The strategic partnership between India and Russia is alive and kicking. After a short period when the Russians started looking the Pakistan way while India flirted with the Americans, the ties between India and Russia are back on the rails. Nothing illustrates this better than the defiance of US President Donald Trump’s threat of sanctions which hung over the strategic deal on Indian purchase of $5 billion S-400 Triumf surface-to-air missile system that was signed as a result of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s just-concluded visit to India.
The US intent to see India building itself up as a counter-poise to China and the spectre of China and Pakistan posing a joint threat to India in the sub-continent led the Americans to tacitly accept the eventuality of India acquiring the missile system that is widely recognised to be the world’s most sophisticated air defence system in terms of anti-aircraft weaponry.
That External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj and Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman played a role in softening the US stance through the dialogue with the US Secretary of State and Defence Secretary in New Delhi in September was all too clear. Trump’s intransigence for once was halted in its tracks though there is no guarantee that the US would not gnash its teeth and blow hot and cold given Trump’s unpredictability and penchant for drama.
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A sovereign nation of India’s size and stature can ill afford to be dictated to on who it should buy its weapon systems from. With general elections in India just a few months away, it would have been imprudent to be seen capitulating to the Americans on a matter that was so closely linked to India’s security needs.
The S-400 Triumf, an anti-aircraft system which can shoot down ballistic missiles at a range of 60 km, is doubtlessly a worthy weaponry to acquire to equip itself better against foreign attacks. There can be little doubt that the Russian anti-aircraft missile system is superior to its American counterpart. The S-400 Triumf has several launchers, command and logistics vehicles and can track as many as 300 airborne targets and can destroy 36 of them in one go.
While India will receive the first S-400 squadron within 24 months of signing the deal, the rest will be delivered in the next four to five years. Indo-Russian relations could have floundered if India for some reason had failed to strike this deal. That the deal reached fruition is an index that Modi was ready to stick his neck out. He knew too well that if he were to succumb on imports of Iranian oil due to fears of US sanctions and on the deal with Russia on S-400s again on US arm-twisting, his own reputation of being able to stand up to Trump and to the US in general would have been in jeopardy.
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The Indo-Russian trade today rests at $10 billion as against Indo-US trade at $100 billion but the S-400 deal and other deals signed on this Putin trip could narrow the gap considerably.
A crucial stage has indeed been reached on India’s strategic relations. The next couple of years will show how efficacious recent moves prove to be.
The reality has been that the the bulk of India’s military equipment is of Soviet/Russian origin, including the nuclear submarine INS Chakra, the supersonic Brahmos cruise missile, the MiG and Sukhoi fighters, the T-72 and T-90 tanks, among others.
The recent years of cooling off has affected spare part supplies for these vital areas of supplies. The improvement in Indo-Russian ties could well restore the ties to more or less the original level while simultaneously stepping up the defence relationship with the US.
As an emerging power, many eyes are focussed on India, with China jolted by American protectionism.
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