US must not be too hard on India over Modi-Putin summit

By Tara Kartha

There’s going to be a considerable degree of discomfort among officials in Washington as the India-Russia summit takes off in New Delhi on December 6.

Today, almost everyone knows about the S-400s, the air defense system that is causing Washington to threaten sanctions under CAATSA (Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act).

Most American officials are well aware of the Indian military’s dependence on Russia for military operations, particularly now with an aggressive China at the gates.

But military equipment is just one part of a wide-ranging relationship that includes joint production of the Brahmos missile, mass production of AK-203 rifles, and licensed production of Sukhoi-30s among others.

The S-400 deal, however, will tilt the balance. Military experts describe this as an ideal weapon for India, able to handle different ranges, from low-flying stealth aircraft or cruise missiles to some capability against incoming ballistic missiles.

Yet the bilateral relationship is far from stable. On Afghanistan, Russia is leaning towards recognizing the Taliban regime for reasons that include the Taliban’s fierce fight against the ISIS-K that threatens Russia’s Central Asian ‘borders’ and a desire to exert its influence again in the region.

It, therefore, abstained on a US resolution imposing tough conditions on the Taliban. India was ignored in the rush of dialogues, with Pakistan getting far more attention.

Far more unsettling for Moscow is India’s inclusion in the Quad. Russian angst over increased India-US cooperation also hinges on lowering trade with India. This year, bilateral trade was at $1.8 billion as compared to the US, which is Delhi’s largest trading partner, with some $146 billion in bilateral trade in 2019.

The issue of a ‘2+2’ dialogue seems to have been done after Lavrov’s earlier visit in April when the ground was being prepared for ‘deliverables’ for the summit and affirmed in a call between PM Narendra Modi and President Vladimir Putin. That, together with Indian participation in Russian-led military exercises like ‘Zapad’ or even that of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in recent months, seems to be aimed at redressing Russian fears of another ‘bloc’ being formed.

Once the 2+2 format is launched, Delhi could invite Russia to multilateral exercises in the same ‘Quad spirit’, but involving other navies in the region, on the lines of the recently held Goa Symposium by the Indian Navy.

There are fortunately opportune ways of increasing trade, together with a ‘strategic’ add-on. In 2019, India had promised a $1 billion credit line for the development of the Russian Far East. This seems to have only recently been energized with an ‘Energy Office’ opened in March, involving majors like Oil India Limited, Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC), and others.

Why India took so long to advance this is unclear given that South Korea, Japan, and China are already heavily invested there. The Far East project envisages a maritime corridor from Vladivostok to Chennai, which should traverse the Arctic.

That gives India access to the Arctic area, which is seen as the next strategic area of competition, with China already calling itself a ‘Near Arctic State’ much to the annoyance of the Arctic states. Indian investment in much-needed energy projects should help build up trade from the $1 billion it is now, to somewhere close to Russian trade with China which is at $40.207 billion. That’s a catch-up game that will be mutually beneficial.

Meanwhile, Washington has leeway to set CAATSA sanctions aside, as it did on the Germany–Russia pipeline Nord Stream 2 using technical interpretations to circumvent it.

The US needs to realize that an India that can push back against China – which no one yet has – is worth more to the US designs for Asia than a few missiles that have no presence in the maritime region which is the focus area of US-India cooperation.

And finally on Afghanistan, Moscow should heed Foreign Minister S Jaishankar’s speech at the Primakov Institute where he seemed to hint that stability in Afghanistan required India, Russia, and Iran to work together (The Print).

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