Defence deals rarely get top billing in a country’s diplomatic agenda. Yet, the agreement on the S-400 Triumf missile defence system remained the centrepiece of Vladimir Putin’s two-day visit to Delhi that ended this weekend.
With its decision to acquire the $5.4 billion worth Russian-made missile defence system, India has now thrown back the diplomatic ball into the American court. The US threatens to impose sanctions on countries that do business with Russia, especially in the defence sector. The onus is now on the Trump Administration. It can either act against India and risk jeopardizing the growing bilateral ties. Or, it can be generous and look the other way as Indo-Russian engagement continues.
Negotiations for the purchase of S-400 Triumf missile defence system had been on between India and Russia for some years. But in 2017 the United States passed the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA). The act not only blacklists a number of Russian entities but also threatens to bring sanctions on countries that engage with Russia in the defence, energy and intelligence sectors.
However, if the US government’s idea was to isolate Russia by pressurizing countries and keeping them away from doing business with Moscow in areas, the pressure seems to have been directed back to Washington.
Last month the US threatened to bring sanctions on China under the CAATSA for its purchase of the Triumf missile defence systems and other military hardware, including fighter jets from Russia. But will it risk doing the same with India?
For now the focus has been on the purchase of S-400 missile defence system by India from Russia. But there are a number of other defence platforms that India plans to buy from Russia in the coming days. Discussions are on over the purchase of 200 Kamov 226T utility helicopters worth US$ 1 billion and on acquiring four Krivak class frigates for US $ 2.2 billion. The two sides are also engaged in talks over joint production of AK 103 assault rifles and 1770 Multi-Purpose Future ready Combat Vehicles (FRCVs) in India in a deal worth US 4. 6 billion.
Besides, the setting up of three VVER 1200 Russian designed nuclear power plants has also been finalized. In addition, India and Russia are planning to set up nuclear power plants jointly in Bangladesh and will also look to expand this effort in other third countries. Russia’s Rosneft has already acquired, through an international consortium, Essar Oil Limited in a $ 12.9 billion investment, while over $ 10 billion have been invested by Indian oil majors in Russian oil fields.
All this clearly indicates that despite a few hiccups in Indo-Russian relations, neither Moscow nor Delhi are in a mood to abandon their time-tested ties. On the contrary attempts are on to explore areas where the two sides can deepen and strengthen their cooperation.
So the question remains, how will the Trump administration respond to this significant development?
The Russian President’s visit to Delhi and his meetings with Prime Minister Narendra Modi takes place at a time when a broad consensus is building up in regaining the US’ supremacy in world affairs. As part of this move President Trump has stepped up his trade confrontation with China and through the CAATSA, also trying to corner Russia.
Some commentators are of the view that the fast-paced developments that are playing out at the world stage is likely to shrink the strategic space for India, forcing it to choose between the US and its adversaries.
But since the Wuhan meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and PM Modi earlier this year that led to a much improved Sino-Indian ties in the post-Doklam phase, India has indicated that it would continue to make efforts in expanding its strategic space.
It can be argued that because of improvement in relations with China and the reaffirmation of strong ties with Russia, India has managed to keep more strategic space for itself which is likely to help it in striking a better deal also with the US.
India has made it clear that it regards the US as an extremely important country with which it wants strong and deep ties. But this cannot come at the cost of India’s sovereign foreign policy choice.
It is now clearly up to the Trump administration to decide how it wants to define its future relations with India.