Strategic Turn-around in India-Russia Relations- South Asia set to witness Arms Build-up

  modi and putin

The strategic turn-around in India-Russia relations is all too obvious with New Delhi getting closer to Moscow in recent years.  The joint statement issued after the 19thAnnual Indo-Russian Summit held on 4-5 October 2018 in New Delhi between President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Narendra Modi specifically mentioned that “India-Russia cooperation is based on the solid foundations of the 1971 Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Cooperation” between   India and the USSR, 1993 Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation, 2000 Declaration on Strategic Partnership between the two countries and 2010 Joint Statement “elevating the Partnership to a Special and Privileged Strategic Partnership” (India, Ministry of External Affairs 2018). However, a major difference between the 1971 Indo-Soviet Treaty and the post-Soviet treaties and declarations (after 1993) can be seen in their approach to India’s security concerns and Moscow’s commitment. While the 1971 Treaty was more or less a ‘security insurance’ for India, the 1993 treaty and subsequent declarations and joint statements make no such commitments. It is in this context that the 68-Paragraph Joint Statement issued following Putin’s visit holds importance.

The Summit had already drawn worldwide attention for obvious reasons.  It was held in the background of widespread speculations if New Delhi would go ahead with its plans to sign an agreement for the purchase of Russian-made S-400 surface-to-air missile system by incurring the displeasure of the Trump administration which has been all set to impose sanctions on countries having such transactions with Moscow. The Summit also came like a test case of New Delhi’s recent claims of its “strategic autonomy” in foreign policy. Many even wondered if the Modi Government would run the risk of moving away from the strategic tie-up with Washington which assumed new heights with the 2+2 dialogues in New Delhi (Seethi 2018).

The Summit attracted further attention in the context of the trade war unleashed by the Trump administration on China and its inevitable fall-out on countries such as Russia, India and Pakistan. Besides all, during the last four years, Washington-Moscow relations saw a worsening scenario, since the Ukraine issue emerged. Russia’s support to Syria and Iran further strained their bilateral relations. Moscow’s alleged involvement in the 2016 US presidential elections also created serious fissures in their relations.  It was against the backdrop of all these issues that the Trump administration placed several Russian firms under sanctions. The Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) was put in place in 2017 with a view to targeting three of its major adversaries—Russia, Iran and North Korea. The US imposed sanctions as per Section 231 of CAATSA on China “for engaging in significant transactions with Rosoboronexport, Russia’s main arms export entity.” These transactions involved Russia’s delivery to China of Su-35 combat aircraft in 2017 and S-400 surface-to-air missile system-related equipment. The US officials stated that Washington would “continue to vigorously implement CAATSA and urge all countries to curtail relationships with Russia’s defense and intelligence sectors, both of which are linked to malign activities worldwide” (U.S. Department of State 2018b).

Obviously, the Indo-Russian summit and its politico-strategic outcome would have given multiple signals to Washington and Beijing (Seethi 2018). Resting all speculations, Prime Minister Modi went ahead with the defence deal worth $5.43-billion to procure five Russian S-400 Triumf missile shield systems at the summit.  India-Russia Joint Statement made a specific reference to “the conclusion of the contract for the supply of the S-400 Long Range Surface to Air Missile System to India.” Both countries also “reaffirmed their commitment to enhance military technical cooperation between India and Russia, which has a long history of mutual trust and mutual benefit” (India, Ministry of External Affairs 2018).

S-400 missile system is said to be more sophisticated than the US Patriot missiles and as such it is seen as an important boost to India’s airpower, particularly when the establishment is facing a shortage of squadrons. Defence experts claim that the new surface-to-air defence system will help enable India’s air reconnaissance by detecting and destroying missiles. Russia continued to be India’s largest supplier of arms for several years, a legacy inherited from the Soviet days. Russian arms now constitute almost 62 per cent of India’s imports. However, arms imports from the US skyrocketed by a staggering 557 per cent during the past decade. Over years, Washington has become India’s second largest arms supplier. The US defence sales to India grew from nearly zero fifteen years back to more than $15 billion today. However, India’s multibillion S-400 deal is a “cause of concern” to Washington because it is a relatively new and state-of-the-art weapons system(Seethi 2018).

It’s almost sure that the Trump administration would come up with fresh demands for ‘fresh’ deals to offset the S-400 purchases in the background of apprehensions made by officials. A month ago, in response to a question, Michael R. Pompeo, Secretary of State said that “We are working to impose CAATSA Section 231 in a way that is appropriate and lawful and to exercise that waiver authority only where it makes sense. And we as a team, the national security team, will work on that, and as we continue to have these conversations with India about that, I think come to an outcome that makes sense for each of our two countries” (U.S. Department of State 2018a).  In a special briefing later, a Senior State Department Official said that “The CAATSA was not intended to take down the economy of third party countries. It’s intended to impose appropriate pressures on Russia in response to Russian malign acts, and we have it on very good authority from the office of the statute itself that they expect that we will implement it in ways that are appropriate in light of consultations with all of the parties involved.” “As to other potential recipients of the S-400, we haven’t made any determinations yet with respect to what to do about those, but you can be confident that we have spent an enormous amount of time talking about prospective purchases of things such as S-400s and Sukhois with people all around the world who may have been interested in such things and some who may still be. We have made it very clear to them that these – that systems like the S-400 are a system of key concern with potential CAATSA implications. Members of Congress have also publicly said that they believe any transfer of an S-400 to anybody would constitute a significant transaction… (U.S. Department of State 2018c). Moreover, thus, the US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo did not give any assurance regarding the waiver during their visit to Delhi in September(Seethi 2018).

