Russian President Vladimir Putin. Photo: AFP
Russian President Vladimir Putin. Photo: AFP

Putin arrives in India today; focus on S-400 air defence systems deal

Putin and PM Modi are expected to review bilateral defence cooperation in the wake of the US sanctions against Russian defence majors

New Delhi: Russian President Vladimir Putin arrives in New Delhi on Thursday on a two-day visit, the centre piece of which is expected to be the signing of two defence pacts including one that will allow India to acquire the S-400 Triumf air defence system.

The purchase of the S-400 by India — as well as two stealth frigates from Russia — will attract sanctions under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) passed by the US Congress on arms purchases from Russia.

A key question here is whether US President Donald Trump will use his waiver powers to ensure India is not penalised. US officials in the past have spoken of Washington taking a lenient view of India’s defence purchases from Russia given that it involves buying spares and supplies to service existing weapon systems. Despite New Delhi diversifying its defence procurements in the past decade and a half, a significant portion of its hardware — an estimated 60 % — is still of Russian origin.

The acquisition of the Triumf system and the frigates though, are different. For one, both are new acquisitions by India.

Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman has in the past stated clearly that India would go ahead with the purchase of the modern long-range surface-to-air missile system developed by Russia. “India has maintained its sovereignty as regards to its relationship with countries. We shall maintain it in all earnestness," Sitharaman told PTI recently when asked whether the US sanctions will hit India’s defence ties with Russia. Backing out, out of obvious concerns over CAATSA is likely to put a serious question mark over the “special and privileged strategic partnership" that India processes to have with Russia".

In the case of the S400, India and Russia have been discussing the purchase since 2015. The missile system integrates a multifunction radar, autonomous detection and targeting systems, anti-aircraft missile systems, launchers, and command and a control centre. It can provide a multilayered defence given that is capable of firing three types of missiles. The S-400 can engage many types of aerial targets such as aircraft, ballistic and cruise missiles, unmanned aerial vehicles -- within the range of 400 kilometres and up to an altitude of up to 30 kilometres. It is expected to be deployed along the nearly 4,000-km-long India-China border. China has already acquired the system and news reports say that Moscow has already started the delivery of an unspecified number of the S-400 missile systems to Beijing.

According to Indian Air Force chief B.S. Dhanoa, the S-400 together with the Rafale aircraft from France will provide a significant security boost to India given the depleting strength of its fighter squadrons. India at present has 31 squadrons, far lower than its peak strength of 39.5 squadrons and its desired 42 squadrons required to fight a two front war – ie take on China and Pakistan at the same time.

According to people familiar with the developments, the US clearance or presidential waiver against CAATSA provisions “should come through for India." This was a topic discussed at the 2+2 talks – ie between the foreign and defence ministers of India and the US when they met in New Delhi on 6 September. Muddying the waters however is the unpredictability of Trump and the tense ties that he shares with the Democrats who have accused Russia of influencing the 2016 US elections in favour of Trump. India shares a close friendship with the US, a far cry from the days New Delhi was seen on the side of the former Soviet Union during the Cold War. And in recent years, New Delhi has acquired a host of armaments from the US – including Apache and Chinook helicopters and the C-130 Globemaster military transport aircraft. This has been a sore point with Russia which is wary of India moving closer to the US especially since its ties with Western nations are frayed over a host of issues including the annexation of Crimea in 2014 followed by the downing of a Malaysian passenger airliner with a large number of Dutch passengers on its way from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur in July 2014, Russian support to Syrian president Bashar al Assad and alleged Russian poisoning of a Russian double agent and his daughter in Britain’s Salsbury earlier this year. In May, Modi had travelled to Russian coastal city of Sochi for an informal summit with Putin – seen a course correction of ties by India.

International issues including US sanctions on Iran after Washington pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal will be one of issues on a table for discussion between Russia and India when Putin meets Modi for talks on Friday. This will be the 19th India-Russia annual bilateral summit.

Besides talks with Modi, Putin will also have a meeting with President Ram Nath Kovind besides addressing business leaders of the two countries.

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