Russian President Vladimir Putin yesterday headed for India looking to tie up billions of dollars in arms deals with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, likely irking the US, China and Pakistan in one fell swoop.
The Kremlin said before the two-day visit that the “key feature” would be the signing of a US$5 billion deal for a S-400 air defense system, despite the risk of US sanctions against nations buying the Russian defense kit.
On the eve of Putin’s arrival, the US poured cold water on India’s efforts to obtain a waiver to avoid sanctions under legislation called the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act.
Upgrades in arms systems “including the S-400 air and missile defense system” would be a particular focus for the act, a US Department of State spokesperson was quoted as saying by the Press Trust of India.
Washington and New Delhi last month announced plans for joint military drills next year and agreed on the exchange of sensitive military information. The US is now India’s second biggest arms supplier.
However, Russia remains No. 1, and a string of new deals with the Asian giant would be a major win for Moscow — and a big snub to the US.
Putin and Modi, who appear to enjoy a personal rapport, are also likely to discuss a deal for four Krivak-class frigates worth US$2 billion and 200 light utility Ka-226 helicopters pegged at US$1 billion.
“It’s about time we showed that we are not going to be pushed around by Washington,” said R.R. Subramanian, a Delhi-based strategic affairs analyst.
Experts say that India needs the sophisticated S-400 to fill critical gaps in its defense capabilities in view of China’s rise and perceived threats from Pakistan.
Indian Air Chief Marshall Birender Singh Dhanoa on Wednesday said that the S-400 and the 36 Rafale fighter jets purchased from France — a 2016 deal mired in political controversy — represent a “booster dose” for the country.
Putin and Modi are also set to discuss a possible second Russian-built nuclear power plant. 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.
Rakesh Sharma, the only Indian to travel in space, did so on a Soviet spacecraft in 1984.
However, military kit is the main focus.
India is the world’s biggest arms importer and is undergoing a US$100 billion upgrade of its aging hardware, much of it Soviet, including MiG jets that have frequently crashed in the countryside.
Annual Russia-India trade has slipped below US$10 billion since 2014, as Modi cultivated closer diplomatic and economic ties with Washington, while Russia has 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, Russia, this year.
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