The strong words used by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov against the United States for opposing the sale of the S-400 missile system to India surprisingly did not elicit such an unpleasant reaction from the part of Washington so far. The Indian side was also surprised by the vehemence of Lavrov’s remarks on the day Russian President Vladimir Putin met Prime Minister Narendra Modi in New Delhi in early December. Hours earlier, Lavrov and Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu had met their Indian counterparts S. Jaishankar and Rajnath Singh together as well as separately.
It indicated contact on several levels, and it was only Putin’s second overseas trip in 2021, the first being to meet his opponent, US President Joe Biden, in Geneva. India’s defense and foreign ministries have played a dead role on issues surrounding the missile system, including the threat of US sanctions for the purchase of large arms from Russia.
The Indian side has also been cautious in not wanting to confirm Russian claims that some missile components have already been delivered and that the first round of deliveries will be completed by New Year’s Day. On the other hand, the Russians boasted not only about the missile deliveries but also about the quiet start of the construction of the sixth nuclear reactor in Kudankulam.
Lavrov, in his carefully crafted statements, had accused the United States of trying to get India to obey its orders, so that New Delhi would follow the American vision for the region. This was a direct reference to India’s Quad Alliance with the United States, Japan and Australia. The statement also took note of the planned new alliance with Israel, the United Arab Emirates and the United States, which is dubbed Quad West, although no summit meeting has taken place with the leaders of those countries. Russia’s surge of interest and aggression has also coincided with heightened tensions between Putin and Biden over central Europe, especially Ukraine, as NATO accused Putin of constituting an army to invade Ukraine.
India’s Defense Ministry argued that it is not customary to confirm receipt of sensitive weapons and that a grand ceremony was held at Ambala Air Base to welcome the first Rafale aircraft from France because there was a huge political controversy at the time over the purchase. . Interestingly, it was the Russian side that took the lead in announcing that the “first concrete” had been poured, shortly after Putin’s state visit, for the construction of the sixth 1,000 MW nuclear reactor at Kudankulam. On the other hand, the Nuclear Power Corporation of India, which builds the plants, had not yet made any official announcement.
The Department of Atomic Energy does not advertise the various stages in the construction of a nuclear power plant, in accordance with its policy. But the reiteration of nuclear cooperation with Russia is once again a reminder that proposals for the installation of nuclear power plants by American companies, which were included in the Indo-American civil nuclear agreement signed 16 years ago, are not still a reality. The muted US response, despite calls from a powerful senator to block the S-400 deal, may indicate the strength of New Delhi’s relationship with the Biden administration. However, there are strong feelings against Russia in the US Congress, and there is a need for dexterity among Indian diplomats to ensure that no sanctions are imposed on India for maintaining defense imports and technology from Russia.
There are also indications that Putin played the Good Samaritan to bring about a rapprochement between India and China, although both sides have been quiet about the conversation or what it would lead to.