Great game in Washington? India dancing with the US bison, hugging the Russian bear


Abhijit Majumder

is a senior Indian journalist who has been the editor of national dailies like Mid Day, Hindustan Times (Delhi and NCR editions) and Mail Today.

New Delhi must balance brave, new alliance with old, trusted friendship as India & US begin ‘2+2’ talks in Washington.

At the G20 summit in Buenos Aires in November 2018, India held two trilateral meetings with interesting acronyms. One was called JAI, comprising Japan, America and India. The other was RIC, involving Russia, India and China.

It was a rare diplomatic feat. It showed how in the modern world, one can balance two extremely influential but diametrically opposite geopolitical formations.

As India’s defense and external affairs ministers, Rajnath Singh and S Jaishankar, enter the room today for two-plus-two talks with their US counterparts, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary Mark Esper, India will be walking that fine line again.

On a delicate see-saw will be India’s strong, new-world relationship with the US, and its warmest, decades-old friendship with Russia.

Moscow chill in Washington?

There is talk that Washington may not be exactly happy with the several strategic and defense deals New Delhi has reached lately with Moscow, wading through thickets of sanctions by the US.

A degree of unease has already crept in after the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, a controversial body funded by American taxpayers’ money, tried to pressure India with sanctions after calling its new Citizenship Amendment Act discriminatory towards Muslims.

But more importantly, the Americans may raise questions about deals that India has signed with Russia, while almost nothing major has been inked with the US in the last three years. There are reports that India may sign a technology-sharing deal with the US, as well as closing in on Boeing’s Poseidon-P81 maritime aircraft for $3 billion and 24 naval MH-60 Romeo helicopters for $2.6 billion.

But what may add a degree of chill to the two-plus-two dialogue is that India has already sealed a $5.4 billion deal for S-400 air-defense missile systems, four frigates for $2.1 billion, and a $3 billion contract to lease a nuclear submarine. All with Russia.

A friendship old and distilled

While Indo-Russian relations are all-weather, multi-purpose and of Soviet-era vintage, Russian weapons and technology still form the backbone of India’s defense.

From a joint venture in building the lethal BrahMos to buying the S-400 air-defense systems, India’s missiles firmly have a Russian touch.

The Indian Air Force fleet has 14 Sukhoi squadrons, or nearly 300 aircraft. Almost the entire Indian Army tank fleet (except the indigenously developed Arjun) comprises Russian T-72s and T-90s.

India has one Russian-made nuclear submarine and is getting two more. Russia is involved in India’s indigenous nuclear submarine program. India’s transport aircraft fleet includes Russian Antonov and Ilyushin.

Old and new ties must co-exist

The US must have realized that coercion through sanctions does not always work well. India may do well to bring up at the dialogue the vicious threats of USCIRF and what it does to an otherwise blooming global cooperation.

And the US may dislike it or advise against it, but it is not in India’s interests to break its military continuity with Russia. And hypothetically, even if India decides to disentangle from Russia, it would logistically take at least two to three decades to do so just on the defense front.

India has got world-class equipment, weapons and technology, as well as dependable service from Russia, at very competitive costs. The two nations traditionally share a certain trust. While the US ties are of utmost importance for India, there is no reason for it to put all its eggs in one basket.



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