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Narendra Modi and Vladimir Putin hope to arm bilateral ties with missiles and warships

Vladimir Putin and Narendra Modi | Twitter
Vladimir Putin and Narendra Modi | Twitter

Front and centre of Vladimir Putin’s 23-hour India visit is a signature on the
S-400 surface-to-air missile, as well as 20 other agreements.

New Delhi: Russian President Vladimir Putin will surely make the record for the quickest turnaround time by a world leader.

He lands at New Delhi’s Palam airport Thursday evening at 6.40 pm and a mere 50 minutes later, at 7.30 pm, will arrive at Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s residence for a private dinner. All washed, changed and ready to go.

The man’s certainly in a hurry. Perhaps that’s why his trip to India is going to last exactly 23 hours. He emplanes for Moscow Friday at 5.40 pm.

What is to be done, Lenin had famously asked about a hundred years ago?

Also read: Indian Air Force wants to buy second lot of S-400 missile systems from Russia

A packed agenda

Putin, the former KGB spy, who worked in former East Germany before the Soviet Union broke up and the world changed, and has been in power as both president and prime minister for about 20 years — in a move the Russians call ‘rokirovka’ or ‘castling,’ a term in the game of chess they love to play — has a full agenda on his hands in the Indian capital.

Front and centre is a signature on the S-400 surface-to-air missile, probably the best in the world. It is capable of latching on to 100 targets at a time and attacking six of those. It will have most of Pakistan on its radar. It costs $5.5 billion.

There are as many as 20 agreements, pacts and memoranda of understanding — that’s jargon for what is an increasingly transactional relationship between old friends and strategic partners, India and Russia.

India is rapidly diversifying its arms imports, buying $18 billion worth of arms from the US since 2005, alongside the French Rafale fighter jet (36 planes in a first instalment). Last month, when the US defence and foreign ministers came to New Delhi, they promised to elevate India to the status of a major non-NATO ally.

But no one’s going to sell New Delhi the S-400 missile or its equivalent. Nor will anyone help India with designing a nuclear submarine, Arihant — the engine is Russian.

Tense ties

And yet, there is an increasing tension at the heart of the relationship. Putin feels India is moving closer to the Americans. He is right. Despite Modi’s personal uneasy relationship with Donald Trump, New Delhi believes that Trump’s open trade war with the Chinese and its public criticism of Pakistan is good for India. Modi is certainly seeking a closer camaraderie with Washington.

India says it is concerned by the growing, albeit transactional, Russia-China relationship (Moscow is selling Beijing the S-400 missile as well). It is also worried by the growing warmth between Russia and Pakistan, brokered by Russia’s special envoy to Afghanistan Zamir Kabulov (who also worked in the Russian embassy in Islamabad in the early 1990s).

The Russians recently sold a civil radar to Pakistan that would protect its nuclear facilities.
Then there is the increasing relevance of ‘Make in India’ which is at stake.

At a time when the job market is listless and the economy isn’t out of the woods, India is increasingly impatient over Russia’s refusal to guarantee the safety of its defence platforms which are manufactured by a third-party.

This is apart from the fact that costs incurred by both Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL), contracted over the decades to manufacture Russian fighter jets, as well as Goa Shipyards Ltd, which will build two of the four frigates that India will buy during Putin’s visit, are at least 30-40 per cent more expensive per item.

It helps that Rosneft, the Russian government-controlled oil major, last August bought Essar Oil for $12.9 billion. This deal is the largest investment by any country or company since Modi came to power.

Also read: India’s reality will meet Russia’s nostalgia when Modi gifts Putin 3 MiG-21s

Still, it is Putin himself who will be the cynosure of all eyes in the national capital. His bare torso is already making waves in Moscow, in a 2019 calendar devoted to him in several poses. There’s Putin cuddling a leopard cub, elsewhere naked to the waist in a pool of icy cold water in the snow, or looking away in a splendidly cut suit and holding a gun, much like 007.

There is certainly a similarity with Prime Minister Modi, whose attention to detail in the perfectly tailored clothes he wears is well-known. Both leaders are also defined by their ambition in wanting to take their respective countries into the future.

The big difference, of course, is that Putin was elected for the fourth time this May, for another six-year term as president. Modi, however, will face the people in the summer of 2019 in a free and democratic election.