While the possibility of United States’ sanctions looms large once India receives the first set of S-400 long-range air defence system in a couple of months, India and Russia, which have several other deals lined up, are broadbasing cooperation for the maintenance of Russian military hardware in service and the possibility of exporting Russian-origin equipment from India to third countries.
Experts say Russia will continue to remain India’s top defence partner for sometime to come while the U.S. is unlikely to impose sanctions under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) over the S-400 deal, given the nature of relations.
According to Victor Kladov, Head of International Cooperation and regional policy of Rostec state corporation, the d efence trade between India and Russia was $15 billion because of some big ticket deals. In addition, deals for the manufacture of Ka-226T utility helicopters and Ak-203 assault rifles in India under technology transfer were in advanced stages among others.
National security considerations
In contrast, as of 2020, the U.S. had authorised over $20 billion in defence sales to India, said an official.
According to Indian and Russian officials, the deal was in line with India’s national security considerations. “This contract is under implementation. It is on schedule. And we expect the deliveries to take place as per what is mentioned in the contract,” Indian Ambassador to Russia D.B. Venkatesh Varma told The Hindu last week.
There were specific defence and national security considerations that led India to conclude the contract for the supply of S-400s, he stated. “All I can say is that this contract will be implemented. We will do what we have to do and necessary for India to preserve and protect its national security interests. Russia will remain a key defence partner for India for decades to come.”
In October 2018, India signed a $5.43 billion deal with Russia for five S-400 Triumfregiments despite objections from the U.S.
On the broader defence cooperation, Mr. Varma said the two sides were implementing the Inter-Governmental Agreement signed in 2019 for creating joint ventures for the manufacture of spare parts of Russian-origin equipment in service with the Indian armed forces and also looking at using India as a production base for exporting to third countries Russian-origin equipment and services.
A senior Russian official said such sanctions had “zero percent effectiveness” on them. “We are finding ways to take care of sanctions and unfriendly actions of our competitors like the US…,” said Dmitry Shugaev, Director of the Federal Service for Military Technical Cooperation of Russia.
India and Russia have also secured their payment channels to pay for the deals, which was confirmed by Mr. Kladov. “For instance, we protect our banking systems by doing payments in national currencies,” he had stated.
Technical and political aspects
Ruslan Pukhov, Director of the Moscow based Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies (CAST), observed that the issue had two aspects, technical and political. India was a country that had an independent foreign and defence policy. “Therefore, it cannot afford to take decisions under foreign pressure, no matter which one, the U.S., Russia or anyone else,” he told The Hindu .
On the political aspect, Mr. Pukhov said the U.S. imposed sanctions on countries which were “weak and less important” for them. “More a country is important to the U.S., more likely it is to turn a blind eye.”
Referring to the case of Turkey, Mr. Pukhov said there was a split in the foreign policy community on imposing sanctions. India “is far more important to the U.S. than Turkey.” “In a future confrontation for the U.S. with China, India will be playing a key role. The U.S. will do their best to attract India in their campaign with China. So I don’t think the U.S. will risk relations with India by imposing these sanctions,” he added.
Harsh V. Pant, Head of the Strategic Studies Programme, Observer Research Foundation, said, “There is no getting away from Russia in India’s defence matrix for the foreseeable future”. While Russia’s role position was not the same as it was in the cold war, it remained a very important player for India as Afghanistan had shown for strategic reasons, he noted. “So India always has this idea of keeping relations on an even keel. The S-400 deal exemplifies the twists and turns in India’s relations with Russia and the U.S.,” he added.