by Pavel Felgenhauer

Russian President Vladimir Putin is visiting New Delhi this week and the Kremlin has confirmed: Arms trade will dominate the visit's agenda. In particular, a major deal reportedly worth some 5.43 billion US dollars to provide the Indians with up to five regiments of the new and sophisticated S-400 antiaircraft missile system.

India does not have any credible national antiaircraft defense system, relying on its jet fighters to provide antiaircraft defense cover. Moscow touts the S-400 as the best in the world, claiming it has an extended range of up to 400 km and can also intercept medium-range ballistic targets at a range of 60 km.

In addition to the S-400 missiles, a contract has been prepared to provide four new frigates and also a "road map" of future India-Russia nuclear power cooperation is reportedly ready for approval.

It would seem rational for India to buy a large consignment of S-400 strategic antiaircraft missiles to form a base of a future national air/space defence system. But the US has threatened to impose sanctions on nations that purchase new Russian weapons. Washington has recently imposed sanctions on China for buying a consignment of S-400s and Su-35 fighter jets. The planned purchase could be interpreted in Washington as an act of defiance.

India has been a major Russian (Soviet) partner since gaining independence from Britain and a major consumer of Russian weapons and defense technology. 

The Indian army's punch force are Russian tanks, the Indian air force front-line fighters are also Russian and the navy sails Russian submarines (including India's only nuclear-powered attack sub), Russian-built frigates and the carrier INS Vikramaditya (former Admiral Gorshkov). Over the years Russia has built up excellent informal relations with the Indian military and intelligence establishment.

After the USSR (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics) withdrew from Afghanistan and eventually collapsed, the balance of power in Asia began to shift: China became an increasingly close strategic partner of Russia, while relations between Washington and India steadily improved.

The US turned into a major arms supplier to India, as Russia was pushed back in a market it always took for granted. A panic of sorts – "We are losing India!" – became popular in Moscow. And this was not just about losing billions on lucrative arms deals.

A strategic triangle between Beijing, New Delhi and Moscow, first promoted by former Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov in the 1990s, is still seen in Moscow as a way for the three major Asian nations to stabilise the continent and limit the destructive influence of outside powers, primarily the US.

BRICS is seen as a possible precursor of such a "triangle" and Moscow strongly lobbied the expansion of the SCO economic and security organisation to include India together with Pakistan as another way to move in the same strategic direction.

The US' efforts to build up economic and military ties with India are seen as highly undesirable, ruining long-term Russian strategic plans, though they may be mostly intended as an anti-China arrangement. During the visit to New Delhi this week with a big delegation of ministers and top businessmen, Putin hopes to achieve a major boost in different fields of cooperation.

The stakes are high. If the US follows through and imposes punitive sanctions on India for signing major arms deals with Russia, US-India relations could seriously suffer and Moscow could get double gain: multi-billion-dollar revenue from arms trade and undermining the US influence in the subcontinent that has been steadily growing in recent years.