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Nikolay Kudashev, Russia’s ambassador to India, is excited about the just-concluded $5.4 billion S-400 missile defence system deal between India and Russia. So is his boss, Russian President Vladimir Putin. And so is everyone who still ruminates about the good old days of India–Russia friendship. Kudashev also believes that broader US sanctions on Russia will not pose hindrance to more defence contracts between New Delhi and Moscow in the near future. But US President Donald Trump is nowhere near as sanguine; in his first reaction to the Indo-Russian deal and in his inimitable style, the US leader ominously proclaimed that ‘India is going to find out’ Washington’s response ‘sooner than you think’.
Russia must be feeling extremely content with India’s defiance of America’s wishes. And Moscow would undoubtedly be even happier should the US respond negatively to this missile weapons deal, especially since the American president proclaimed it as his mission to reduce countries’ dependence on Russian weapons and has resisted calls from his own officials to provide India with a US legal waiver which would allow New Delhi to continue purchasing Russian military platforms on a case-by-case basis.
Trump’s dislike of the S-400 system can be gauged from America’s strong pressure on Turkey not to acquire such platforms, and also from the recent sanctioning of the Chinese military for buying Russian equipment. Officials in Washington frequently state that, in the case of Turkey, the purchase of the S-400 by Ankara would constitute a ‘red line’. And a day before Putin’s arrival in New Delhi for the annual summit with Prime Minister Narendra Modi in early October, the US issued a thinly-veiled warning that the S-400 deal was a ‘focus area’ of secondary American sanctions against countries that made ‘significant’ purchases from designated entities in Russia’s defence sectors.
So, although US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Defense James Mattis have argued the case for a presidential waiver to India, and this broader acquiescence if not support from the State Department and the Pentagon may have prompted New Delhi to go ahead with the controversial Russian deal, chances remain high that President Trump could refuse to grant a waiver to India.
Yet whatever Trump’s final response is, it becomes imperative for India not to make an ostentatious public display of asserting its ‘independence’ in foreign policy. One can only be amazed at New Delhi’s fascination for repeatedly asserting that it conducts an ‘autonomous’ foreign policy, which is another way of saying that the government is not afraid of asserting itself in the face of American aggression. Yet time and context have changed dramatically for such posturing. When India adopted its non-aligned status and posture, this was not a gesture born out of pure idealism, but one based on a realistic assessment of India’s geopolitical scenario and options: Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru wanted to give Indian diplomats room to manoeuvre to conduct the country’s foreign and security policies without allowing India to be trapped in the Cold War entanglements. Although this approach offered India multiple advantages, the non-alignment posture soon gave way to an inward-looking foreign policy vision that only prioritised threats coming from Pakistan, rather than dealing effectively with the broader challenge emanating from China. One therefore expected the Modi-led government not to repeat the past mistake of maintaining so-called ‘strategic autonomy’; its euphemism ‘non-alignment’ has been thought to be long dead, and it is certainly not in India’s interest to resurrect the ‘non-aligned’ ghost.
Now, India stands to benefit from being more assertive as exemplified by its pursuit of constructive engagement with the US. Mutual respect for democratic values and the rule of law, India’s growing economic strength and rising strategic confidence coupled with China’s unusually assertive behaviour have contributed to growing rapport between the world’s strongest and largest democracies. Resultantly, New Delhi has acquired a crucial position in the US’s evolving security calculus in the Indo-Pacific region.
One can question the rationale of buying the S-400 system. Can India, even equipped with the S-400 system, hope to defend itself against potential Chinese aggression on its own? And can India hope that the S-400 deal will nudge Russia to distance itself from China and Pakistan? In their visceral opposition to the US, the Russians now see the strategic advantage of viewing Pakistan as a partner in fighting terrorism. This thinking is flawed considering that Islamabad consistently defends Mumbai terror attack mastermind Hafiz Saeed and has adopted a highly selective approach on counterterrorism. So, despite ritualistic rhetoric suggesting continued Indo-Russian bonhomie, the fact remains that Moscow has moved far away from New Delhi’s long-held strategic positions.
So, why did India make the S-400 deal such a litmus test? Part of the reason is because many Indian strategists still tend to view contemporary geopolitical scenarios through the distorting lens of the Cold War. Such Indian strategists do not appear to have noted that RTI Systems, Russia’s defence manufacturing conglomerate, has signed an important deal in the last week of August to supply radar systems to Pakistan. The system is primarily aimed at protecting a nuclear power plant in Karachi against any attack, and no prizes for guessing whose attack that Russian-supplied radar system is seeking to deter. So, ironically, Russia is now in the position of supplying both protagonists with weapons intended to deter each other. Some seasoned Moscow watchers have convincingly argued that Moscow intended the radar deal with Pakistan to indirectly convey to New Delhi that if security frameworks in South Asia are disrupted by American pressure on Islamabad to ‘do more’ on the counter-terrorism front in Afghanistan, Russia would not mind stepping in to help Pakistan neutralise India’s military advantages. Already, the Pakistan–Russia security partnership has strengthened since 2014, when the two countries signed their landmark defence agreement.
Moscow’s apologists in India argue that those opposed to the S-400 deal are, essentially, supporters of a pro-US tilt, but this issue is not a binary choice about being either pro-Russian or pro-American; it is about defending India’s long-term strategic interests. And, in the present regional geopolitical environment, it is more prudent for India to secure its interests through alliance-building in the Indo-Pacific region rather than by returning to the notions of strategic autonomy.
The US considers India an important ally in the Indo-Pacific region in order to counter China’s growing assertiveness. Japan and Australia have been moving closer to India, in part at the behest of the US. It is thus risky to turn away from alliance-building and seek solace in the old framework of non-alignment. The success of the Indo-Pacific project requires an engaged America. But Russia has been opposed to India’s policy in the Indo-Pacific. And, by engaging in a massive defence deal with Russia against insistent American objections, India may not be promoting its own broader interests.
Vinay Kaura is Assistant Professor at Sardar Patel University of Police, Security and Criminal Justice in Jaipur, Rajasthan.
BANNER IMAGE: The transport vehicle on the chassis for the S-400 missile defence system, Russia, 2011. India has recently purchased this system from Russia. Courtesy of Vitaly V Kuzmin/Wikimedia Commons
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI or any other institution.