India’s New Defense Pact with Russia Detrimental to Quad Alliance

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s brief but important visit to India is being watched by the world. Putin, who has not travelled much outside Russia during the pandemic, is making the trip to Delhi, at a time when the pandemic is still raging in his country. He has only travelled to Geneva for the summit meeting with US President Joe Biden. This is his second visit outside Russia this year.

India, however, has a historical relationship with Russia, spanning over the last seven decades. While the relationship has stagnated in some areas and atrophied in some others, the strongest pillar of the strategic partnership is of the defense basket.

Although New Delhi has consciously diversified its new purchases from other countries, the bulk of its defense equipment is from Russia. Estimates say 60 to 70 per cent of India’s supplies are from Russia, and New Delhi needs regular and reliable supply from Russia for the spare parts from the Russian defense industry.

In fact, Modi has held informal summits with only two countries — Xi and Putin. At this time of tension at the border, Defence minister Rajnath Singh had discussed the issue of defense equipment supply and purchase of new systems — like the S-400 missile defense system — with the Russian top brass in the military and government.

Military technical cooperation between Russia and India

Russia and India are reorienting to joint research and development, and joint production of advanced defense technologies and systems, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said in a joint statement after their talks in New Delhi on Monday.

“Military and military-technical cooperation has traditionally been the pillar of Special and Privileged Strategic Partnership between India and Russia. Responding to India’s quest for self-sufficiency, the partnership is reorienting presently to joint research and development, co-development and joint production of advanced defense technology and systems,” the document says.

Russia and India noted the successful completion of the military technical cooperation program for 2011-2020 and hailed an agreement of such program for 2021-2031.

“The Sides reiterated their commitment to upgrade the defense cooperation, including facilitating joint development and production of military equipment, components and spare parts, enhancing the after-sales service system, progress towards mutual recognition of quality control and regular joint exercises of the Armed Forces of the two countries,” it reads. “The two leaders agreed that for peace, stability and mutual economic development, there is a need for the two countries to work closely together in the advanced and emerging fields of defense technology and for the Armed Forces of the two countries to work together in niche domains of military capabilities.”

The two sides are also stepping up defense cooperation. Ahead of the summit, India has cleared the long-pending AK 203 Kalashnikov rifles deal worth nearly Rs 5,000 crore for production of over five lakh such rifles at Korwa in Amethi by an Indo-Russian joint venture.

On cooperation in areas of defense, sources said the two sides are set to focus on co-production and co-development of military equipment and platforms.

Quad Alliance

The Quad, officially the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, is a group of four countries: the United States, Australia, India, and Japan. Maritime cooperation among them began after the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004. But today the countries—all democracies and vibrant economies—work on a far broader agenda, which includes tackling security, economic, and health issues.

US President Joe Biden (L), with Secretary of State Antony Blinken (2nd L), meets virtually with members of the “Quad” alliance of Australia, India, Japan and the US, in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, DC, on March 12, 2021. – On screens are Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison. Seated are Counselor to the President Jeff Zients (2nd R) and National Security Council Senior Director for South Asia, Sumona Guha. (Photo by OLIVIER DOULIERY / AFP) (Photo by OLIVIER DOULIERY/AFP via Getty Images)

As of 2021, leaders in all four countries have become more aligned in their shared concerns about China’s increasingly assertive behavior in the region and are more willing to define a constructive agenda of cooperation. All four navies participated in their first joint exercise in over a decade in November 2020. And in March 2021, U.S. President Joe Biden convened a virtual Quad meeting attended by Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga. They formed working groups on COVID-19 vaccines, climate change, and technological innovation and supply-chain resilience.

Working closely with these countries is natural for the United States. Australia and Japan are U.S. treaty allies, and India is an important strategic partner.

S-400 purchases complicated India, U.S. relationships

India received first batch of the controversial Russian S-400 air defense system. Dmitry Shugaev, director of Russia’s Federal Service for Military-Technical Cooperation (FSMTC), recently stated that Russia has delivered S-400s to India. The delivery of these missiles brings with it the risk of possible sanctions by the United States under the 2017 Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), which will create considerable difficulties in India-U.S. ties.

