India and Russia sign arms, trade deals straining tense relationship with US

India and Russia have concluded 28 different deals, including one for the manufacture of 600,000 Russian assault rifles for the Indian Army. New Delhi also signed an agreement on how to respond to cyberattacks on banks. 

Russia's President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi ahead of their meeting at Hyderabad House in New Delhi, India, December 6, 2021.
Russia's President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi ahead of their meeting at Hyderabad House in New Delhi, India, December 6, 2021. REUTERS - ADNAN ABIDI

The accords were made on the margins of a summit between India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Russian President Vladimir Putin during the week and aim to bolster military and trade ties as the countries' leaders met for the first in-person talks since 2019.

Both countries also held their first 2+2 ministerial talks involving defence and foreign ministers, and held a strategic dialogue to discuss reinforcing ties.

Putin’s whirlwind six-hour visit to India happened in the midst of increasingly tense relations between Russia and the United States, also a key Indian ally, which has expressed reservations about the growing military cooperation between Moscow and New Delhi.

Deliveries in progress

India’s foreign secretary Harsh Shringla said during the week that Russia has already started delivering its long-range S-400 surface-to-air missile defense systems to India on the back of a deal the two countries signed in 2018.

That arms deal, worth US$5 billion, has been a major annoyance in India-US ties with the latter threatening sanctions under the Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), which is aimed at reining in Russia.

India's foreign secretary Harsh Shringla said: “S-400 is a legacy contract going back to 2018. Supplies have begun and will continue to happen. We follow an independent foreign policy and decisions are not taken in light of others.”

Addressing the controversy around that deal, Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov, said in his press briefing after the conclusion of the 2+2 dialogue: “S-400 does not just have symbolic meaning. It has important practical meaning for Indian defence capability. The situation is basically underway. The deal is being implemented.”

Strengthening defence pact

A joint statement published after the talks said Russia and India had "reiterated their intention to strengthen defence cooperation, including in the joint development of production of military equipment."

“Both sides are looking forward to the continued increase in the trade and investment trajectory," said Shringla.

Despite the growing proximity, differences persisted in areas like the concept of Indo-Pacific. Lavrov told reporters that under the aegis of the Indo-Pacific, the US and others were creating exclusive blocs including the trilateral Australia-UK-US pact announced in September.

“Putin’s visit to an extent arrested the drift in the relationship between the two nations,” said Harsh Pant, head of the strategic studies program at New Delhi-based think tank Observer Research Foundation.

“I think this visit seems to be a recognition from the top of the two countries that despite the divergences, they do see great value in keeping each other a priority country.”

The two countries have a target of $30 billion in trade and $50 billion in investment by 2025.

India confirmed that issues such as Chinese incursions in Ladakh and the situation in Ukraine did come up during the conversations between India and Russia.

The evolving situation in Afghanistan was also discussed, especially the security situation and its implications for the region, relating to terrorism, radicalisation and drug trafficking.

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