Turkey and India are both at the centre of a geopolitical row with the US over the intention of both states to purchase S-400 missile defence systems from Russia. Simultaneous to this, while the talks are still in their early stages, Saudi Arabia has also held discussions with Russia regarding a possible purchase of the much vaunted S-400s. Interestingly, the US has said little in public about the fact that Washington’s closest ally in the Arab world seeks to purchase Russia’s most advanced mobile defensive weapons system. This itself indicates that the US is not so worried about Saudi Arabia “turning against” the United States. By contrast, the US is worried about Turkey’s increasingly non-aligned and highly independent foreign policy that has blossomed under the leadership of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Likewise, while the US has successfully co-opted India as an close partner as both countries are united in a desire to put obstacles in front of China’s One Belt–One Road initiative while under Donald Trump, the US has found an equally anti-Islamic leader in the form of India’s Premier Narendra Modi, the US self-evidently still worries about India drifting either back towards its traditional Cold War partner in Moscow or otherwise reaching a more pragmatic understanding of its fraught relationship with China that could retard if not foil America’s concept of an “Indo-Pacific” region based around the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (aka The Quad) partnership between the US, India, Japan and Australia.
While Indian leaders have stated their intention to go ahead with the S-400 purchase, they have not done so as vocally as Turkey’s President and his political colleagues. The optics of the situation are such that it is as if Indian statements on the matter are designed to placate its old Russian friend, while highly vocal and forceful statements on the matter from President Erdogan are designed to send a stern warning to the US that Turkey’s loyalty must be won rather than bought, bribed or blackmailed.
The schism in the language used by Ankara and New Delhi regarding the S-400s indicates a great deal about the different approaches Turkey and India are taking. At this point, given the poor state of US-Turkey relations and given that there are serious concerns that the US will refrain from delivering the F-35 jets that Turkey not only ordered but played a role in helping to design, for Turkey, the S-400s are both a matter of pragmatic necessity and a matter of principle. The necessity derives from the fact that Ankara now feels the US is an unreliable partner that has left its southern cities exposed to aggressive missile attacks from the Syrian branch of the PKK terror group. In a recent statement, President Erdogan made his feelings on this matter explicitly clear. Beyond this though, with the US conspiring to weaken Turkey’s national currency, making extraordinary demands that the US national and accused terrorist collaborator Andrew Brunson is freed before a judge can decide on the matter, in addition to America’s continued support for the YPG/PKK terror group and Washington’s refusal to extradite wanted terrorist leader Fethullah Gulen – it is clear that for Turkey, independence in the defence industry is as important as financial and foreign policy independence as a matter of principle and long term planning.
In India things are quite the opposite in terms of relations with the United States. India’s leadership have few reservations about the south Asian country’s new and openly unbalanced partnership with the United States. While the US is largely using India for its geo-strategic location while still hitting the country with tariffs in spite of this new “friendship”, rather than urge restraint in the face of an increasingly unilateral partnership with the US, India’s government and powerful pro-government media organisations have touted the partnership with the US as a supreme victory for India. To put it simply, the narrative that India is proffering reads something akin to: ‘Because of India’s unique greatness, the most powerful nation in the world has decided to honour itself by approaching India as a new friend”. This narrative is essentially ‘American exceptionalism with Indian characteristics’ but because India is not in a position to leverage other nations in the way that the US is, the Indian version is even more delusional than the original one.
But while the US continues to talk out of both sides of its collective mouth in respect of Turkey, when it comes to India, Washington is more than happy to allow India’s government to fool itself into thinking that America admires India as a friend when the reality is simply that India’s location and the attitude of its political class plays into the hands of a US that need a sizeable Asian partner to do its anti-Chinese dirty work for it.
It should therefore not surprise anyone to learn that prior to the much anticipated 2 + 2 meeting between the US and Indian Defence and Foreign Ministers, Pentagon officials admonished India to think twice about the S-400 deal with Russia. This is the same Pentagon that of represents a voice of moderation in the wider US deep state war against its putative ally in Turkey.
Taken in totality, the US attitude towards past, present and future partners purchasing S-400s from Russia is as follows: Washington is clearly not worried about its steadfast partner Saudi Arabia buying the S-400s, Washington fears Turkey’s adamant attitude towards foreign policy and security independence which appears to be totally genuine and finally, Washington realises that all it needs to do is make India an offer it cannot refuse and that because of India’s own unilateral approach to inter-Asian affairs, there is little New Delhi can do to box itself out of the corner the US allowed arrogant officials in New Delhi to become trapped in.
To be sure, India does not want to alienate Russia and has no reason to do so. But the fact of the matter is that when the US makes India the offer it cannot refuse, New Delhi will try to fool Russia into thinking that the old friendship has not changed. The only difference is that while India can fool itself about the notion of its increasingly slavish relations with the US, India will not be able to fool Russia when the penny drops as it almost certainly will in the aftermath of the 2 + 2 meeting.