Putin playing India off China, U.S. in S-400 deal

During his visit to New Dehli today, Russian President Vladimir Putin is expected to ink a multibillion-dollar deal with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi for the purchase of Moscow’s S-400 Triumpf air defense system.

It’s not clear how many of the systems India is expected to buy, but the deal stems from a commitment from New Dehli made to Moscow in December 2016.

India wants the system in order to bolster its air defense amid its ongoing rivalry with China, which has already bought S-400 systems, its long-standing disputes with nuclear-armed Pakistan.

“Experts say India needs the sophisticated S-400 system to fill critical gaps in its defense capabilities, in view of China’s rise and perceived threats from Pakistan, against whom India has fought three wars,” Agence France-Presse reported Thursday.

The newswire service reported further that the S-400 purchase will coincide with the purchase of 36 French-made Rafael fighters to serve as a “booster dose” for India, air force chief Birender Singh Dhanoa said Wednesday.

The purchase of the S-400 and the 36 Rafale fighter jets bought from France amount to a”booster dose” for New Delhi, Indian Air Force Chief Birender Singh Dhanoa declared on Wednesday, according to AFP.

In addition, Modi and Putin will probably discuss additional military deals including the potential purchase of four Russian Krivak-class frigates worth $2 billion and 200 light utility Ka-226 helicopters valued at $1 billion, AFP reported.

“Russian President Vladimir Putin will begin his two-day visit to India today, with agreements on defense, trade, and space technology on the agenda, along with discussions over the military transition in Afghanistan,” the South China Morning Post added.

Analysis: The United States has been attempting to curry favor with India as one way of countering a rising China, but Vladimir Putin obviously has other plans. 

Granted, Russia has sold India lots of military equipment in the past, but nowadays purchasing Russian military equipment — especially sophisticated warships, air defense systems, and aircraft, brings with it the threat of sanctions from Washington.

It should be said that this sale comes amid Putin’s efforts to shore up and improve relations with China — and China isn’t at all thrilled about it. So what’s Putin’s real target?

It has to be the United States. By playing India off of both the U.S. and China, Putin has less to lose in terms of diplomacy in his part of the world than the U.S. does.

Russia is already under heavy sanctions by the United States. So is China, when you factor in Trump-imposed tariffs on hundreds of billions’ worth of Chinese imports. But India is not, at least not yet.

India faces sanctions if the deal is made due to a law that would require the president to implement them. But there is an ‘out.’ Trump can issue a waiver to India in order to avoid sanctions on a very large and increasingly wealthy country that sits athwart two revisionist powers seeking to remake the U.S.-led global order.

So Trump isn’t likely to issue sanctions against India, and if he does, we don’t believe they will amount to much. That means India will ‘get away with’ this purchase. 

The U.S. concern is that any ally or potential ally operating Russian systems that would require input data from American systems run the risk of becoming de facto spies for Moscow. If this sale goes through, however, Modi will be signaling that he believes the U.S. needs him more than he needs the U.S., or at any rate, that he believes the U.S. would assist India in any major conflict involving Russia or China.

Is he correct to assume that? Probably. The U.S. already has capable allies in the Indo-Pacific region and even officially renamed Pacific Command to “Indo-Pacific Command” for the express purpose of reassuring India America is in the region for the long haul. So Modi is probably safe in assuming that Trump isn’t about to sanction his country while his diplomatic corps is actively seeking to strategically partner with India for the express purpose of playing New Dehli off Moscow and Beijing.

As long as India is being courted by the great powers, then India is in the driver’s seat. And we see India being in the driver’s seat for a long time to come as it emerges as a great power unto itself.



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