India is expected to sign some big ticket military deals during the visit of Russian President Vladimir Putin to New Delhi early next month. Russian leader will be in India to participate in the 19th India-Russia summit which is the most important bilateral meeting between the two countries since the time of former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee.
In fact, Putin had participated in the first summit meeting with the then Indian Prime Minister Vajpayee when the summit meet was insitutionalised for the first time in the year 2000.
During Putin’s visit, India is expected to conclude the deal to acquire five regiments of Russian S-400 Triumf anti-missile system from Russia in a government to government deal. The deal which is valued at around $4.5 bn or Rs. 39,000 crore has been in making for the last three years.
In July this year, Indian defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman had told that negotiations for the deal were almost complete.
She also downplayed the impact of America’s ‘CAATSA’ law which was passed by both the US House of Congress and Senate in August last year with almost all the members voting in favour of the law in a rare bipartisan manner.
US President Donald Trump had criticized the provisions of the law while ratifying it saying that it will restrict the executive’s (US President’s) authority to negotiate with the foreign countries.
The law, which will be fully implemented from November 2018, was amended by the US in August this year to protect the interests of its allies and friends.
However, in response to a question on giving a ‘waiver’ to India to enable it to purchase S-400 system from Russia, a senior US administration official had clarified that the amendment did not provide any ‘blanket waiver’ to any specific country.
While talking about India’s strategic importance for the US, the official had also said that the US could offer better technology to India than what was on offer from Russia.
There were reports that the US was willing to offer its own missile defence system – Patriot – to friendly countries like India and Turkey to wean them away from Russian offer.
However, neither India nor Turkey has shown any interest in buying the US missile defence system.
Since 2015, India had been negotiating with Russia to acquire five regiments of S-400 with two batteries each comprising the main weapon and radar systems, vehicles and other associated equipments.
S-400 is considered one of the best missile defence system in the world with the ability to simultaneously track and engage 300 targets from a distance of 400 kilometers. It is considered very effective against long range strategic bombers, air superiority fighters, ballistic missiles and even against drones and UAVs.
Effectiveness of S-400 can also be gauged from the fact that Israel had blamed its earlier Soviet era version S-200 for shooting down one of its F-16 fighter jets in Syrian airspace in April this year which was on a mission against Iran backed forces in Syria.
However, the shadow of the US sanctions looms large over the deal. Perhaps, this is the reason that both India and Russia appear keen to sign the deal during Mr. Putin’s India visit early next month before the US sanctions become fully operational from November.
And it will be interesting to watch how the US will react to the deal.
In April this year, Russia had delivered the first unit of S-400 Triumf missile defence system to China as part of a deal signed four years ago in 2014. But that was enough for the US to impose ban this year on Chinese entities responsible for the purchase.
US has just last week imposed sanctions on Equipment Development Department (EDD) of Central Military Commission and its director Li Shangfu for ‘buying Su-35 fighters and S-400 Triumf’ from Russia under its ‘CAATSA’ law.
Commenting on India’s proposal to buy S-400 Triumf, the same Trump administration official had said in August this year that any ‘waiver’ might be on case by case basis and the US will expect the importing countries to substantially reduce their dependence on Russian arms, an indirect reference to India.
India had already made it clear to the US during the 2+2 dialogue, which took place in New Delhi last month between the ministers of foreign affairs and defence of both the countries, that the US needs to take into account India’s long-standing defence relations with Russia. As per a SIPRI report, Russia accounted for 62% of India’s military imports during 2013-17.
US is equally keen to take full advantage of India’s massive arms imports. In fact, as per the same SIPRI report, US arms export to India has gone up by 550% during the same period of 2013-14 compared with previous five years.
US companies like Lockheed Martin and Boeing are vying to supply 110 fighter jets that India is trying to purchase in addition to 36 Rafale jets purchased from France as per a deal signed in September 2016.
The threat of sanctions could possibly be a tool to force India to reconsider US offers. However, it is difficult to predict at this stage that how the US administration will react if India goes ahead and signs the deal next month.