it widens the scope and possibilities of bilateral cooperation. In contemporary times, even an official tweet or a Facebook post from a Russian government source expressing goodwill towards India, or vice versa, aids soft power relations between them.

Nandan Unnikrishnan, who is a Distinguished Fellow at the globally renowned New Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation, is of the view that soft power carries little weight or influence in comparison to hard power which tends to appear absolute in military-international affairs. This, as alluded to by him in a recent talk given under the auspices of two prominent Indian think tanks (Chennai Centre for China Studies and the National Maritime Foundation), particularly applies to relations between Russia and India. Historically, and even post the demise of the Soviet Union, it has been defence  initiations and extensive one-way military trade that have come to characterise Russia – India relations. Hard power has occupied the limelight for the longest time known in their interactions with one another more so because India retained (or retains even today) apprehensions on the involvement of powerful countries such as the United States in its military affairs which can prove to be a detriment to India’s coveted strategic autonomy.

In the present day, Russia and India are deeply intertwined with respect to each other’s strategic agendas on the regional and global stages. Soft power, a concept that has been structured by the renowned American Joseph Nye, emphasises the need to utilise light-hearted, simple, and benevolent measures. Cooperation, diplomacy, friendliness, partnership, association, and an overall softness towards each other in the conduct of international relations is what is encouraged in state behaviour through soft power.

Furthering trust, confidence, belief, affability, and mutuality is crucial to the success of soft power and these aspects merit inclusion in what is mandatory bilateralism in the present context. The 1971 “Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation” signed between India and the Soviet Union applies in the present to the successor of the latter. It was signed in 1993 between Russia and India. It may have military-strategic connotations and interpretations but it is yet another useful example of soft power relations between the two countries. It is worth mentioning that while India maintained a balance between hardcore non-alignment and a practical fondness for the Soviet Union, Russia and India have prioritised relations with each other in the Eurasian-South Asian sphere.

At present, soft relations between Russia and India cover areas such as cultural relations, tourism, education, training, people-to-people exchanges, and a mutual approach to multilateral institutions. Institutional foundations also occupy the ‘soft power’ space, especially between Russia and India, and have resulted in extended cooperation in bilateral affairs. Culture is the outstanding area of soft power relations between New Delhi and Moscow as cultural exchanges have been planned over several years. Cultural centers have been established by both sides to bring the two countries closer in this domain. Other areas have included interactions in an amicable capacity meant to facilitate a genuineness and a friendship between the Russian and Indian people. Moreover, ties in areas such as business, sports, tourism, medicine (as witnessed during the ongoing Coronavirus crisis), and joint research and development to name a few also constitute an important part of the soft power package. These areas are becoming increasingly prevalent in Russia – India affairs and the everyday application of soft power to the Russia – India equation cannot be subtracted.

It must be mentioned that what soft power has come to mean today, due to various interpretations of the term since its conceptualisation, has a lot to do with core subject areas that are often neglected by countries keen on ensuring that realism thrives and drives state policy for the most part. Soft power’s initial conception focussed on convincing the opposite side to accede to and adopt what is believed to be in the supreme interest of the stronger party. Hence, it reflected a careful approach by stronger states against weaker fellow states (not adversaries) in utilising diplomacy to achieve end-goals. Thus, if viewed keeping all of its definitional propositions in mind, soft power can both add new areas of cooperation to the agenda of bilateralism and also critically limit hard power as a means of achieving key foreign policy objectives through a calm approach typified by the absence of all hard power considerations.


Soft power, of late, has emerged and become a necessity in bilateral relations between important countries such as Russia and India. It is no longer believed that hard power determines bilateralism in its entirety despite being very important in the state of geopolitical and geostrategic affairs. Hard power can also critically determine the direction of economic cooperation. However, soft power offers a unique counterbalance in the form of a strategic opportunity for countries to resolve their greater differences. Soft power helps ease the tone of relations and offers a welcome distraction from choked disputes that may have to do with territory, military muscle, and other such aspects of hard power. It also adds a new, unprecedented dimension to relations and provides a ‘cooling factor’ which sustains the relationship and holds it together.

India’s move towards self-reliance in military procurement, aka atmanirbharta, also paves the way for betterment in soft cooperation in the upcoming years and decades. Soft power, certainly, cannot be neglected in the domain of international relations yet it has also not been given the importance it has so deserved over time. If most countries were to eventually break the ice with respect to hard power conundrums such as territorial disputes and military provocations that have become routine, soft power is not just here to stay but even to grow.