Russian President Vladimir Putin has arrived in India for a two-day visit during which Moscow is expected to ink a weapons deal worth billions of dollars, despite threat of sanctions by the United States.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Thursday evening welcomed Putin in capital New Delhi and the two headed off to an informal dinner.
Official talks are expected to begin on Friday, when nearly 20 bilateral agreements will be signed in areas such as defence, nuclear energy, space exploration and economy.
Welcome to India, President Putin.
— Narendra Modi (@narendramodi) October 4, 2018
The Kremlin said the “key feature” of a deal with India would be the signing of a $5bn deal for the S-400 air defence system, despite a US law that sanctions any country that trades with Russia’s defence and intelligence sectors.
On the eve of Putin’s arrival, the US poured cold water on India’s efforts to obtain a waiver to avoid sanctions put in place under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA).
The deal will also help reassure Russia because India-Russia ties have been fraying at the edges for the past several years
Upgrades in arms systems “including the S-400 air and missile defence system” would be a particular focus for CAATSA, a US State Department spokesperson was quoted as saying by India’s PTI news agency.
“The S-400 is attracting attention due to the US-Trump overhang. With the US’ domestic legislation discouraging countries like India from engaging in ‘significant’ trade with Russia, there is a high-visibility political subtext about how this deal will impact the India-US bilateral,” said Commodore (retired) Uday Bhaskar, director at The Society for Policy Studies.
“The US response will be evident by November 5, when both the trade with Russia and the hydrocarbon imports from Iran will come to a tipping point. If the US decides to go ahead with its domestic legislation and invoke penalties/sanctions against New Delhi, it would test the resilience of the India-US bilateral,” he said.
“This would be an anomalous situation, wherein the US would place both India and China in the same ‘sanctions’ basket – unlikely bed-fellows indeed. Beijing will monitor this S-400 issue very closely for long-term strategic implications.”
Last month Washington slapped financial sanctions on the Chinese military for buying Russian Sukhoi Su-35 fighter jets and the S-400.
However, the US is in a difficult position when it comes to India; it wants to enhance ties with New Delhi to counter China’s growing assertiveness, something that has also rattled India.
Washington and New Delhi announced plans last month for joint military drills in 2019 and agreed on the exchange of sensitive military information. The US is now India’s second-biggest arms supplier.
But Russia remains number one; new deals with the Asian giant would be a major win for Moscow – and a big snub to the US.
Putin and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who appear to enjoy a personal rapport, are also likely to discuss a deal for four Krivak-class frigates worth $2bn and 200 light utility Ka-226 helicopters pegged at $1bn.
Critical gaps in defence capabilities
Experts say India needs the sophisticated S-400 to fill critical gaps in its defence capabilities, in view of China’s rise and perceived threats from Pakistan, against whom India has fought three wars.
“India has been concerned about a possible two-front war in which it has to face some form of confrontation from Pakistan and China at the same time,” said Pramit Pal Chaudhuri, New Delhi-based foreign policy analyst and foreign affairs editor at the Hindustan Times newspaper.
If the US decides to go ahead with its domestic legislation and invoke penalties/sanctions against New Delhi, it would test the resilience of the India-US bilateral
“Also India’s Air Force’s strength has weakened owing to acquisition problems. India has been shopping around for some time now for air-defence systems,” he told Al Jazeera.
“The S-400 systems have not been battle-tested but technologically they are quite good, also relatively cheap. So [they] are seen as a good solution.
“The deal will also help reassure Russia because India-Russia ties have been fraying at the edges for the past several years,” he added.
India is the world’s biggest arms importer and is undergoing a $100bn upgrade of its ageing hardware, much of it of Soviet vintage including MiG jets that crash frequently in the Indian countryside.
Putin, 65, and Modi, 68, are also set to discuss a possible second Russian-built nuclear power plant in India. Moscow is currently expanding India’s biggest nuclear power plant in Kudankulam.
Also on the agenda is Russian training for Indian astronauts as New Delhi aims to launch its first crewed space mission in 2022.
Annual Russia-India trade has slipped below $10bn since 2014 as Modi cultivated closer diplomatic and economic ties with Washington, while Russia courted Pakistan and China.
Ties received a boost last year when Modi and Putin held a fruitful annual bilateral summit, followed by meetings in Astana and at the G20 in Germany. They also met in Sochi this year.
On the strategic front, Russia helped India become a full member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation this year and has backed New Delhi’s long-held demand for a permanent UN Security Council seat.
Zeenat Saberin contributed to this report from New Delhi