By Amitava Mukherjee
The last visit of Russian President Vladimir Putin and his defence and foreign ministers to India has outlined the Russian presence vis-à-vis Indo-US relations.
Three areas have been identified where the US and Russia might clash with each other over their respective bilateral relations with India — the Indo-Pacific, Afghanistan and the delivery of the Russian S-400 missile system to India. It will be interesting to watch whether the US invokes the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) in matters of its relations with India if New Delhi decides to go the whole hog over the acquisition of the S-400 missiles.
But what is the S-400 really whose delivery to India is under way? It is an integrated air defence system that can simultaneously track, identify and destroy numerous incoming objects, including aircraft, missiles and electronic warfare mechanisms. It can hit ground objects in enemy territories too.
The most important feature of the system is that its radars can pick up a particular object as far as 1,000 kilometres away. The command post then distributes the responsibility of taking care of each object to separate manned anti-aircraft missile system, which is known for ensuring a high degree of success rates for destruction of those item which are likely to be destroyed at a distance of 400 km.
The system operates at a radius of a few hundred kilometres, can move at a remarkable speed and is effective at a height ranging from 5 metres to 30 km. S-400 has raised consternation among military strategists of the US and western Europe as most of the weapons used by these countries like the cruise and ballistic missiles, including the Tomahawk and fighter bombers like the F-16 and F-22, are now threatened.
Can the acquisition of S-400 by India tilt the geostrategic balance in South Asia in favour of New Delhi? Well, China is aware of the possibility and, therefore, it has also fallen for the same armament. It is difficult for any military strategist to gloss over the fundamental change that S-400 has brought about in the war scenario in the Middle East and the Eastern Mediterranean.
The glaring example that comes to mind is the survival of and then consolidation by Bashar-al-Assad, the President of Syria. The shift in his once battered fortune started taking place when he began using the S-300 Russian missile system, an earlier version of S-400 while recapturing the lost areas of East Aleppo, East Ghouta and Deraa. Even the powerful Israeli airforce failed to cut much ice in favour of various Syrian rebel armies in the face of Bashar-al-Assad possessing such a lethal group of armaments.
Or take the case of Turkey whose bellicosity to Moscow was too well known in the middle of the last decade. In 2015, Turkey brought down a Russian jet over the Syrian sky and that brought the S-400 into the Middle Eastern war scenario. There was a quick change in Bashar-al-Assad’s fortune. Turkey got frightened and was pushed out of the Syrian war. Ankara decided to make peace with Russia in spite of being a NATO member. Turkey has purchased the S-400 system and in its wake, the US has reportedly decided not to include Ankara in its overall scheme of development and sale of the F-35 fighter bomber aircraft.
Advantages for New Delhi
Where does India stand in this situation? Advantages for New Delhi are clear. Most of Pakistan comes under the range of S-400 and it can debilitate the Pakistani air force.
Almost similar is the situation in regard to Afghanistan. The Taliban will have to think twice before it decides to send mercenaries into Kashmir. China is known to have installed missiles in Tibet but S-400 will certainly give India bargaining strength.
The US is aware of all these possibilities. Mike Pompeo, former US defence secretary, had once tried to wean New Delhi away from the S-400 purchase, only to be rebuffed by S Jaishankar, India’s Foreign Minister. The US is afraid that a change in security scenario in South Asia may affect the status quo in the Middle East where there are off and on reports of Iraqi intention to buy the S-400 system.
Western strategic experts are afraid that with an annual budget hovering around $5.05 billion, Iraq might be a proxy buyer for Iran. If this spectre materialises and the S-400 system is stationed in Iraq’s Anbar province, then Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Israel will come under the striking range of the Russian missiles.
The acquisition of the S-400 has given India not only a lethal weapon but a high-value bargaining tool as well. Observers will watch how India uses it in the Afghan scenario.
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