The Modi-Putin summit led to the sealing of a significant air defence deal, in defiance of US sanctions warnings. G. Parthasarathy reports
Russian President Vladimir Putin paid his eighth visit to India last month, a short, business-like trip, shorn of formal protocol such as state banquets and guards of honour. Arriving in New Delhi on the evening of October 4, Putin proceeded directly to Prime Minister Modi’s official residence for a three-hour, one-on-one meeting over dinner. These talks, carried forward into the next morning, were followed by a meeting attended by ministers and senior officials.
Given the shadow cast over Delhi and Moscow’s long-standing defence ties by US CAATSA sanctions (Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act) on defence purchases from Russia, the entire visit attracted widespread interest over how the two sides would deal with the proposed US sanctions.
The US has clarified that CAATSA would not apply for relatively small arms deals and the supply of spare parts for existing Russian equipment. Russian arms supplies to India have been a regular feature for over six decades now, serving the Indian armed forces extremely well, with arrangements for the indigenous manufacture of spare parts and accessories and even production of equipment ranging from tanks and armoured personnel carriers to fighter aircraft, cruise missiles and frigates. They have given a level of comfort to India’s armed forces and its defence production and research organisations.
At the same time, India has diversified its sources of defence equipment, which it obtains primarily from Russia but also the US, France, Israel, Germany and the UK. So the Russians do not have a monopoly. In fact, a Russian offer for the development and supply of fifth generation fighter aircraft was recently turned down for not meeting India’s requirements – although the revival of negotiations for these fighters is reportedly under consideration. The Indian Air Force is now set to comprise predominantly Russian Sukhoi 30 fighters, French Rafale multirole aircraft and indigenous Light Combat aircraft, backed by upgraded Jaguar, Mirage 2000 and Mig 29 squadrons.
India partners with Russia diplomatically in regional and global organisations like BRICS, the G-20 and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, as well as holding regular bilateral consultations on regional and global issues. While India’s trade with Russia is minimal, at around $10 billion annually, Moscow is now set to expand its energy exports to India. This comes alongside growing Indian imports of oil and gas from the US. The availability of natural gas supplies from Russia and the USA has been leveraged effectively by India, to get better deals with Arab Gulf countries such as Qatar, which once had a virtual monopoly on gas supplies to India. Russian supplies of natural gas commenced recently, ending Qatar’s domination as a source of gas not only to India but to other major consumers in Asia, including China, Japan and South Korea.
President Putin’s eighth Indian visit led to an agreement to expand cooperation in the construction of nuclear power plants in India, where Russia is, and will remain for the foreseeable future, India’s largest partner. Both countries are jointly building a nuclear power plant in Bangladesh; moreover, while India has invested around $10 billion in the oil and gas sector in Russia, the Russians have recently concluded a massive deal by acquiring a major stake, with an investment of $12.7 billion, in an Indian private sector oil company, Essar Oil. This has been accompanied by increasing supplies of Russian crude oil to India for processing and the export of finished petroleum products.
In addition, for the first time discussions focused predominantly on the issue of defence cooperation and arms supplies. With the Russians having been concerned for some years now that India’s growing defence relationship with the US could work to their disadvantage, Putin’s long discussions with Modi addressed these concerns. While public statements on the subject were minimal, Putin has evidently reassured Modi that Moscow would not allow proposed US sanctions to edge it out of its traditional defence ties with India. But Moscow has noted that Indian defence purchases from the US have grown significantly, amounting to an estimated $18 billion in recent years. US arms supplies have included sales of maritime patrol planes, 130 mm artillery, C17 and C130 Transport aircraft and Apache Attack Helicopters. Moreover, further acquisitions by India from the US are under consideration. This is apart from bilateral agreements for military cooperation with the US, including an unprecedented military basing agreement. Moreover, joint exercises between the militaries of India and the US are now a regular feature.
Present concerns about Washington’s CAATSA legislation became the focus of serious attention in Moscow and New Delhi, due to explicit warnings from Washington that it had reservations about the supply of potent S 400 air defence missile systems by Russia to India. The Trump Administration indicated that this $5.4 billion deal would constitute a violation of US law and could face sanctions. These missiles are, however, unquestionably the best air defences India can acquire to defend the capital Delhi, other cities and strategic defence targets against attacks by missiles or aircraft. The US does not possess such a missile defence system, which India needs now more than ever, especially given the depleted strength of its Air Force. China has already been targeted by the recent American legislation for acquiring the S 400 missile system and SU 35 advanced fighter aircraft from Russia. President Trump has warned that India will ‘find out’ how the US will react to the S 300 Agreement ‘sooner than you think’.
While the S400 missile defence deal could be subjected to American sanctions, there can be no question of India demeaning itself by going with a virtual begging bowl to the Americans, asking them not to apply sanctions on every arms deal New Delhi proposes to sign with Russia. Moreover, there are several crucial weapons systems that India has decided it will, in principle, acquire from Russia. These include the lease of another nuclear (SSN) submarine, over 200 light helicopters to be built in India, four naval frigates, conventional submarines to be largely built in Indian shipyards, and an estimated 600,000 AK103 assault rifles, also to be made in India.
Putin has returned to Russia evidently satisfied that India will not buckle under the threat of US sanctions. Russia and India have agreed on measures to ensure that banking transactions for Russian defence supplies do not lead to financial sanctions against the Indian banking organisations concerned, with an important agreement signed during the visit, enabling three Indian banks to have rupee-rouble transactions with Russia’s Sberbank on all payments for military supplies.
But the larger issue that remains is whether Washington’s other defence partners in Asia, including Vietnam and Indonesia, can continue to have a harmonious defence partnership with the US when they are threatened with sanctions for purchasing equipment from Russia, which they consider essential for their national security. It also remains to be seen how India deals with unilateral American sanctions on trade and economic relations with Iran, which have not been endorsed by the UN Security Council, or backed by Washington’s NATO allies.