Russian President Vladimir Putin yesterday visited New Delhi as billions of dollars of Russian weaponry are set to flow into India that would normally attract US sanctions. Eager to draw India into its efforts to contain China, the US may look away this time.
Putin was making his first foreign trip in nearly six months for talks with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi as New Delhi takes delivery of Russia’s S-400 advanced missile-defense system that is part of a US$5 billion weapons deal.
A similar purchase by NATO ally Turkey prompted the US to ban Ankara from its advanced F-35 jet program.
“It looks like Washington turned a blind eye for now since Indian support in the Asia-Pacific region is extremely important for the US,” said Ruslan Pukhov, a member of the Russian Ministry of Defense’s public advisory board. “India sent a strong message to the US that it would not tolerate American sanctions.”
India is part of the Quad group with the US, Japan and Australia that is shaping up as a bulwark against China’s influence in the Indo-Pacific region. Even as US and NATO tensions with the Kremlin are running high over a Russian buildup of forces near Ukraine, India is betting that US President Joe Biden’s focus on China would allow it to press on with defense purchases from Moscow.
Russian arms purchases by US allies can trigger sanctions under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act. While the US has “urged all of our allies, all of our partners, to forgo transactions with Russia” involving the S-400 that might trigger sanctions, it has not decided on a potential waiver for India, US Department of State spokesman Ned Price said at a Nov. 23 briefing.
Conversations are ongoing “in the context of a defense relationship that is meaningful to us, that is important both to the United States and India, including in the context of a free and open Indo-Pacific” region, Price said.
For the Indian government, Putin’s visit means more than just bolstering ties that date to the Cold War era. India needs Russia to keep up weapons supplies as it remains locked in its worst border standoff with China. New Delhi also wants more of a role in Afghanistan, where Russia along with China and Pakistan remain key players following the Taliban’s takeover.
India would need to watch Russia’s actions on Ukraine as this could complicate New Delhi’s ties with Washington, said Tanvi Madan, director of The India Project at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
“Delhi says it needs to do certain things with Moscow because it is in India’s interest; Washington says it needs to do certain things with Islamabad because it is in America’s interest,” Madan said. “Neither likes what the other is doing with its rivals.”
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