During this visit, India and Russia have committed to sign more than 20 deals related to energy, defence, space technology and scientific cooperation. But the main focus is on the S-400 Triumf air defence missile system which India wants to purchase from Russia.
India and Russia are striving hard to maintain their historic ties in a world led by an inconsistent United States and an assertive China. This relationship came under strain owing to India’s growing proximity with the US and Russia forging closer ties with China. What has come to rescue their special and privileged relationship, however, is the institutionalised and layered relationships that they established during the Soviet and post-Soviet times. The annual summit meeting between the two countries is a part of that mechanism and it has served the purpose well. President Vladimir Putin’s visit to India is a part of that 19th annual summit meeting. Japan is the only other country with which India has an annual summit meeting.
During this visit, India and Russia have committed to sign more than 20 deals related to energy, defence, space technology and scientific cooperation. But the main focus is on the S-400 Triumf air defence missile system which India wants to purchase from Russia. This surface-to-air defence missile system is considered the most effective in the world given its manoeuvrability and very powerful radars to track the enemy fighter planes and missiles. India’s Air Chief Marshal, Birender Singh Dhanoa reiterated its significance by stating that it will boost India’s air defence system. India intends to purchase five battalions of the S-400, costing over $5 billion.
The main concern of India is that this deal comes under the purview of a law passed by the US called the Countering America’s Adversary Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA). This law, passed in 2017, seeks to punish Russia for its intervention in Ukraine and the assimilation of Crimea in 2014. Many of the Russian oil and defence companies have been included in the list of sanction. Any organisation or company trading with the sanctioned Russian companies will invite automatic sanction from the US. India’s S-400 Triumf deal will also invite such sanction.
India’s defence deals with Russia are historic and despite the diversification of defence trade in the recent years, India is still dependent on Russia for its import of bulk of arms and weapons and their components. This includes MIG and Sukhoi fighter planes, nuclear submarines, T-90 tanks, joint development of Brahmos missile, helicopters, frigates, assault rifles and INS Vikramaditya. The CAATSA, if implemented in its true spirit, will impact India’s acquisition of components for many of the defence products. India must negotiate hard with the US to bypass the impact of sanctions for such purchases. Given the importance of India in the Asia Pacific, it is unlikely that the US will impose sanctions on India’s defence deals with Russia. The US Secretary of Defence, James Mattis, requested the Senate Committee to waive the impact of sanctions for countries like India.
India has emerged as one of the most important buyers of US weapons in the last few years. It has signed defence deals worth $15 billion. It has also signed many communication and logistics agreements with the US.
Welcome to India, President Putin.
Experts fear that India’s proposed deals with Russia will impact its ties with the US which is supporting its cause in the Indo-Pacific. These concerns nonetheless, India should not compromise on its security interests. The US imposed unilateral sanctions on Russia, Iran and Korea to protect its own national interest. India should also be assertive in securing its own interests.
India and Russia need to improve the volume of trade which is abysmally low. The bilateral trade is just about $10 billion, which is ridiculous compared to $100 billion with the US and roughly $85 billion with China. Trade between India and Russia can increase significantly if the proposed North South Transport Corridor which connects Mumbai to Astrakhan in Russia, through Chabahar port in Iran, is activated soon.
There is an immense scope for cooperation in the field of energy, agriculture, robotics, nanotechnology and artificial intelligence. The cultural and academic cooperation between the two countries has reduced significantly in the last few years. Given the interests of Indians for Russia and the vice versa, there is an enormous possibility for bilateral tourism and cultural exchanges. With the fast-growing middle class in India, Russia can benefit economically from Indian tourist visits, if the visa regimes are relaxed further and facilities are institutionalised.
India and Russia share common concerns about terrorism. They have reiterated their commitment at the BRICS and the SCO meetings to counter the scourge of global terrorism. Modi and Putin are likely to discuss and sign deals on counter-terrorism.
There is a need to enhance cooperation on the issue of Afghanistan. India is committed to facilitating political and social stability in Afghanistan. Russia has initiated talks with Taliban allegedly to counter the ISIS in that country. Russia believes that the Taliban controls half of Afghanistan and without bringing it to the negotiating table, peace cannot be established in that country. India treats the Taliban as a terrorist organisation and is unwilling to negotiate with it. It is likely that Putin and Modi will discuss the issue of Afghanistan to sort out the difference of perceptions.
In the last few years, India’s relationship with Russia came under strain due to a growing impression that Russia has forged closer ties with China and is trying to build bridges with Pakistan. Cornered by the West, Russia had little choice but to move closer to China. Their military and economic cooperation has intensified exponentially in the last few years. They work together in multilateral forums such as the UN, the BRICS, the SCO and share concerns on Iran, Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. Unlike India which has shown indifference or maintained neutrality on the issues of Syria and Iran, China unequivocally supported the stance of Russia. The two countries have also signed historic energy deals. This growing proximity has raised serious concerns in India.
Russia has also signed deals with Pakistan to supply a few helicopters and recently participated in a joint military exercise. This has not gone down well with the strategic community in India which interpreted this as a remarkable shift in Russia’s policy towards Pakistan.
It is expected that the meeting between Modi and Putin would dispel some of the misgivings that have been raised about Indo-Russian relations. A strong relationship between the two countries is crucial for the regional security architecture, and the meeting between the two leaders is likely to give a major boost to that stability and partnership.
(Dr. Rajan Kumar, Associate Professor, School of International Studies, JNU)