On October 4-5, 2018, Russian President Vladimir Putin will visit India. One of the main expectations from the summit is associated with the likely signing of an agreement on the purchase by India of the Russian S-400 Triumf air defense system. What is behind this contract, what forces tried to prevent it, and should the Russian-Indian cooperation be limited only by the military field?
Russian-Indian summits became regular annual events, taking place on a parity basis alternately in India and in Russia. Contacts between the leaders of the two countries are not limited to annual bilateral summits – meetings also take place at other venues, given that the two great Eurasian powers are members of many influential international organizations and informal associations: SCO, BRICS, and G20. This is not a complete list.
Of course, the main intrigue in connection with the upcoming summit is related to the question of whether the signing of the contract on the purchase of the Russian S-400 really takes place. It is no secret that the United States openly announced that it imposes sanctions against any country that will purchase these air defense systems, and China has already experienced all the “charms” of such position of Washington.
In early September James Mattis, head of the Pentagon, and Michael Pompeo, head of the State Department, visited Delhi to take part in the "2 + 2" ministerial dialogue. The central theme of their conversations with Indian colleagues was precisely the intention of India to buy Russian air defense systems. On the eve of the visit, there were a lot of statements confirming the unchanged position of Washington against all (including India) who intend to purchase the S-400. But immediately after the end of the talks, Secretary of State Pompeo made quite conciliatory statements, meaning that India is too important partner for the United States and Washington would not want to jeopardize these relations by taking some steps that can be viewed in Delhi as hostile. One can only guess what caused Mr. Pompeo to change his position, but it is obvious that an important factor was the firm position of the Indian partners, who are not willing to sacrifice their national interests in favor of third countries.
The US pressure on India (as well as on China, on Turkey and on other countries with a desire to buy Russian weapons) has at least two aspects. One is associated with attempts to create competitive advantages for its own products using political pressure (it is known that the United States offered its Patriot systems to India instead of S-400).
Another aspect is related to long-term strategic geopolitical factors. To include India among its closest allies and promoters of the US policy in Asia is the long-standing dream of Washington strategists. At the same time, the US is trying to play on the common concerns of Washington and Delhi regarding the growing influence of China in the region and in the world. Hence there are attempts to “fasten” India to various formats and alliances with an openly anti-Chinese orientation - in particular, to the quadrilateral USA-Japan-Australia-India alliance. In the same context can be considered the speech of Donald Trump at the UN General Assembly, when he, having “forgotten” even such long-time and experienced allies like Great Britain, mentioned only four countries among the US friends: Israel, Saudi Arabia, Poland and India.
And therein lie the duality of US policy toward India. On the one hand, India, for all its difficulties in its relations with China, is not ready to unconditionally join any alliances openly directed against anyone. Moreover, China remains the main foreign trade partner of India, both countries cooperate fruitfully in multilateral international forums (SCO, BRICS, G20), and on most global issues. Representatives of India and China at the UN vote almost in unison. On the other hand, even voicing poorly concealed threats, the United States is not ready to abandon its long-term strategy, which means that it will not take sharp steps that may be negatively perceived in Delhi.
Therefore, although in the future we cannot exclude new attempts to put pressure on India, the fate of the current Russian-Indian contract has been practically resolved. Moreover, there are reports that Russia and India are going to sign a joint document during the Putin-Modi summit declaring the impermissibility of sanctions bypassing the decisions of the UN Security Council, which can be considered as a warning to Washington to force it to refrain from future pressure.
An objective obstacle to the expansion of economic cooperation between Russia and India remains the lack of reliable land routes between the two countries. The shortest way could pass through the territory of Pakistan (with which India has uneasy relations) and Afghanistan, which for many decades remained a “black hole” of Eurasia. The Russian-Indo-Iranian project of the North-South International Transport Corridor, which is almost ready to start working, is intended to circumvent these problem areas. It is also obvious, that the simultaneous entry of India and Pakistan into the SCO in 2017 can create the prerequisites to smooth the sharp corners in relations between the two countries, as well as to develop a comprehensive regional approach with aim to resolve the situation in Afghanistan. And this will benefit not only the two great powers of Eurasia, India and Russia, but will also contribute to the peace and prosperity of the entire region.