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Russian President Vladimir Putin is scheduled to arrive to India on Thursday for a two-day visit during which Moscow is expected to ink weapons deal worth billions of dollars.

The Kremlin said before the two-day visit by Putin and top Russian ministers that the “key feature” would be the signing of a $5bn deal for the S-400 air defence system, despite the risk of US sanctions against countries buying Russian defence equipment.

On the eve of Putin’s arrival later on Thursday, the US poured cold water on India’s efforts to obtain a waiver to avoid sanctions under legislation called Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA).

The deal will also help reassure Russia because India-Russia ties have been fraying at the edges for the past several years

Pramit Pal Chaudhuri, Journalist and security analyst

Upgrades in arms systems “including the S-400 air and missile defense system” would be a particular focus for CAATSA, a US State Department spokesperson was quoted as saying by India’s PTI news agency.

“The S-400 is attracting attention due to the US-Trump overhang. With the US’ domestic legislation discouraging countries like India from engaging in ‘significant’ trade with Russia, there is a high-visibility political sub-text about how this deal will impact the India-US bi-lateral,” said Commodore (retired) Uday Bhaskar, Director at Society for Policy Studies.

“The US response will be evident by November 5, when both the trade with Russia and the hydrocarbon imports from Iran will come to a tipping point. If the US decides to go ahead with its domestic legislation and invoke penalties/sanctions against Delhi, it would test the resilience of the India-US bi-lateral,” he said.

“This would potentially be an anomalous situation, wherein the US would place both India and China in the same ‘sanctions’ basket – unlikely bed-fellows indeed. Beijing will monitor this S-400 issue very closely and read the tea-leaves carefully for long-term strategic implications.”

Critical gaps in defence capabilities

Last month Washington slapped financial sanctionson the Chinese military for buying Russian Sukhoi Su-35 fighter jets and the S-400.

f the US decides to go ahead with its domestic legislation and invoke penalties/sanctions against Delhi, it would test the resilience of the India-US bi-lateral

Commodore (retired) Uday Bhaskar, Director at Society for Policy Studies

However, the US is in a difficult position when it comes to India. It wants to bolster ties with New Delhi to counter China’s growing assertiveness, something that has also rattled India.

Washington and New Delhi announced plans last month for joint military drills in 2019, and agreed on the exchange of sensitive military information. The US is now India’s second biggest arms supplier.

But Russia remains number one, and a string of new deals with the Asian giant would be a major win for Moscow – and a big snub to the US.

Putin and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who appear to enjoy a personal rapport, are also likely to discuss a deal for four Krivak-class frigates worth $2bn and 200 light utility Ka-226 helicopters pegged at $1bn.

Experts say India needs the sophisticated S-400 to fill critical gaps in its defence capabilities, in view of China’s rise and perceived threats from Pakistan, against whom India has fought three wars.

“India has been concerned about a possible two-front war in which it has to face some form of confrontation from Pakistan and China at the same time,” said Pramit Pal Chaudhuri, New Delhi-based foreign policy analyst and Foreign Affairs Editor at Hindustan Times newspaper.

“Also India’s Air Force’s strength has weakened owing to acquisition problems. India has been shopping around for sometime now for air-defence systems,” he told Al Jazeera. 

“The S-400 systems have not been battle-tested but technologically they are quite good, also relatively cheap. So the Russian S-400s are being seen as a good solution.

“The deal will also help reassure Russia because India-Russia ties have been fraying at the edges for the past several years,” he added.

Warm ties 

Putin, 65, and Modi, 68, are also set to discuss a possible second Russian-built nuclear power plant. Moscow is currently expanding India’s biggest nuclear power plant in Kudankulam.

Also on the agenda is Russian training for Indian astronauts as New Delhi aims to launch its first crewed space mission in 2022.

More than 20 agreements are expected to be signed during Putin’s visit in areas such as defence, space and economy.

But military relations would likely be the main focus.

India is the world’s biggest arms importer and is undergoing a $100bn upgrade of its ageing hardware, much of it of Soviet vintage including MiG jets that have frequently crashed in the Indian countryside.

Annual Russia-India trade has slipped below $10bn since 2014, as Modi cultivated closer diplomatic and economic ties with Washington, while Russia has courted Pakistan and China.

Ties received a boost last year when Modi and Putin held a fruitful annual bilateral summit, followed by meetings in Astana and at the G20 in Germany. They also met in Sochi this year.

On the strategic front, Russia helped India become a full member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation this year and has backed New Delhi’s long-held demand for a permanent UN Security Council seat.

Zeenat Saberin contributed to this report from New Delhi

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