At one level the visit of Russian President Vladimir Putin to New Delhi is routine—it is for the 19th India-Russia Annual Bilateral Summit. At another, it is special because it comes at a time when India’s time-tested ties with Russia confront new threats and challenges.
The key feature of Putin’s visit will be the signature on billions of dollars worthof defence deals between the two countries. Kremlin official, Yuri Ushakov announced on Tuesday that the two sides will sign a more than $ 5 billion deal for India to acquire the S-400 anti-aircraft missile system. Whether other deals being negotiated—that for four Krivak class frigates and 200 light utility Ka-226 helicopters– will also be up for signing or discussion remains to be seen.
Alarmingly, the arms transactions between India and Russia have come under the cross-hairs of the American legislation called Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA). It’s a paradox of sorts that New Delhi which did not back off from the all-round American embargo against India on account of its independent nuclear and missile programme in the 1970s and 1980s, is finding it that much more difficult to deal with it today.
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The issue was likely discussed in the high-level 2+2 meeting between the US and India in early September. Following the meeting, the US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo had sounded conciliatory and said that his country had made no decision in relation to the deal and the two sides were working along means to deal with the problem, “our efforts here, too, is not to penalize great strategic partners like India” he noted, adding that the aim of the sanctions were not intended to affect India, but the “sanctioned country which is Russia.”
Formally this position probably remains unchanged because on Wednesday, a State Department spokesman reiterated that the Indian purchase of the S-400 would trigger US sanctions. As of now the waiver that the Indians expected has not come. Last month, Washington slapped sanctions on Chinese entities for buying Sukhoi 35 fighter and the S-400 systems, this despite the fact that China does not buy any American military equipment.
US policy has two angles. One is to promote its own defence industry. In the past 10 years, the US has emerged as the number two military equipment supplier to India selling aircraft and helicopters worth $ 15 billion.
But the other is in relation to its long-term geopolitical strategy. As a global power, the US expects regional powers to line up behind its goals. This fact has remained unchanged since the 1950s when India resisted the pressure and successfully pursued a policy of non-alignment. It landed up as becoming the biggest recipient of US economic aid, as well as the major beneficiary of Soviet “friendship prices” arms sales.
US policy keeps changing, depending on its needs and perspectives. But the problem is that it expects regional countries to re-adjust their posture on American demand. Till just two years ago, the US was more or less indifferent to Russia and had dense relations with China which it hoped would become part of the American-led world order. Also, it was seeking to befriend Iran. Now it wants to contain China and Russia and carry out a regime change in Iran.
So, we have reached a point where the US is holding a veto on who we buy arms from and who we trade with. The ball, in that sense, is firmly on India’s court.
New Delhi has been ducking and weaving past the American obstacles till now. In the past the Americans had not touched the arms trade. But now, the draconian CAATSA sanctions target not just new equipment, but also the spares and components to maintain the old. In other words, if India has to maintain its military, 65 per cent of which depends on Russian equipment, it must seek American permission/waiver every time it purchases something.
As for Iranian oil, India had been given a waiver by the Obama administration in exchange for reducing its purchases from Tehran. But the current American plan is to insist on zero imports as of November. Unlike the CAATSA, there is not even talk of a waiver here.
Whatever may be the American global perspectives, India, too has its own needs, albeit more limited befitting its regional status. That strategy calls for maintaining sound ties with Russia, if only to prevent closer Sino-Russian collaboration, as well as maintaining good relations with Iran, the closest source of exportable hydrocarbons to India, and a means through which India can bypass the Pakistani blockade to the heartland of Eurasia.
Yet, it is also a fact that the gap between the national power of India and China has been widening. If the US wants India to balance China in the western Pacific, so, too, does New Delhi need Washington to offset Chinese power in South Asia and the Indian Ocean Region.
So New Delhi has crafted a policy that has seen it get closer to Washington, even while maintaining an even tenor in its relationship with other big powers like China and Russia. This was manifested by Modi’s summit meetings with Xi Jinping in Wuhan and Vladimir Putin in Sochi earlier this year.
There are virtually no conflicts of interests between India and Russia barring some differences on dealing with the Taliban. Moscow supports India for the UN Security Council, the NSG, and it helped us get into the SCO. The one big problem in the relationship is that it seems confined to arms transfers; at about $ 10 billion, India-Russia trade is a joke.
Putin and his associates realise this and are likely to work to shape better economic ties with India. But that is a major task and will take much more effort than either country has been willing to invest in so far. Even so, the visit could see the two sides signing an agreement for a second nuclear power project and closer association of the Russians with India’s space ventures. In the past, the Soviets sent up India’s first man in space, and with their data and experience on space exploration, they can make India’s tasks easier.
The Russians remain a formidable military power and historically, they have been willing to supply not just offensive weapons, but those that can be classed strategic as well. This is evident from the lease of the nuclear attack submarine Chakra and the help in building of the Arihant and the Brahmos missile. The US has been reluctant on this score, they have supplied defensive systems like transport aircraft and their systems always come with a number of conditions for its use. They may change in the future, but, who can predict how that will go?
In some ways, and in these circumstances, the Indians need the Russians more than ever. There are areas like hypersonic vehicles, unmanned submarines, laser guns, where China has made huge progress, and this could further tilt the balance of power against us.
Going by the track record, the US is unlikely to help us, but the Russians may. Whether they do so or not, depends, therefore crucially at the level of relationship we are able to maintain with them.
The writer is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.