Arun Jaitley's Russia visit ahead of Narendra Modi's US trip shows India's delicate balancing act

On his second trip to Russia in less than four months, Arun Jaitley — who holds the defence and finance portfolios — will be leading a high-powered military delegation to Moscow from Wednesday with an aim to procure defence supplies.

He is slated to hold wide-ranging discussions with the Russian deputy prime minister Dmitry Rogozin and defence minister Sergey Shoygu. He is also expected to hold discussions in the high-level committee on cooperation in field of high technologies of military, dual and civil purpose, according to a report in The New Indian Express.

 Arun Jaitleys Russia visit ahead of Narendra Modis US trip shows Indias delicate balancing act

File image of Vladimir Putin with Narendra Modi. Getty Images

Jaitley is also expected to have a closed door meeting with his Russian counterpart to work out pending issues, including sale of S400 air defence systems.

His visit to Russia just days ahead of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's visit to the United States is crucial in the backdrop of the uncertainty looming around US president Donald Trump's commitment to its relationship with India and the complicated relationship between Washington and Moscow.

According to a report from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, India accounted for 13 percent of global arms imports between 2012 and 2016. A senior researcher with SIPRI told Livemint that despite India's 'Make in India' program to encourage local arms production, its domestic defence sector is not capable of meeting its growing requirements. India is therefore, heavily dependent on arms exports from Russia, Israel and the US.

India's defence ministry is also working on an ambitious plan to spend about $223 billion over the next 11 years to boost its defence preparedness, as The International Business Times reported. As part of the Long-Term Integrated Perspective Plan (LTIPP) for the year 2012 to 2027, the ministry is considering purchasing 170 fighter aircraft, 12 submarines, 500 choppers, artillery guns, tanks and aircraft carriers.

Modi's plans to modernise the armed forces coupled with Indian Army chief Bipin Rawat's assertion that New Delhi is ready for a "two-and-a-half front war" are reasons enough for India to look to loyal arms exporter Russia while assuring the US of a stable relationship.

Considering the tricky position that China and Pakistan's ever-growing friendship has put India in, New Delhi is in the process of acquiring weapons and ammunition. Early this year, India bought anti-tank missiles, tank engines, rocket launchers and various kinds of ammunition from Israel and Russia, according to a report in Huffingtonpost.

According to reports, China has sold most of its weapons to Pakistan, Bangladesh and Myanmar. Jaitley's trip to Moscow to procure defence deals and set in motion some abandoned sales is India perhaps preparing itself for a two-front war and sending a message to the US ahead of Modi's visit.

If the Trump administration decides to back out of deals or refuses to follow the path of former president Barack Obama in declaring India as a major defence partner, New Delhi will have Moscow to fall back on.

The Telegraph  quoted some senior Indian officials as saying that the stability Russia —  a traditionally all-weather friend with which ties have drifted in recent years — offers appears attractive again, considering the Trump administration.

However, US national security adviser HR McMaster has reassured Modi and his Indian counterpart Ajit Doval of India's position as Washington's "major defence partner". Jaitley's trip to Moscow can therefore, also be seen as an attempt to balance US and Russia. It might be a way of providing solace to Russia after reports of India's increasing arms deals with the US.

With the deteriorating ties between the US and Russia, India wants to stay neutral. Modi's visit to Washington and Jaitley's visit to Moscow might reaffirm India’s commitment to both nations. After more sanctions were imposed on Russia by the US Senate, India's plans to procure defence equipment from Russia appear to be in jeopardy, reported The Economic Times. Russian firms are unable to furnish the requisite guarantees from Indian banks, which is a requisite for bidding on any projects in India.

As the ties between Moscow and Washington continue to fray, it is perhaps best that India not appear to favour either side.

Updated Date: Jun 20, 2017 15:17:30 IST