In early October, President Putin of Russia visited New Delhi for his annual summit with India’s Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, and signed a number of deals. Most controversially, India agreed to purchase five regiments of Russia’s mighty S-400 long-range missile defence system. The deal originated in 2016, but is more problematic now because the US Congress imposed new sanctions on Russia in 2017. If India follows through with the Russian purchase (delivery is expected by 2020), it could incur penalties from the US.
This is a quandary for Washington. Delhi is an emerging strategic partner and central to Trump’s Indo-Pacific and South Asia strategies. Indeed, the Trump administration urged Congress to insert a waiver authority in the legislation allowing the president to exempt some countries from sanctions. But strict conditions must be satisfied if a waiver is to be granted: it should be in American national security interests, for example, and the countries involved must be taking steps to reduce their relations with Russia.
The US clearly benefits when its partners beef up their air defences. But Delhi buys a lot of Russian weaponry. From 2013-17, India was the top importer of Russian arms, accounting for 62% of transfers. True, Russia’s share of India’s imports declined since 2008-2012 as Delhi diversified away from Moscow, increasing its purchases of US weapons. But Indian reliance on Russia is still substantial, and US sanctions would blow a hole in its defence acquisitions.
The US, for its part, must uphold the sanctions regime, and that will be much harder if it waives sanctions on Moscow’s chief arms purchaser. Moreover, if India acquires a fifth-generation stealth fighter from the US, and then integrates that fighter with the S-400, the jet’s capabilities could be compromised by exposure to the system’s radar. This is already a headache for Washington in the case of NATO ally, Turkey, which recently purchased the S-400 on top of a previous deal for American F-35 aircraft.
India got much needed waivers for its dealings with Iran. Trump withdrew the US from the nuclear deal concluded between the permanent five members of the UN Security Council and Germany, with an array of new American sanctions on Iran. India is one of Iran’s main oil importers, and will continue its purchases despite the threat of American punishment. Delhi is also investing in the Iranian port of Chabahar. It remains to be seen whether Trump will grant waiver for the Indian purchase of the Russian S-400.
The Indian media is confident that Washington will not impose penalties for the Russian deal, at least. But Trump himself said ominously that India “will soon find out”. Ever the dealmaker, it is possible he will demand something in return for waiving sanctions. It was reported recently that the US is asking Delhi to buy American F-16 jets in exchange for a waiver. India may not accept this condition: why would it want an aircraft which its adversary Pakistan has possessed for the last three decades?
Delhi is unlikely to back down. It wants the S-400 to protect itself from neighbouring China, which already has the system. Moreover, Delhi is keen to sustain relations with Moscow, still its principal defence supplier. India-Russia ties have weakened in recent years as Russia’s ties with China have deepened. Delhi, already dwarfed by Beijing’s superior military strength, is clearly frightened of a Sino-Russian alliance, all the more so because its own relations with China are tense, as the 2017 Doklam standoff demonstrated.
Furthermore, India is worried by Russia’s growing involvement in Pakistan. This is a surprising development, given that Islamabad and Moscow were staunch adversaries during the Cold War and into the 1990s. But, now, relations are thawing at a rapid pace, with arms transfers, joint exercises, and a military training program. It has even been rumoured that Pakistan may acquire Russian missile defence systems. Ties extend into the energy sector, with Russia helping build a gas pipeline between Lahore and Karachi.
Russia has also reversed course on Afghanistan. In the 1990s, Moscow and Delhi joined with Iran to back the Northern Alliance against the Taliban in the Afghan civil war. Now, however, Russia has formed contacts with the Taliban and is cooperating with Islamabad on ending the conflict through dialogue. While India supports an Afghan-led peace process, it has been reluctant to endorse talks with the Taliban, which it sees as a terrorist group that Pakistan backs to advance an anti-Indian agenda in Afghanistan.
Fears of a Russia-Pakistan alliance are overblown. Their ties might have developed quickly, but Pakistan’s purchase of Russian weapons is tiny compared to India’s. While there have been murmurings about the possibility of Russian nuclear cooperation with Pakistan, Moscow has already built nuclear reactors in India, and in October agreed to build more. Russian trade with Delhi, though low at just over $10 billion in 2017, is far higher than the figure of around $0.5 billion clocked by Russian and Pakistan last year.
But the prospect of a Russia-Pakistan-China axis clearly irks India, and partly explains why it is keen to push through with the S-400 deal. As Ejaz Haider has written, improved Indian air defences should be a security concern for Pakistan. However, good ties between Russia and India are arguably beneficial for the region. As US-China relations deteriorate, the risk of rival bloc politics is intensifying. An India that preserves its relationship with Russia is less likely to align itself firmly in the American camp and feed into this Cold War-type scenario.
A solid Russia-India relationship also enables Modi to maintain a diversified foreign policy and achieve greater strategic autonomy. And Russia could help improve India’s relations with China, which are already warming after the Wuhan summit between Modi and President Xi earlier this year. It is even conceivable that Russia could bring Pakistan and India together in talks, although that seems unlikely right now. 2019 is an election year in India, and Modi’s government angrily rejected peace talks in September.
Rupert Stone is an independent journalist based in Germany.