Even as Trump continued with his trade war against China, he described India as ‘tariff king’ and sought to have a trade deal with the US to keep him happy. This obviously caused diplomatic alarm in New Delhi.  In such a context, India’s attempts to improve relations with both Russia and China hold importance. According to the Joint Statement, “India gives top priority to its relations with Russia. In this rapidly changing world our relations have become more relevant.”  It further noted:

From human resource development to natural and energy resources, from trade to investment, from the peaceful cooperation of nuclear energy to solar energy, from technology to tiger conservation, from arctic to far East, and from sea to space, there will be an even greater expansion of India-Russia relations. This expansion will take our cooperation ahead of the few selected areas of the past.  India and Russia are unanimous in strengthening multi-polarity and multilateralism in this rapidly changing world. Both our countries have common interests in cooperating on terrorism, developments in Afghanistan and Indo-Pacific, climate change, regional organizations like SCO, BRICS and multilateral organizations like the G20 and ASEAN. We have agreed to continue our beneficial cooperation and coordination in international institutions (India, Ministry of External Affairs 2018).

There are also subjects in the Joint Statement which might not get the appreciation of the Trump administration. For example, both India and Russia reaffirmed their  commitment “for a political resolution of the conflict in Syria, through an inclusive Syrian-led, Syrian-owned political process which safeguards the state sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of Syria in pursuance of United Nations Security Council Resolution 2254 (2015).” Both countries also underlined “the importance of the full and effective implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) on the Iranian nuclear programme in order to support international peace and security, to strengthen non-proliferation regime and to develop normal economic cooperation with Iran. They called for all issues related to the Iranian nuclear programme to be resolved peacefully and through dialogue” (Ibid).

The trade between the two countries is also assuming a new dimension. During 2017-18, it has grown by 20 percent. India and Russia also “reviewed the progress on the achievement of the goal to increase two-way investment to USD 30 billion by the year 2025.”  The two sides also expressed their “support to promoting bilateral trade in national currencies.” A number of areas were identified to improve progress such as mining, metallurgy, power, oil & gas, railways, pharmaceuticals, Information Technology, chemicals, infrastructure, automobile, aviation, space, shipbuilding, manufacturing of different equipment, civil nuclear cooperation, etc. India and Russia also “underscored the vital importance of increasing connectivity between them” and   “called for the development of the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC)” (Ibid).

Admittedly, the Joint Statement, which also noted India’s growing interest in BRICS and Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), could be a signal to Washington that New Delhi cannot be intimidated with any unilateral action on crucial issues. Given the range of international issues being considered at the Summit, it appears that the Modi Government is all set to play a strategic bargain with the global powers in an uncertain configuration of world politics (Seethi 2018).

The responses from Washington and Beijing are in predictable lines. President Trump is reported to have said that India would soon hear from him about the possible American reply to the deal. China went a step further and agreed to sell a batch of military-grade drones defying American warnings against military transactions with Moscow. Pakistan’s air force said Islamabad and Beijing would jointly produce 48 Wing Loong II UCAVs – unmanned combat aerial vehicles manufactured by China’s  Chengdu Aircraft Industry Group (The Economic Times 10 October 2018). A likely scenario is that the strategic arms buildup in the Indian subcontinent will get a further push, and both India and Pakistan will be poised to accelerate the arms spiral with unpredictable consequences.


India, Ministry of External Affairs (2018): “India-Russia Joint Statement during visit of President of Russia to India, October 05,

Seethi, K.M. (2018):”Modi’s Push for a Multilateral world,” Madras Courier, 11 October,

U.S. Department of State (2018a): “Remarks to the Press,” by  Michael R. Pompeo, Secretary of State, U.S. Embassy, New Delhi, India, September 6.

U.S. Department of State (2018b): “Sanctions under Section 231 of the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act of 2017 (CAATSA), Press Statement of Heather Nauert, Department Spokesperson Washington, DC.,” September 20.

U.S. Department of State (2018c): “Previewing Sanctions Under Section 231 of the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act of 2017 (CAATSA), Special Briefing, Senior State Department Officials, September 20, 2018,


The author is Dean of Social Sciences and Professor, School of International Relations and Politics, Mahatma Gandhi University, Kerala.  The details of his profile are available @ Prof Seethi can be reached at




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