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International relations

India and Russia move forward with missile deal in blow to Biden

New Delhi to dispatch 100 personnel to train on S-400 anti-aircraft system

Russian S-400 missile air defense systems are seen during a training exercise at a military base in Kaliningrad region, Russia.   © Reuters

NEW DELHI/MOSCOW -- India will send dozens of soldiers to Russia for training on an anti-aircraft missile system that it has agreed to purchase, a move that likely will not sit well with the U.S., which has positioned New Delhi as a key partner in its Indo-Pacific strategy.

India's military will send about 100 personnel to Russia as the arms contract will soon be executed, Russian Ambassador to India Nikolay Kudashev said last week, according to Russia's Tass news agency. One missile unit is expected to be delivered this year, with the system to be expanded over several years.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi agreed to buy Russia's S-400 mobile surface-to-air missile system in a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2018. Indian media reported the value of the deal at $5.4 billion for five units, with part of the payment made in 2019.

The S-400 has a range of several hundred kilometers and is capable of shooting down ballistic missiles. India is rushing to build up its military in part because its dispute with China has dragged on. It has been in a standoff with Beijing over a disputed border since last May, with Indian troops killed the next month in a clash with Chinese soldiers for the first time in 45 years.

India's foreign ministry spokesperson said the deal to purchase the S-400 is "guided by our national security interests."

The sale is likely to be a sore point in Indo-U.S. relations, with Russia advancing military collaboration with India. Moscow is a subject of censure from the West for its treatment of an opposition leader and his supporters. If the deal with India goes smoothly, Russia can mitigate its isolation in the international community.

It also appears Russia seeks to strike a balance with China, which has become Moscow's largest trading partner.

India's purchase of the S-400 risks chilling relations with U.S. President Joe Biden, whose administration started last week. The White House under former President Donald Trump has repeatedly urged India to reconsider that deal due to the sanctions Washington has imposed on Russia.

The U.S. has already issued sanctions against Turkey over its purchase of the S-400. Turkey first deployed the weapons system in July 2019. The U.S. was against the transaction due to fears that sensitive military secrets may leak out of Turkey, which is part of NATO.

Washington warned repeatedly that it will not approve deals with Russia in the defense sector. By the end of last year, the U.S. enacted sanctions against Turkey based on the legislation authorizing sanctions against Russia.

India has traditionally relied on Russia for the import of weapons. On the other hand, the South Asian nation is part of the so-called Quad alliance with the U.S., Japan, and Australia that will pursue a "free and open Indo-Pacific" as a counterweight against China's expansionism.   

In October, India and the U.S. held a two-plus-two meeting between their respective diplomatic and defense chiefs. The two sides agreed to share sensitive satellite data. The arrangement would grant India access to accurate intelligence regarding the location Chinese personnel stationed at the restive border region, as well as their military installations.

The use of weapons goes hand-in-hand with state secrets, and the U.S. regards Russia as a hostile nation. Washington will absolutely not welcome India deploying Russian-made weapons, said Indian military analyst Samuel Rajiv.

The prospect of India's S-400 procurement impacting Biden's policy toward India cannot be ruled out. In 2019 and 2020, large demonstrations erupted after the Indian government passed a controversial citizenship law that critics say discriminates against Muslims.

The Indian government is bracing for how Biden's focus on human rights will affect U.S. policy toward India. The situation calls for minimizing the frictions that can potentially emerge from the deployment of the S-400.

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