It was a staring contest with the US and India won it fair and square. In the weeks leading up to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s arrival in India for the annual summit between the two nations, Washington had been threatening and cajoling India not to go ahead with the purchase of S-400 Triumf missiles from Russia, or else it could face harsh sanctions.

Nevertheless, on Friday, Russia and India inked the $5.5 billion S-400 deal, equipping India with one of the most advanced air defense systems in the world and bringing it on par with China. And, as if to rub it in to the US, India also bought some more defense material from Russia — four frigates, an undeclared number of Kamov KA-226 transport helicopters, and another agreement to manufacture 200 Kamovs in India. The total value of the defense deals exceeds $10 billion. There are also reports that India could lease its third nuclear-powered submarine from Russia.

Besides the defense deals, India and Russia also strengthened their ongoing cooperation in the nuclear power sector, as well as in various other civil domains like skill development, education and culture. The reaction from Washington was rather muted and it appears that, finally, the US’s bluff on sanctions has been called successfully by India, for which it is essential to keep a strategic balance in its relations with both the US and Russia.

Even though the last few years have seen a lot of traction and development in Indo-US relations, New Delhi knows it would be ill-advised to forsake its ties with Russia, which has proven to be its most reliable global partner since Indian independence in 1947.

Until about a decade ago, India sourced nearly three-quarters of all its military equipment from Russia, not least because Moscow was the only country that allowed the licensed manufacture of practically all its military purchases by India — be it the Sukhoi Su-30 aircraft or T-72 tanks — and this trend continues today with the Kamov helicopters. Other defense suppliers have been far more reticent in allowing full technology transfers to India. A recent example of this reluctance was seen in the purchase of Rafale fighter jets from France, another key defense supplier to India. Even though New Delhi had sought to buy 126 Rafales, with 108 of them being made in India, the French preferred to have a smaller deal of 36 fighters, all sold in fly-away condition to India.

The latest meeting between India and Russia should bring a sigh of relief in Moscow as well as New Delhi, as the relationship seems to be back on track and strong enough to weather the recent turbulence.

Ranvir Nayar

Russia had also brushed away the imposition of numerous sanctions, including dual-use technologies, by Western nations following the 1998 nuclear tests conducted by India. At the time, many countries, led by the US, had roundly criticized India for “sparking a nuclear arms race in the volatile South Asian region” and imposed numerous sanctions that stayed in place for nearly four years.

Incidentally, it was only a matter of months after the nuclear tests that India and Russia reached an agreement on the construction of Russian nuclear power reactors in India. This act of defiance of the West by Russia was yet another occasion when Moscow had stood solidly by New Delhi, irrespective of pressure from other countries. Russia has also been a vocal supporter of India’s claim for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council.

However, these ties have been facing challenges over the last decade or so, as India improved its relations with the US and the latter began supplying key defense equipment to India. But, more than New Delhi’s military purchases from the US, Russia seems to have been perturbed by clear signs of India being sucked into a tighter American embrace, with the two nations signing a logistics agreement that allows the use of each other’s military bases, as well as the numerous military exercises that India has been conducting not only with the US, but also its other allies in the Asia Pacific region, including Japan and Australia. Though these joint exercises are meant to be primarily targeting China, Russia has not been at ease either.

While India seemed to be drifting into the US orbit, Russia was busy rebuilding its ties with China, which had been tepid for more than 50 years, and especially since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Over the last five years, Putin has been trying — and succeeding to some extent — to exploit the growing tension in the relations between the US and China. As a counterbalance to US domination in Asia Pacific, the Russians allowed the Chinese, for the first time since the 1960s, access to its latest defense equipment, including the S-400 missiles and Su-35 fighter jets.

While Russia was targeting the US through rebuilding ties with China, India became extremely worried about the growing proximity between the two former communist states. The two Asian giants have already fought a war in 1962 and have had a rather tenuous relationship over the last few years, and not only because of China’s overt support of Pakistan.

However, the latest meeting between Indian and Russian leaders should bring a sigh of relief in Moscow as well as New Delhi, as the relationship seems to be back on track and strong enough to weather the recent turbulence.

  • Ranvir S. Nayar is managing editor of Media India Group, a global platform based in Europe and India, which encompasses publishing, communication, and consultation services. The op-ed first appeared at
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