Putin’s visit and the S-400 deal will test India-US relations

C. Uday Bhaskar
C. Uday Bhaskar
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The brief no-frills visit of Russian President Vladimir Putin to Delhi (October 5) for the 19th India-Russia annual summit has been substantive in the final outcome and has infused high-level political traction to a bi-lateral relationship that is important for both nations but had remained moribund in recent years. Predictably the military supplies component was the most visible and the Russian built S-400 multi-layered air defense system that India seeks to acquire had elicited considerable attention , more due to the impact this would have on the India-US relationship.

While both nations signed on the dotted line confirming that Moscow will provide the S-400 to India at a cost of US $ 5.43 billion, the announcement itself was subdued. A brief sentence was included in the joint statement, which noted that both countries “welcomed the conclusion of the contract for the supply of the S-400 long-range surface-to-air missile system to India.” Contrary to pre-summit expectations, the two sides were unable to finalize the other major military inventory items, such as stealth frigates for the Indian navy and assault rifles for the army.

While India and Russia signed major agreements in other fields such as space, nuclear energy, railways and anti-terrorism cooperation, the S-400 has become both the symbol of the political resolve that now animates the five decades old India-Russia relationship and a litmus test for the resilience of the relatively nascent India-US relationship.

It may be recalled that the S-400 was also acquired from Russia by China and the US invoked its 2017 CAATSA (Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act) legislation against Beijing in September for engaging in ‘significant transactions’ with Russia. This legislation was given more teeth after Mr. Donald Trump assumed office as the US President. Other ‘adversaries’ identified by the USA include Iran and North Korea and the Russia /S-400 issue apart, Delhi will also have to steer its relations with Iran through the Trump driven CAATSA mine-field in coming months.

The S-400 deal has been on the Indian radar for some years and while the credibility of air defense systems – particularly against ballistic missiles, hyper-sonic cruise missiles and rogue drones is yet to be rigorously proven, most major powers have invested in this defense system. The US has introduced and exported the THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) to ward of ballistic missiles and it is claimed that limited area defense can be established effectively More often than not, national capitals that house the command and control of strategic forces are the prime choice for such air defense systems.

Will the USA invoke the CAATSA provisions against India for this S-400 ‘transgression’ as it has in relation to China or announce a waiver? In a cautious response, the local US embassy in Delhi noted that: “The waiver authority is not for a blanket waiver. It is transaction-specific. Waivers of CAATSA Section 231 will be considered on a transaction-by-transaction basis. We can't prejudge any sanctions decisions." It was further added that the US intent in relation to the CAATSA was to impose costs on Russia for what has been described as its ‘malign’ behavior by stopping the flow of significant money to Moscow and that the legislation was not intended to “impose damage to the military capabilities of our allies and partner.”

India is in an anomalous position in relation to the USA and Russia apropos its military inventory dependency. Unable to overcome the ignominy of being the world’s largest importer of arms , Delhi has in effect distributed its strategic dependency between Washington and Moscow and has acquired major military platforms from both Cold War adversaries. This could be characterized as ‘anomalous-alignment’ by Delhi, which like many other capitals, (ostensibly friendly to the USA) is grappling with a capricious Trump led US foreign policy. Canada is illustrative of the predicament of US allies and partners who have to ‘deal’ with US President Trump.

The complexity for India is the China factor – a strand that has strategic relevance for both the USA and Russia. India has deep-seated anxiety about Chinese intent in Asia and the 4,000 km long unresolved territorial cum border dispute that led to the October 1962 war festers. China’s economic-trade profile is much larger than that of India and both Asian giants are wary of the other.

Paradoxically the emergence of China as the world’s number one GDP nation within this decade has deep implications for both the US and Russia. A bruising trade war has already begun between the US and China and its long term impact on the global economy will be corrosive to the current orientation of economic and trade related globalization.

Russia remains economically vulnerable and unlike its principal interlocutors (USA, China and India) Moscow does not figure in the top 10 nations as per GDP projections for 2018-19. Despite the current cooperation between Russia and China, there is latent misgiving about the bear being enveloped in the dragon’s suffocating embrace. On current evidence, neither demography nor geography favor Russia over China’s creeping assertiveness.

Consequently India is a distinctive swing-state in the complex and imbalanced quadrilateral that links the USA, China and Russia with the lumbering elephant. Would it be strategically prudent for the Beltway to lower the CAATSA boom against Russia, China and India simultaneously? For India, the challenge will be to retain a degree of stability in its relations with Washington even as a deadline looms large in early November in relation to both Russia, Iran and CAATSA. In an unintended way, the Putin visit will test the resilience of the India-US relationship.

Chitrapu Uday Bhaskar, a retired Commodore who served in the Indian Navy, is one of India's leading experts and outspoken critics on security and strategic affairs. Commodore Bhaskar is currently the Director of the Society for Policy Studies (SPS), an independent think-tank based in New Delhi, India. He has the rare distinction of being the head of three think tanks during his career - the earlier two being the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA) and the National Maritime Foundation (NMF). He is a columnist, editor, and contributor of numerous research-articles on nuclear and international security issues to reputed journals in India and abroad. Bhaskar has an abiding interest in the visual arts, film and theater. He tweets. @theUdayB.

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