India, Russia seek to evade US sanctions and bolster defense cooperation


During the high-profile summit, the two sides are expected to follow up on acquiring five S-400 ‘Triumph’ missile systems, four Project 11356 frigates, 48 Mi-17V-5 helicopters and 200 Ka-226T helicopters from Russia, which might ruffle feathers in the power corridors of Washington.

New Delhi is hoping to build on the momentum of the successful summit held in Sochi in May this year between President Putin and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Earlier this month (September 13-14), India’s External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj also made a whirlwind visit to Russia to prepare the ground for the upcoming summit.

Following the visit, which was her third visit to Moscow in less than a year, Swaraj asserted that India attaches “highest importance” to its relations with Russia. “This partnership has strengthened over time and covers a vast agenda involving almost all sphere of human activity. India attaches the highest importance to its relations with Russia,” she said.

However, the ominous shadow of the US hangs heavily over the growing defense cooperation between India and Russia. The Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) passed last year by the US Congress imposes sanctions on some Russian companies and customers, which might affect the defense deal between New Delhi and Moscow.

India will need exemptions from CAATSA to buy the S-400 Triumf missile defense system as well as frigates and helicopters.

Pertinently, the issue of defense cooperation between India and Russia had figured during the 2+2 dialogue between India and the US in New Delhi earlier this month. According to sources, India had strongly put across its case to the visiting US delegation, which includes Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary James Mattis, and asked for a waiver on the acquisition of S-400 missiles from Russia.

“The good news for Moscow is that India, which follows an independent foreign policy, is likely to retain its defense ties with Russia,” Aleksei Zakharov, a  visiting fellow at New Delhi-based Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses, wrote in a paper last week. “With the Moscow-Washington relationship in a downward spiral, Indian diplomacy will require a masterful approach in its interactions with the two.”

Zakharrov further stated that a closer engagement with the US is a challenge for India, as this relationship is “not likely to be a partnership of equals”. “Washington is dominating the agenda of bilateral cooperation and even imposing pressure on New Delhi’s policies. The demands to cut off oil imports from Iran and halt the purchase of Russian military equipment are cases in point.”

Speaking to media on the sidelines of the UN Summit in New York last week, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said India will make a “sovereign decision” on Russian defense purchases, which are facing possible US sanctions.

“I understand that India will be taking sovereign decision (on) how to proceed and what kind of weapons it needs,” he said at a news conference on Friday.

On the question if proposed $8.5 billion defense deal with Russia, expected to be signed next week during President Putin’s visit to India, was on hold, Lavrov said: “I haven’t heard anything about the timing, about postponement, about putting anything on hold.”

In India, the opinion in intelligentsia, media and policy circles seems to be heavily tilted in favor of India’s ties with Russia. Brahma Chellenay, a geostrategic and commentator, in an interview with Tehran Times recently, said the ties between Russia and India should not be affected by US sanctions.

“Russia is a tried and tested friend of India. Although the US has now become the largest seller of arms to India, Russia remains important to India’s interests. India has made it clear to the US that it will go ahead with the S-400 purchase and other defense deals with Russia,” he asserted.



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