Opinion | India’s S-400 balancing act
While the India-Russia relationship is no longer what it was, the current transactionalism suits both countries for now
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to India last week saw the long-overdue materialization of the S-400 deal. Despite the threat of sanctions by the US under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), India is likely to get a waiver. This signifies how strategically important India is, for both Russia and the US.
The deal is being projected in some quarters as India daring the US and displaying strategic autonomy. It even betrays a touch of the Cold War-style non-aligned movement (NAM) mindset. However, a country that imports the majority of its critical weapons is restricted in its strategic autonomy. India needs the S-400 to plug the gaps in its air defence, especially against China. The fact is, India had been pursuing this deal since 2015, well before Donald Trump became the US president and CAATSA was legislated. India has spent a lot of political capital to get a waiver. It was one of the main talking points during the 2+2 dialogue between India and the US. Both Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Defense James Mattis have supported waivers for India for its weapon deals with Russia.
While India enjoys bipartisan support in the US, the anger at Russia over its meddling in the US elections along with the domestic political partisanship could make it tricky for India.
Russia comes out as the clear winner in this deal. It has managed to secure one of the biggest arms deals in recent times. It is apparent that Russia commands a massive lead over its competitors in the Indian defence sector, and is a crucial supplier of advanced weapons for India.
If Trump is not able to give a waiver and India is sanctioned, it will only shift the geopolitical scales in favour of Russia. Despite India and Russia sharing a strong defence relationship, the ties between the two countries have been drifting as India slowly started becoming an important partner to the US. Sanctions could cool relations.
Russia is opposed to India’s policy in the Indo-Pacific. It does not want India to be a counterbalance against China. Russia itself is dependent on China for arms and energy sales and investments, and disregards India’s concerns about its northern neighbour. Prime Minister Narendra Modi had an informal summit with Putin in Sochi before he delivered a tempered speech at the Shangri-La Dialogue on India’s policy in the Indo-Pacific. Although the ‘Quad’ grouping is focussed on China’s expansionism, it is possible that Russia conveyed to India its sensitivities in joining a US-led security grouping in the Indo-Pacific.
The US recently sanctioned China for buying the S-400 and Su-35 fighter jets from Russia. A waiver for India for buying the same weapons system will send a positive message to India about the US recognising India’s security needs. However, there are warnings on interoperability with US and other Western systems. India has had Russian air defence systems for decades, and they are integrated with other western systems like fighter jets and radars.
Some reports indicate that the US has precluded any potential F-35 stealth fighter jets sale to India. This is likely a coercion tactic to stop India from buying the S-400, and also to push US air defence systems, like the PAC-3, in India. The US will not refuse a potential 200 fifth generation fighter jet requirement of India.
The S-400 deal does, however, shows the gaps in Indo-US defence relations. Despite the close defence ties and the countries staging a large number of bilateral military exercises in recent years, shortcomings in defence trade remain. The Defence Framework and Defense Technology and Trade Initiative to pursue joint development and co-production of defence equipment has failed to address India’s needs. It has also failed to estimate what the US can deliver and how far India will go in trusting the US for critical weapons systems. Indian decisionmakers still seem to be saddled with the legacy of the Cold War and non-alignment. On the other hand, in comparison to Russia—which has helped India with strategic technologies like leasing and developing nuclear-powered submarines—the US is still not open to supplying India with advanced weapons platforms and military technologies.
With the S-400, India has achieved what it wanted. But it underscores the transactional relations between India and Russia. Indo-Russian trade is largely defence driven, and India continues to be Russia’s biggest weapons buyer. India will keep Russia engaged with defence deals amid Russia’s growing relations with Pakistan. Russia is no longer coy about selling weapons to Pakistan. But by making big-ticket purchases, India hopes to thwart Russia from selling any advanced weapons to Pakistan.
There is a definite sense of realism in India, Russia and the US. Transactionalism is suiting both India and Russia. India gets the advanced weapons it needs and Russia charges top dollar for it. It does not give “friendship prices” to India anymore. Russia is not going to help India in its strategic competition with China, nor is it as committed as it once was to India in its case against Pakistan. Indian interests will be served as long as Russia meets its strategic weapons needs and doesn’t make any moves that compromise India’s security. The US not reacting too sensitively to India’s weapons purchase will be pivotal for India-US economic and defence ties as well.
Yusuf Unjhawala is the editor of Defence Forum India and a commentator on defence and strategic affairs.