Why No Mention of S-400 By Modi During Putin’s Recent Visit?

Video Editor: Mohd Ibrahim
Video Producer: Sonal Gupta
Camerperson: Sumit Badola

What’s common among Barack Obama, Xi Jinping, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Sheikh Hasina, Shinzo Abe, Benjamin Netanyahu, and Emmanuel Macron? Prime Minister Modi broke protocol to personally receive them at the airport.

And now, what’s common between Justin Trudeau and Vladimir Putin? Modi stayed with protocol and away from the tarmac when they landed in India.

This visible ambiguity around Putin’s visit was amplified when India bought the 5-billion-dollar S-400 air defence missile system, but made very little hoopla around it. In fact, Modi, who never misses a trick to talk up his hard/militaristic nationalism, skipped any mention of S-400 at the joint press conference. Our External Affairs Ministry even omitted mentioning this landmark weapons acquisition in the list of documents signed. It was relegated to a nondescript line in the joint statement. Lutyens’ legend has it that National Security Advisor Ajit Doval wanted to hang the deal to keep Washington in good humour, but Putin leaned hard on Modi to get it over the finish line!

Clearly, President Donald Trump’s sanctions were hanging heavily over the ceremonies. Adding to the uncertainty was the invisible threat of the Dragon, as China draws Russia into an anti-West embrace.

For people like me, who grew up in the 1960s/70s, at the peak of the Cold War, the contrast could not have been starker. Then, a Brezhnev-Indira Summit used to be an emphatic, assertive “celebration of defiance”, gleefully cocking an Asian snook at America. But on Friday, 5 October, the Putin-Modi Summit was exerting hard to fly under the US radar.

So, what’s the future of the Indo-Russian relationship? Is there substance left in this once amorous union? Remember how the Indo-Soviet Friendship Treaty had riled up Uncle Sam?

A Peek Into Recent History

Let’s begin with a quick peep into recent history. When the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991, so, too, did our relationship, which has centered mainly on military hardware, making it more utilitarian than 'all-weather.'

At the same time, India has grown steadily closer to the US. The 9/11 terrorist attacks reinvigorated the friendship, as our interests coalesced around fighting Islamic extremism, in addition to stopping China’s aggressive rise. The 2008 nuclear deal only strengthened the bond.

Alarmed by the rapid Indo-US convergence, Russia began assiduously cultivating closer economic and strategic ties not just to China but to Pakistan as well. Moscow has stepped up its sale of military equipment to Pakistan, including attack helicopters; adding salt to the wound, they conducted joint military exercises – known as 'Druzhba,' or 'Friendship' – immediately after the attack at Uri.

India-Russia Relationship: Frayed, But Comforting

But Russia also knows that it has nothing to gain from alienating India. Despite Moscow’s growing ties to Beijing, the Kremlin still sees India as a hedge against Chinese hegemony. Which explains Russia’s staunch support of India’s bid for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council – and more recently, of its membership in the Nuclear Suppliers Group. Moscow still supplies the bulk of the weapons we import – 62 percent between 2013 and 2017, according to SIPRI.

There are plenty of other areas ripe for expanded collaboration between us as well, including space exploration, scientific research, technology exchanges, nuclear energy, counter-terrorism efforts, and joint manufacturing. Our relationship is like an old security blanket: frayed, but still comforting in times of trouble.

The Americans may not like it, but they will have to tolerate it. China has increased its purchase of Russian weapons, including war planes and the ubiquitous S-400, and the two countries have stepped up their joint military exercises. Their strengthening partnership has the potential to dramatically alter the global power dynamic, threatening all, principally America, Europe, Japan and India. And no one is better positioned than India to serve as a check on the Sino-Russia axis, to keep Russia from getting too close to China.

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