From Russia, with Triumf

From Russia, with Triumf

The US and China will be keenly watching what happens between Delhi and Moscow when Putin comes calling next week

Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a meeting via teleconference on the situation of coal mining enterprises in Kuzbass, at the Kremlin in Moscow. Credit: AFP Photo

On December 6, Russian President Vladimir Putin will fly to Delhi for a long-overdue in-person bilateral summit with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Putin, who was reluctant to travel abroad due to the rising tide of the fourth (or is it the fifth) wave of the coronavirus in Russia and the rest of Europe, is making an exception by visiting New Delhi to not just hand over the hugely capable anti-missile system S-400 Triumf and seal the sale of other military equipment but also to craft a strategy, following the US departure from Afghanistan, to stabilise the turbulent region. A China suspicious of Russia’s policy towards India will be watching Putin’s visit to Delhi closely. 

For India, President Putin’s visit is important as it could provide a significant escape route from the diplomatic and strategic logjam it finds itself in after the US left Afghanistan and handed over the reins of power to Taliban. An aggressive China and a Pakistan feeling triumphant after the Taliban marched into Kabul have exacerbated New Delhi’s problems. 

So, besides the Uttar Pradesh and Punjab elections being presented as the reason for repealing the farm laws, Putin’s upcoming Delhi visit, too, had a role to play in that decision. 

Authoritative sources claim that Putin’s security detail was uncomfortable with the prospect of the farmers’ protests escalating during his visit. The Modi government chose to repeal the farm laws rather than allow a repetition of the violence in Delhi during former US President Donald Trump’s visit to India during the anti-CAA protests or the cancellation of the Japanese PM’s visit to Delhi. 

Ignoring the threat of US sanctions under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) if it bought the S-400 system (India wants to buy five units of the anti-missile system for Rs 40,000 crore), India is walking an extra mile to assert its strategic autonomy and to make Putin’s visit a success. 

When will CAATSA become operational? A US official said: “As soon as you make payment in dollars or Euros to Russia through the SWIFT route, the sanctions will come into force.” 

Well, the Indian government paid the first tranche in rupees and has so far avoided sanctions. Indian diplomats gloat over the manner in which they plan to pay the rest of the amount for the purchase of the S-400 Triumf systems, considered the world’s best anti-missile system currently. 

Interestingly, India is not the only one that is worried about CAATSA. The US administration, too, fears that these sanctions -- if they are not waived -- would undermine the strategic/diplomatic investment it has made on India. A delegation of concerned US Congressmen was in Delhi to explore ways out of the S-400 imbroglio as sanctions could lead to cancellation of many US deals with India. 

Be that as it may, what is apparent is that from a geopolitical standpoint, there are now too many moving pieces after the US left Afghanistan. Contrary to the view that Russia and China are together on Afghanistan, New Delhi has been sensing differences between the two countries. During the regional security conference hosted by National Security Adviser Ajit Doval in November, what was visible was the anxiety amongst participating countries over how the Afghanistan issue will play out under the Taliban. 

China and Pakistan’s refusal to accept the invitation for the Delhi conference allowed countries like Tajikistan and Russia to talk candidly about the enormity of the threat the new arrangement meant to the region. And Russians know Afghanistan -- after its precursor state, the Soviet Union, occupied it for 10-odd years. They fought against Afghan extremism and know how the Central Asian countries could get destabilised due to rising religious radicalisation and drug-smuggling. 

Contrary to the stated position of China, Secretary of the Security Council of Russia, Nikolai Patrushev, reportedly was quite uneasy about the change in Kabul. While Moscow is happy that the Americans have left the region, it does not want to give the Taliban and Pakistan a free run. In the coming days, the Russians are likely to collaborate with India, Iran and other Central Asian powers to put the Taliban in its place. The big question is, how will Russia align its anti-Taliban/anti-Islamic State campaign with Beijing’s view of the region? 

Pakistan had hoped that China would financially bail out Afghanistan after America’s departure, but no such thing has happened. According to Elizabeth  Wishnick, an American scholar writing in the defence and security website ‘War on the Rocks’, “Russian engagement with India in Central Asia and Afghanistan will show which partnership — the Sino-Russian partnership or Russia’s longstanding relationship with India — takes pride of place and how Russia copes with their competing demands.” 

The Indian government believes that Putin not just provides an opportunity to fix its Afghanistan and Iran policy, but he could also help in managing the territorial challenge posed by a belligerent China. 

There are quiet whispers in Delhi that Putin may play the role of an honest broker to bring Chinese President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Narendra Modi together during the Winter Olympics in Beijing. If indeed that happens, then two things will become clear: One, India would have moved away from the US, and two, it would have drawn closer to the Asia-centric endeavours of Putin and Xi Jinping.  However, much would depend on what the US does about India’s S-400 deal. By the look of it, the US may not allow India to leave its embrace – and New Delhi knows that too well! 

(The writer is the Editor of ‘Hardnews’ magazine)