Modi’s Delicate Balancing Act

Modi’s twin diplomatic meetings this week underscore how Russia remains a source of discord between the United States and India.

By , a writer and editor who has led multiple award-winning investigations and projects, from the United States and Mexico to India and the Philippines.
A smiling Putin and Modi shake hands.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (right) greets Russian President Vladimir Putin before a meeting at Hyderabad House in New Delhi on Dec. 6. Money Sharma/AFP via Getty Images

As dusk fell on Monday in a chilly New Delhi, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Russian President Vladimir Putin embraced each other and shook hands, posing with wide smiles for photographers. Two hours later, India’s foreign secretary confirmed that the country expects to receive the first of a set of Russian S-400 missile defense systems this month. The defense deal has come to represent new warmth in an old relationship that has frayed in recent years as India drifts toward the United States and Russia drifts toward China.

Yet that symbol of bonhomie is sparking concerns and reviving gnawing questions in Washington over just how much it can trust New Delhi, with which it is cementing a rapidly growing strategic partnership. Consider the optics: Three days after Modi hosted Putin at a sprawling, butterfly-shaped, colonial-era estate in the heart of the Indian capital, the prime minister will join U.S. President Joe Biden’s Summit for Democracy with more than 100 other world leaders.

That virtual conclave is part of Biden’s attempt to craft a global democratic consensus as the antidote to authoritarianism, with China and Russia—both of which have reacted angrily at not being invited—as the unstated targets of the initiative. But while India and the United States view each other as vital partners in combating China’s rise, Modi’s twin diplomatic meetings this week underscore how Russia remains a source of discord between the world’s two largest democracies.

As dusk fell on Monday in a chilly New Delhi, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Russian President Vladimir Putin embraced each other and shook hands, posing with wide smiles for photographers. Two hours later, India’s foreign secretary confirmed that the country expects to receive the first of a set of Russian S-400 missile defense systems this month. The defense deal has come to represent new warmth in an old relationship that has frayed in recent years as India drifts toward the United States and Russia drifts toward China.

Yet that symbol of bonhomie is sparking concerns and reviving gnawing questions in Washington over just how much it can trust New Delhi, with which it is cementing a rapidly growing strategic partnership. Consider the optics: Three days after Modi hosted Putin at a sprawling, butterfly-shaped, colonial-era estate in the heart of the Indian capital, the prime minister will join U.S. President Joe Biden’s Summit for Democracy with more than 100 other world leaders.

That virtual conclave is part of Biden’s attempt to craft a global democratic consensus as the antidote to authoritarianism, with China and Russia—both of which have reacted angrily at not being invited—as the unstated targets of the initiative. But while India and the United States view each other as vital partners in combating China’s rise, Modi’s twin diplomatic meetings this week underscore how Russia remains a source of discord between the world’s two largest democracies.

The United States has repeatedly warned India that it risks facing sanctions under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act if it goes ahead with the purchase of Russia’s S-400 systems. The law, enacted in 2017, punishes those who engage in close economic, military, and technological cooperation with Russia, Iran, and North Korea. But India has made clear it is going ahead with the S-400 purchase despite concerns in Washington that the Russian surface-to-air missile system could compromise the security of U.S. military platforms bought by New Delhi.

So what is India trying to do? To decode the complicated motivations behind New Delhi’s delicate dance with two rival powers and its implications for Washington, analysts said it is critical to first understand how India’s ties with the United States and Russia stack up when compared.

In truth, there’s no comparison at all.

“Yes, there is a clear dichotomy in the fact that India is hosting Putin and then attending the Summit of Democracies later in the week,” said Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan, director of the Centre for Security, Strategy, and Technology at the New Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation. “But it’s important to understand that from India’s perspective, the relationship with the U.S. is what really counts the most. It has grown consistently in recent years, and today, the U.S. is arguably India’s most valuable strategic partner.”

India’s bilateral trade with the United States—at around $80 billion annually—is nearly 10 times the volume with Russia. So far, in the 2021-2022 Indian financial year, the United States is India’s top trade partner while Russia languishes at number 25. Historically, most Indian military platforms have been Russian-made. But as Tara Kartha, a former official at India’s National Security Council Secretariat, told me, “India is increasingly diversifying its military imports to reduce its dependence on Russia.”

Data collated by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute shows Russia’s share in India’s arms imports went down from 70 percent between 2011 and 2015 to 49 percent between 2016 and 2020. Meanwhile, India has sought and secured the U.S. designation of “major defense partner,” which makes it easier for New Delhi to access high tech, sensitive U.S. military technology that would otherwise be subject to stricter export controls.

That long-term shift away from Russian weapons systems is one of the arguments three U.S. Republican senators alluded to when introducing an amendment to make it harder for the Biden administration to sanction India. Along with Japan and Australia, the United States and India are members of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (known as the Quad), a group of democracies at the heart of Washington’s strategic efforts to counter China’s increasingly aggressive positions in the Indo-Pacific.

