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Wednesday February 28, 2024

India’s strategic dilemma

March 11, 2022

India’s balancing act on Ukraine has so far only satisfied the Russian side, a time-tested partner and its largest supplier of weapons.

While the US and EU leadership has been urging India’s support for their measures against Russia, the Indian position of neutrality is shocking for the West. But India’s silence is loud and will prove costly in times ahead.

Earlier, there were no indications of the Biden Administration sanctioning the Russia-India S-400 deal but, given the nature and extent of sanctions being imposed on Russia following its military invasion of Ukraine, it appears the S-400 deal won’t be spared from sanctions. With this, the future of India’s S-400 deal has not only become uncertain, its broad defence and strategic relations with Russia too are in jeopardy. The deployment of the first regiment of the Russian made S-400 Triumf long-range missile system has already begun and it will take just a few more weeks to complete the process. India will get five units of S-400 missile defence system in total under a whopping $5.43 billion deal signed in October 2018.

Although the induction of the S-400 system will further augment India’s military capabilities, its adverse impact on South Asia’s fragile security environment is rather frightening. If the deal goes unchecked by the US sanctioning regime, it will not only put a question mark on the credibility of US laws but will also further encourage the hawkish Indian leadership to pursue more aggressive military designs in the region, especially against Pakistan. A fragile South Asia can no longer afford another costly arms race involving India and Pakistan.

S-400 deployment will provide a major boost to India’s air defence capacity as the weapon system is designed to neutralise assets from over 400 km away. The system is equipped with multi-faceted capabilities such as multifunction radar, autonomous detection and targeting systems, anti-aircraft missile systems, and command and control centre which is capable of firing three types of missiles to create a layered defence.

Although the Russian-made defense system is one of the finest in the world, the agreement raises serious obstacles to political-military relations between Washington and New Delhi. The S-400 deal with Russia can leave India vulnerable to US sanctions under the Countering America’s Adversaries through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), which specifically targets Russia, Iran, and North Korea. The US has already imposed sanctions on countries for buying S-400. Turkey, a Nato ally, and China have bought the missiles and been sanctioned for it.

India is confident that it will get a waiver from the Biden Administration for its S-400 deal due to the overwhelming strategic convergence between New Delhi and Washington on the so-called Chinese threat. However, given the Russian military offence in Ukraine, the S-400 deal won’t be an easy ride for India. India’s Western allies, particularly the US, have been disappointed at the Indian response so far. Last month, India abstained from a vote on the Ukraine issue in the UN Security Council which called for finding a solution that takes into account “the legitimate security interests of all countries and aimed towards securing long term peace and stability in the region and beyond.” India once again abstained in a vote in the UN Human Rights Council that has decided to urgently establish an independent international commission of inquiry as a result of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. India has also failed to condemn Russia’s statement of recognition of the separatist regions of Donetsk and Luhansk.

India’s position of neutrality was nothing short of shock not just for its Western allies but also for the Ukrainian people who expected a responsible position. Ukrainian envoy to India Igor Polikha, expressing his country’s dissatisfaction on Indian response stated: “I am following all the reports from the side of your ministry and the latest advisory to your citizens in Ukraine was just not to go out, not to go to Kyiv, and the statement of your minister of external affairs was that India is closely following development of events. We are deeply dissatisfied with their positions.”

The US and EU have imposed the toughest economic and human-centric sanctions in the history of Russian financial institutions and its leadership. The West aims to cripple Russia economically with a broad set of sanctions. India, which enjoys a broad defence relation with Russia, is caught in a strategic dilemma with both of its key partners on both sides. With mounting pressure from the US bloc, India’s position of neutrality is no longer seen as neutral.

Despite the potential risk of US sanctions, India and Russia last year signed more than two dozen deals, including a 10-year defence cooperation pact. The pact includes upgradation of defence cooperation, and facilitation of joint development and production of military equipment, components and spare parts. In addition, bilateral projects between India and Russia include indigenous production of T-90 tanks and Su-30-MKI aircraft, supply of MiG-29-K aircraft and Kamov-31 and Mi-17 helicopters, upgrade of MiG-29 aircraft.

With growing tensions between Moscow and the West over Ukraine, Russia-India defence ties will face both immediate and long-term impacts of the new sanctions. The Indian position will also undermine its global role in the US-led security block, Quad, and subsequently India’s aspiration to become an important global player. The Russia-Ukrainian conflict has also tarnished India’s global image as a responsible power. Above all, India’s position on this conflict is strengthening belief in the West that India is an unreliable partner.

The writer is a senior research officer at the Center for International Strategic Studies. He can be reached at: yasirhunzai1@gmail.com