India inked the $5.43 billion deal with Russia for five squadrons of S-400s in October 2018. The delivery of the first squadron of the S-400 system will be completed by the end of the year. In October, the chief of the Indian Air Force (IAF), Air Chief Marshal (ACM) V.R. Chaudhari, commented that the “first regiment should be inducted within this year.” The deliveries appear to have been accelerated ahead of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to India and summit meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

After the deliveries are completed, they will be assembled for “acceptance trials” in the presence of Russian officials. Indian press previously reported that IAF officers were already in Russia undergoing training in assembly, operations, and maintenance of the S-400 systems. According to sources, the first squadron is to be deployed in the western sector. Specifically, the S-400s are meant to address India’s “inadequate” radar and air defense coverage.

That still leaves the CAATSA problem to be resolved. This is likely to be high on the agenda of the upcoming India-U.S. 2+2 ministerial dialogue in December, having already come up in talks between Indian and U.S. officials. The United States has imposed sanctions on other countries for buying S-400s. Both Turkey, a NATO ally, and China have bought the missiles and been sanctioned for it. Unless a presidential waiver is issued, there could be sanctions imposed on India too. In the case of Turkey, in addition to economic penalties, the U.S. cancelled the sale of fifth-generation F-35 fighter aircraft to Ankara.

It is not clear how the United States will respond to India’s induction of the S-400 air defense systems. India has considerable dealings with Russia in the defense arena and the S-400 induction constitutes a “significant transaction,” as per the CAATSA legislation. Nevertheless, New Delhi appears reasonably confident of a waiver from the Biden administration because of the improved strategic relations between the two countries. India sees the S-400s as a critical national security requirement because of the growing missile and other aerial threats from both China and Pakistan, especially considering India’s current poor state of relations with these two neighbors. New Delhi hopes that its track record of preserving the operations secrecy of the weapons systems that it has bought from many suppliers over the decades will convince the U.S. that the S-400s will not compromise U.S. weapons technology that India has acquired.

Meanwhile, U.S. Senators Mark Warner (D-VA) and John Cornyn (R-TX), co-chairs of the U.S. Senate’s India Caucus, have written to President Joe Biden urging him not to impose CAATSA sanctions on India. The senators argued that a waiver from sanctions “would advance the national security interests of the U.S.” India has found some additional support in the form of an amendment recently introduced by three Republican senators to the National Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2022, which would make it more difficult for the U.S. to impose CAATSA sanctions on any of the Quad members. The amendment, called the Circumspectly Reducing Unintended Consequences Impairing Alliances and Leadership (CRUCIAL) Act, 2021, makes a strong case for not applying CAATSA sanctions on Quad members, saying that the move will adversely affect the security dynamics in the Indo-Pacific region.

India sees the S-400s as a critical national security requirement because of the growing missile and other aerial threats from both China and Pakistan, especially considering India’s current poor state of relations with these two neighbors.

Ted Cruz, one of the three senators who introduced the amendment, commented, “Now would be exactly the wrong time for President Biden to undo all of that progress through the imposition of these sanctions, which were meant to deter Russia. Doing so would accomplish nothing except undermining our shared security goals of combatting China’s aggression and forcing India to become dependent on Russia.”

Although there is some disappointment in Washington with India’s continued defense relationship with Russia, there is also some empathy and support for India because augmenting India’s national military capabilities is seen as a general good that is also beneficial to the U.S. If the U.S. were to impose sanctions on India, it would likely only weaken an important American partner, which is not something the U.S. would want to do. It may also dent the credibility of the Quad.

For the Indian establishment too, it has been a hard decision. New Delhi does not want to give up on the Russia relationship – despite Moscow’s dalliance with China – but it also does not want to push the U.S. too hard. Also, backing off from the S-400s will present domestic political difficulties for the Modi government at this stage. These competing imperatives suggest on both sides that Washington and New Delhi will do their best to find a compromise solution that will allow Biden to avoid imposing CAATSA sanctions on India.

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