By P Venkata Rao
New Delhi. India and Russia are friends for a long time and the trajectory that a few years ago appeared to be flat took an upward shift October 5 with the successful visit of President Vladimir Putin to India.
On the face of it, the visit was part of the annual Summit meeting both countries were having for over a decade and yet this year the talks Prime Minister Narendra Modi had with President Putin was special for more than one reason.
One, it came in the backdrop of the unusual informal Summit Prime Minister Modi had with President Putin at Sochi in May this year and second, but more importantly, both the United States of America as well as the rest of the world were watching whether New Delhi goes ahead and signs the $5.5 Billion Triumf S-400 air defence system agreement amid impending threat of sanctions from Washington for buying major equipment from Russia.
New Delhi told Washington that the Indo-US ties were important and strategically significant, but it would not be possible to renege on agreements at least already reached with Russia, the threat of sanctions for doing trade with Russia notwithstanding. India went ahead to give its assent to the deal that defence planners of the country emphasise will make a huge difference in altering the country’s air defence capability to prevent any incoming attacks from hostile neighbours or powers that may turn hostile.
The deal in a way conveyed to the world what New Delhi’s strategic decision makers in the South Block, which houses the offices of the Prime Minister, External Affairs and Defence ministries, continue to maintain the policy of strategic autonomy in India’s engagement with major powers of the world.
Just last month New Delhi told Washington its intention to go ahead with the defence hardware deal with Moscow, both in terms of its requirements and the fact that its defence purchases go back to seven decades. Then, India lives in the shadow of a terrible terror-infested neighbourhood.
The Indian stance had figured at the 2+2 format talks between the Ministers of Foreign Affairs and Defence of both the countries recently in New Delhi.
Prime Minister’s National Security Adviser Ajit Doval had also visited Washington to say that the US should not put sanctions against India under its ‘Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act’ (CAATSA) for dealing with Russia and Iran.
Doval interacted with top officials in the Trump administration, impressing upon them the strategic and security importance of both the weapons system and oil from Iran. As it is, the oil market is turbulent and bad for heavy oil consumers like India, and if New Delhi was to stop buying oil from Teheran, India’s economy would suffer further.
Interestingly, the US frowned upon a decision by Turkey, its NATO ally, when it attempted to purchase the S-400 air defence missiles from Russia, cautioning that it would attract the sanctions.
Of course, India is in a different category what with the US Congress passing a legislation allowing country-specific waivers for India along with Vietnam after the President notifies the Congress that these countries were scaling down defence procurements from Russia.
Pronouncements from US officials till the deal was signed offered no solution or a way out and it is precisely for this reason alone that the Indian decision underscored it will chart its own independent course irrespective of the threat of sanctions.
In fact, it was not just the S-400 that India decided to buy from Russia. Delegation level talks covered four Krivak-class frigates worth $2 billion and 200 light utility Kamov Ka-226T helicopters pegged at $1 billion, to be indigenously made through HAL. India and Russia have already concluded an Inter-Governmental Agreement for the helicopters, 60 of which would be built in Russia and the rest in the southern Indian state of Karnataka at a new HAL facility.
Although during the last decade, the US has emerged as a leading military hardware supplier to India with deals over $10 Billion, the Russians continue to enjoy advantage for Russia has been the oldest weapons and weapons- systems supplier. The latest deal should restore some of the imbalance with Russia in this sector alone as both countries are moving towards achieving an ambitious trade target do $50 Billion by 2025.
On this trip, President Putin, also addressed the India-Russia Business Summit attended by leading business leaders and top honchos.
There were discussions for a possible second Russian-built nuclear power plant in India. Moscow is currently expanding India’s biggest nuclear power plant in Kudankulam.
With PM Modi announcing India’s intention to send its first crewed space mission by 2022, marking the country’s 75th year of Independence, Russia is one of the top favorites to assist New Delhi and Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) in this very ambitious programme.
India-Russia space collaboration goes back to four decades with the country’s first satellite Aryabhatta put in space by the then Soviet Union and later in carrying India’s only cosmonaut, Squadron Leader Rakesh Sharma in 1984.
Sharma’s response “Saare Jahan se Achha” from Soyuz spacecraft to then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to how does India appear from space still rings in the ears of all those who heard it then.