Still, India’s legacy weapons platforms require Russian maintenance and supplies, so New Delhi needs to maintain a strong military partnership with Moscow. Russia’s willingness to allow the joint production of its trademarked military equipment in India helps Modi, whose most prominent political slogans include calls to build the country’s manufacturing capacity, such as “Make in India” and “Atmanirbhar Bharat” (or self-reliant India). “Why would we say no to them?” Kartha asked. On Monday, the countries agreed to the manufacture of Russian AK-203 rifles at an Indian facility. By contrast, the United States is yet to commit to any defense production in India.

There’s a broad consensus within the Indian strategic community that the Russian S-400 anti-missile system is the best of its kind, though the United States has previously tried to offer U.S. alternatives, such as Lockheed Martin’s terminal high altitude area defense system. “It’s undoubtedly the best-in-class,” said Ajai Malhotra, former Indian ambassador to Moscow, of the Russian platform.

By strengthening Moscow’s presence in the Middle East, Afghanistan, and its own neighborhood in recent years, Russia has also shored up its stature in India as an influential partner. “It would be a folly to underestimate Russian power or its importance for India, especially in an unstable world order,” said Nivedita Kapoor, a postdoctoral fellow in international affairs at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics. Then there are domestic political considerations. The Indian government does not want to be seen as buckling to U.S. pressure on the S-400 deal, said Rajagopalan of the Observer Research Foundation.

Ironically, India’s ability to juggle seemingly incompatible relations—traditionally a source of frustration for Washington—could help the United States, said Sameer Lalwani, a senior fellow in Asia strategy at the Stimson Center. “India’s relationship with Russia burnishes its nonaligned credentials and serves as an example to other countries that want to promote shared interests with the U.S. but that don’t want to appear to pick sides or join a treaty alliance,” he told me. “India shows it can be done. And if India as an independent actor seeks to affirm the rules-based order, that’s a powerful model and an asset to the U.S.”

None of this takes away from the very real risks of this approach to India, the United States, and their relationship. Washington, Kartha said, has understandable concerns about the possibility of the S-400 system tracking U.S. aircraft. However, she points out that India-U.S. military collaboration in the air is likely to stay focused on the Indian Ocean while the Russian anti-missile platform will probably be stationed near India’s troubled northern borders with Pakistan and China.

India, meanwhile, could end up with weapons systems from different sources that struggle to work together seamlessly. “Interoperability of weapons systems, so that many sensors and shooters can essentially communicate with each other, is the future of networked warfare,” Lalwani said. “That’s where India could lose out.” Sanctions against India, he suggested, are unnecessary. “The U.S. does not need to sanction India to remind it of the consequences—that India risks foreclosing some strategic options,” Lalwani said, referring to weapons systems Washington might hesitate to export to India in the future because of fears the S-400 system could be used to spy on the United States. Indeed, former U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton recently argued that any S-400 sanctions waivers for India “must come with clear conditions and requirements.”

Still, there’s strong glue that should help India and the United States overcome these stumbles, experts said: Ultimately, it isn’t democracy that binds them. It’s China.

Several Indian analysts argued that New Delhi’s warm ties with Moscow help keep Russia from sliding even further into China’s arms. “Russia-China relations have never been better than at present,” Malhotra said. “Yet, there is nothing permanent about them, and certain differences in alignment remain.”

But Rajagopalan cautioned that instead of India creating a wedge between China and Russia, Beijing might end up creating a gulf between New Delhi and Moscow. That Russia refuses to acknowledge India’s concerns over China’s increasingly aggressive behavior along the Himalayan border—clashes in the region of Ladakh last year led to the deaths of at least 20 Indian and four Chinese soldiers—serves as a niggling irritant for New Delhi. “India and Russia have opposite positions on China, and that is a source of major stress in the relationship,” Rajagopalan said.

Those tensions were on display Monday in New Delhi, when Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov first praised India for standing up to U.S. pressure on the S-400 system and then attacked the formation of U.S.-led partnerships. “We expressed our serious concern to our Indian friends over the U.S. activity there under the slogan of so-called Indo-Pacific strategies and the creation of closed bloc-type structures,” Lavrov told reporters. He named AUKUS, the security pact the United States, United Kingdom, and Australia signed in September, but context made it clear he was also referring to the Quad, which Lavrov has previously criticized.

Against that backdrop, it’s “wishful thinking” to imagine India can influence Russia’s relations with China, Rajagopalan said. “If Russia had to choose between China and India, it would choose China. It believes it needs a strong voice as a partner on the international stage, and that is China, not India.”

Charu Sudan Kasturi is a writer and editor who has led multiple award-winning investigations and projects, from the United States and Mexico to India and the Philippines. He is the recipient of a Foreign Press Association award, a San Francisco Press Club award, and a Pulitzer fellowship as well as is a Webby nominee. Twitter: @CharuKasturi

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