The US-Russia ties have strained after the exit of Donald Trump from the White House

NEW DELHI: With US President Joe Biden turning it on against Russian President Vladimir Putin, it is being speculated that India-US ties would be adversely affected. At risk, as is being speculated, is India’s defence purchases from Russia that includes S-400 missile systems that are considered a key component of the country’s defence strategy.

Biden-Putin tussle took a serious turn on March 17, when the US president called his Russian counterpart a “killer”. Russian President Putin called back his diplomats from the US and vented out his frustration by reminding America and the world of the nuclear attacks on Japan and legalised slavery in the US.

The US-Russia ties have strained after the exit of Donald Trump from the White House. Trump was “lenient” towards Putin and Russia from 2017-2020 during which America appeared to take a backseat on global affairs and Russia emerged stronger from Syria and the rest of the Middle-East, Afghanistan and also the Indo-Pacific region.

Now, things are changing as the world sees a revival of olden days’ rivalry between the US and Russia. There is a strong lobby in the US’s power corridor that advocates sanctions on countries having deeper defence ties with Russia. India is a prominent one. But India also presents a difficult choice for the US.

India Is No Turkey

The US imposed sanctions on Turkey in December 2020 for buying S-400 from Russia under a law in 2017, the year Trump became the US president. The law was the US’s response to alleged interference by Russia in its 2016 presidential polls.

India was being speculated to be the next in line to face sanctions. India is buying five S-400 missile systems at $5.4 billion.

There is another reason for a ‘sanction India’ voice. The S-400 missile systems are comparable to the US’s Patriot air defence systems. A multi-billion buy from India was in the eye of the US defence trade stakeholders.

But the US may not go to that extent of imposing sanctions on India and is likely to offer an “exception”. The reasons are simple: it would strain India-US defence trade ties, and jolt the US’s efforts to counter-balance China in Indo-Pacific reason.

India is the only trusted friend of the US in South Asia. With Pakistan, the US’s relation has been of “trade” between export of dollars and purchase of a foothold in a strategically important region. Of late, Pakistan has veered towards China more.

India is too important for the US to lose ties with over a deal with a country on which it has been dependent for long.

QUAD Is Taking Off

Quad — a grouping of India, the US, Japan and Australia — is finally taking off after more than a decade. The heads of states of the four countries recently held a virtual meeting over the Covid-19 pandemic situation.

The meeting happened despite India’s foreign secretary Harsh Shringla visiting Russia on February 17-18 on his maiden overseas tour outside South Asia during the Covid-19 pandemic.

To follow the Quad meet up, US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin has just completed his three-day visit to New Delhi showing the Biden administration’s commitment to keep India in good faith and deepen strategic ties between the two countries.

India’s reluctance had been the reason why Quad could not take off earlier. It was hesitant about straining its ties with China, which considers the Quad as an outfit aimed against it. Recent India-China border face-off made India play its strategic cards more aggressively and give a push to the Quad.

Also, by giving pace to Quad, India has given a signal that it is not taking into account the objections of Russia, which treats the four-nation grouping as a challenge to its interests in the Pacific.

India’s NAM Past

India has been a member of the Non-aligned Movement (NAM), which was started as diplomatic stream declaring equidistance from the US and Russia in the cold-war years. India has maintained that its relations with either Russia or the US are not dependent upon their mutual ties and tussles.

Russia Is India’s Traditional Defence Shop

Buying weapons from Russia is not new for India. It is estimated that India’s defence systems have about 60 per cent Russian weapons. The prevailing guiding philosophy in the government has been that India’s defence requirements cannot be subject to or a subject of discussion in any other country.

India aims to become a major arms exporter in collaboration with Russia, having signed deals for commercial production of Brahmos missiles, T-90 tanks and SU-30 fighter planes.

India’s Growing Defence Ties With US

India’s defence trade with the US itself has grown in volume in the past 10-12 years. It has gone from near zero in 2008 to $20 billion in 2020. This came as part of India’s efforts to diversify its defence purchases. It now buys from Israel, France and the US in good volumes.

Besides Quad, India and the US have a range of defence arrangements including the sharing of logistic facilities of each other’s militaries. While the purchase of S-400 from Russia did not go well with the US, it is unlikely to turn India into an adversary when it needs the country most to counter both China and Russia and smoothen the transition of India’s weapon-dependence from Russian manufacturers to American.