US needs to realise that an India that can push back against China is worth more to the American designs for Asia than a few S-400 missiles

by Tara Kartha

There’s going to be a considerable degree of discomfort among officials in Washington DC as the India-Russia summit takes off in New Delhi on 6 December. Worse still, the so far exclusive “Quad’ configuration of ‘2+2’. which is a twinned defence and foreign secretaries dialogue, is to be replicated with Russia. That should put a cat among the pigeons especially, since the Russian leader, like Santa Claus, will come bearing gifts – in this case, the redoubtable S-400 missiles. This is going to be an interesting summit in more ways than one.

The Grumbling In Washington

Prime Minister Narendra Modi had in 2014 beamed at Russian President Vladimir Putin saying that even a child in India knew that Russia was India’s best friend. Today, almost everyone knows about the S-400s, the air defence system that is causing Washington to threaten sanctions under CAATSA (Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act). This is a wide-ranging piece of legislation, inter alia warns of sanctions on any country that buys arms from Russia.

The harshness of this legislation arose in part due to allegations that Russia had interfered in the 2016 US presidential elections, and the Solar Winds cyberattack among other things. Since then, anti-Russian legislation has been the rule in Congress, including such strange proposals as a Holding Russia Accountable for Malign Activities Act, 2021, which wants visas and assets blocked of those involved in the poisoning of prominent critic Alexei Navalny; and a CROOK Act (Countering Russian and Other Overseas Kleptocracy Act), which wants more of the same.

Most of these don’t pass muster, but do convey the sense of Congress. With some 100,000 Russian troops now massed on the Ukrainian border, this railing against Moscow is likely to get worse. Key Republicans have written to President Joe Biden demanding that Ukrainians be armed. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned Russia of a ‘serious mistake’, while NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) launched a massive military exercise with some 28,000 troops across Eastern Europe. Europe, however, is nervous of aggressive action, and Ukraine itself is far from being without fault. Yet, any showcasing friendship with Russia at this point will be viewed with hostility.

The Russian Friend In Need – With Reservations

Most American officials are well aware of the Indian military’s dependence on Russia for military operations, particularly now with an aggressive China at the gates. A timely report from the Congressional Research Service pointed out that Russia provided nearly two-thirds (62 percent) of all Indian arms imports; that the Naval fleet is almost entirely of Russian origin, while the Army is dependent for spares, particularly for its Main Battle Tanks.

But military equipment is just one part of a wide-ranging relationship that includes joint production of the Brahmos missile, mass production of AK-203 rifles, and licensed production of Sukhoi-30s among others. Again, it’s not even just this. Think of the fact that India had to turn to Russia for a nuclear-powered submarine, which was repeatedly refused by the US, even though it then set up AUKUS, which provides the technology to Australia. Russia also delayed delivery of S-400 missiles to China during the Galwan crisis, though this was probably more due to the arrest of a leading scientist for spying for China. But in India, it was seen as a sign of solidarity.

India’s military dependence has certainly reduced in recent years. During the Galwan crisis, emergency purchases were from the US and Israel as well as Russia. The S-400 deal, however, will again tilt the balance. Military experts describe this as an ideal weapon for India, able to handle different ranges, from low-flying stealth aircraft or cruise missiles to some capability against incoming ballistic missiles. Its 400-km range capability means it can detect aircraft flying almost anywhere in Pakistan as well as provide a fait accompli on the Chinese border that effectively negates China’s own burgeoning air capability in terms of new airfields and its own missiles. This is the real stuff, and there is no way India can do without this, given the tense situation.

Russian Reservations

Yet the bilateral relationship is far from stable. On Afghanistan, Russia is leaning towards recognising the Taliban regime, which it refers to as the ‘interim Afghan government’, for reasons that include the Taliban’s fierce fight against the Islamic State of Khorasan that threatens Russia’s Central Asian ‘borders’ and a desire to exert its influence again in the region. It, therefore, abstained (together with China) on a US resolution imposing tough conditions on the Taliban. India was ignored in the rush of dialogues, with Pakistan getting far more attention. Russia even put out its own version of the Delhi Declaration issued after the meeting of National Security Advisors, which was far less demanding of the Taliban.

Far more unsettling for Moscow is India’s inclusion in the Quad – the grouping that includes Japan, the US and Australia. Displeasure was evident at an April presser during Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov’s visit, when S. Jaishankar refused to endorse Lavrov’s comments on ‘counterproductive’ alliances. More recently at the RIC (Russia, India, China) virtual summit, Lavrov’s statement pointedly referred to cooperation in the ‘Asia Pacific’, a term preferred as more inclusive. Russian angst over increased India-US cooperation also hinges on lowering trade with India. This year, bilateral trade was at $1.8 billion as compared to the US, which is Delhi’s largest trading partner, with some $146 billion in bilateral trade in 2019.

Rooting Out Reservations

The issue of a ‘2+2’ dialogue seems to have been done after Lavrov’s earlier visit in April, when the ground was being prepared for ‘deliverables’ for the summit, and affirmed in a call between PM Modi and President Putin. That, together with Indian participation in Russian-led military exercises like ‘Zapad’ or even that of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in recent months, seems to be aimed at redressing Russian fears of another ‘bloc’ being formed. Once the 2+2 format is launched, Delhi could invite Russia to multilateral exercises in the same ‘Quad spirit’, but involving other navies in the region, on the lines of the recently held Goa Symposium by the Indian Navy.

There are fortunately opportune ways of increasing trade, together with a ‘strategic’ add-on. In 2019, India had promised a $1 billion credit line for the development of the Russian Far East. This seems to have only recently been energised with an ‘Energy Office’ opened in March, involving majors like Oil India Limited, Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC) and others. Why India took so long to advance this is unclear given that South Korea, Japan and China are already heavily invested there. The Far East project envisages a maritime corridor from Vladivostok to Chennai, which should traverse the Arctic. That gives India access to the Arctic area, which is seen as the next strategic area of competition, with China already calling itself a ‘Near Arctic State’ much to the annoyance of the Arctic states. Indian investment in much needed energy projects should help build up trade from the $1 billion it is now, to somewhere close to Russian trade with China which is at $40.207 billion. That’s a catch-up game that will be mutually beneficial.

Meanwhile, Washington has leeway to set CAATSA sanctions aside, as it did on the Germany–Russia pipeline Nord Stream 2 using technical interpretations to circumvent it. This was as much to placate Germany as a realisation that the project was nearly complete. The Biden administration has throttled back on antagonising Russia, an uphill task given the political mood. But the US needs to realise that an India that can push back against China – which no one yet has – is worth more to the US designs for Asia than a few missiles that have no presence in the maritime region which is the focus area of US-India cooperation.

And finally on Afghanistan, Moscow should heed Foreign Minister Jaishankar’s speech at the Primakov Institute where he seemed to hint that stability in Afghanistan required India, Russia and Iran to work together. In other words, if India has to pay the costs of antagonising the US, it had better be worth the price. Russia’s pursuit of Pakistan for ‘stability’ doesn’t seem to have gone very far anyway.