MOSCOW -- The U.S. and Russia are stepping up a battle for arms contracts in the lucrative Indian market, creating an awkward geopolitical triangle with unpredictable consequences.
As the world focused on the coronavirus pandemic last week, Russia revealed that India would purchase an additional 400 T-90S tanks. Dmitry Shugayev, head of the Russian Federal Service for Military and Technical Cooperation, added that there was a "high probability" India would soon order a new batch of MiG-29 fighters and finalize a contract for a short-range air defense system as well.
None of this should have been a surprise. Russia has long been India's top arms supplier. But each deal has taken on extra significance as the U.S. pushes for a bigger slice of the market.
Just weeks before Shugayev's announcement, U.S. President Donald Trump paid his first visit to India in late February. During the trip, Washington and New Delhi sealed two military helicopter deals worth $3.5 billion.
Both Moscow and Washington view India as a critically important partner in the region -- and arms deals as a crucial tool for cementing their influence. The helicopter and tank contracts, coming in such quick succession, underscored the intensity and ever-shifting nature of their competition to court the world's second-largest arms importer.
Factor in an ever-present threat of U.S. sanctions against New Delhi for its transactions with Russia, and the prospect of a new White House occupant after this November's presidential election, and the future of the competition becomes even harder to gauge.
The U.S. made major strides in the 2013 to 2018 period, according to the Stockholm International Peace Institute, which tracks the global arms trade. Russia's share of the Indian market fell to 58%, from 76% during the previous five-year term. Meanwhile, American shipments to India soared by 569%, at one point elevating the U.S. to No. 2 on India's list of suppliers.
American contractors still have a long way to go, however. Most of the U.S. gains came in market segments where Russia was weaker, such as maritime patrol aircraft, explained Viktor Murakhovsky, editor-in-chief of the influential Russian defense journal Arsenal of the Fatherland. "In Russia's areas of strength, such as anti-tank weapons, there is little direct competition with the United States," he said.
"The United States has instead taken over those niches where Russia is not particularly competitive."
The U.S. also lost some momentum in the past couple of years, as India diversified through deals with Israel and France. Russia, on the other hand, made something of a comeback with several major agreements. Shugayev's Federal Service reported a $14.5 billion "breakthrough" worth of deals since 2018, the most prominent being a $5 billion contract for Russia's elite S-400 air defense systems.
Yet Murakhvosky noted that the U.S. and Russia are now directly competing to sell India next-generation fighters and helicopters. And Washington has another form of leverage at its disposal: sanctions.
The S-400s -- the first of which are due to be delivered to India by the end of 2021 -- could cause problems for New Delhi in particular.
In 2017, the U.S. Congress adopted the Countering America's Adversaries through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), which imposes penalties on any country that "engages in a significant transaction" with the Russian defense and intelligence sector. Congress later granted the president authority to waive these sanctions, but the Trump administration has yet to provide India a waiver for the S-400 deal.
It is unclear whether it intends to do so. The State Department did not respond to the Nikkei Asian Review's inquiries about a possible CAATSA waiver for India.
"Nobody has any idea how this is going to play out," said Richard Rossow, a senior adviser and the Wadhwani Chair in U.S.-India policy studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "The United States at this point still hopes that the S-400 deal will fall apart under its own weight, but if it comes down to a waiver, it's impossible to say whether all pieces needed to get one through will line up."
Rossow explained that there are several reasons why Trump might find it politically difficult to grant India a waiver, including simmering trade disputes between the countries and growing congressional displeasure over Prime Minister Narendra Modi's human rights record.
The U.S. presidential election in November creates even more uncertainty, warned Jeff Smith, a South Asia expert at the Washington-based Heritage Foundation. While Trump has not granted India a waiver, he has also refrained from pursuing the sanctions. A Democratic administration might be less forgiving.
"India is still purchasing arms from Russia and has made additional purchases since the S-400 deal, so there's no guarantee that this wouldn't become a recurring issue," Smith noted.
Others note that imposing sanctions would not necessarily lead to India ditching Russian arms for American ones.
Right now, Russia is providing India with technologies that no other country is willing to share, explained Nandan Unnikrishnan, a distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi.
"Just take the example of nuclear submarines -- we signed a lease for another nuclear submarine from Russia. We are not at that stage of cooperation with any other arms supplier," Unnikrishnan said. "So as long as this dependence remains, I don't see India trading off its relationship with the Russians."
Murakhovsky conceded that the possibility of sanctions has made New Delhi tread carefully, hindering cooperation with Moscow. But he argued that if the U.S. actually imposes the penalties, it could end up benefiting Russia.
"Such a policy could boomerang against Washington by negatively impacting military contracts between the United States and India," he said. "It could provide Russia with an opportunity to push the United States out, even in areas where it currently holds a firm position."