India is eager for Putin's weapons despite US sanctions risk

India needs Russia to keep up weapons supplies as it remains locked in its worst border stand-off with China. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

NEW DELHI (BLOOMBERG) - President Vladimir Putin will visit New Delhi on Monday (Dec 6) as billions of dollars of Russian weaponry flow into India that would normally attract United States sanctions. Eager to draw India into its efforts to contain China, the US may look away this time.

Mr Putin is making his first foreign trip in nearly six months for talks with Prime Minister Narendra Modi as India takes delivery of Russia's S-400 advanced missile-defence system that is part of a US$5 billion (S$6.9 billion) weapons deal. A similar purchase by Nato ally Turkey prompted the US to ban Ankara from its advanced F-35 fighter jet programme.

"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 Mr Ruslan Pukhov, a member of the Russian Defence Ministry'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 build-up of forces near Ukraine, India is betting President Joe Biden's focus on China will allow it to press on with defence 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 may trigger sanctions, it has not decided on a potential waiver for India, State Department spokesman Ned Price said at a Nov 23 briefing.

Conversations are ongoing "in the context of a defence 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", Mr Price said.

For the Modi government, Mr 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 stand-off 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 will need to watch Russia's actions on Ukraine as this could complicate New Delhi's ties with Washington, said Ms Tanvi Madan, director of The India Project at the Brookings Institution.

"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," she said. "Neither likes what the other is doing with its rivals."

With meetings scheduled between the Indian and Russian foreign and defence ministers, Mr Putin's trip may yield more Indian orders for the Sukhoi Su-30 and MiG-29 fighter jets as well as 400 extra T-90 tanks, India's ambassador to Russia, Mr Bala Venkatesh Varma, told the Tass news service last month.

Russia's new S-400 "Triumph" surface-to-air missile system. PHOTO: REUTERS

There's an agreement to produce more than 700,000 AK-203 rifles in India too, he said. India won't go ahead with a plan to build Russian Ka-226T military helicopters locally under a US$1 billion deal, according to senior government officials with knowledge of the matter.

Instead, the world's third-largest military force might make off-the-shelf purchases as replacements for its fleet of over 320 ageing helicopters. New Delhi may look to ink deals to buy another 5,000 missiles and about 250 single launchers of the Igla-S Very Short Range Air Defence system that India first ordered when its border confrontation with China was at its peak last summer.

Still, while Russia remains India's largest weapons supplier, Moscow's share of Indian purchases declined to 56 per cent from 72 per cent in the period 2015 to 2019, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

At the same time, India has increased weapons and technology purchases from Europe and Israel and conducted more military exercises with the Quad nations.

India is also part of a newly emerging partnership between Israel, the United Arab Emirates and the US that plans to cooperate on economic and maritime security in the Middle East.

"The US is not likely to be happy about India's decision to purchase more weapons from Russia, but will wait to see how many of these deals actually materialise," said Mr Akhil Bery, director of South Asia Initiatives at the Asia Society Policy Institute.

"However, the US-India relationship is arguably stronger now, as both sides recognise that China is the biggest geopolitical threat."

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