India, facing sanctions for Russian arms deals, says it wants to pivot spending to the US

On the heels of India’s re-election of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the nation’s Ambassador to the United States says national security and modernizing the military are among the government’s top priorities.

And while India, the world’s second-largest arms importer and fifth-largest economy, has inked the majority of its weapons deals with Russia, Indian Ambassador Harsh Shringla says New Delhi wants to pivot its defense spending to the United States.

According to the latest tally from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, also known as SIPRI, Russia remains India’s top arms supplier, with the United States holding down the No. 2 spot.

“There has been a tradition of dependence on defense equipment from Russia,” Shringla told CNBC Thursday at the Indian Embassy in Washington when asked about arms from Moscow.

“But if you go by SIPRI figures, in the block year 2008 to 2013 we imported 76% of our defense items from Russia. In the next five-year block, from 2013 to 2018, this came down 58% and in the same period our imports from the United States increased by 569%,” he said.

“So that itself tells you that, when we have a choice … we are obviously diversifying our purchases,” he added. Ten years ago, the country didn’t have as many options, he said.

Countries like India, that heavily pursue arms deals with the Kremlin are subject to U.S. sanctions under President Donald Trump’s Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, or CAATSA.

India is currently at risk of U.S. sanctions after agreeing to a $5 billion deal to buy Russia’s S-400 missile system last year.

Russia’s S-400 system — a mobile, long-range, surface-to-air missile system — made its debut on the world stage in 2007. The platform rivals Lockheed Martin’s THAAD, or terminal high-altitude area defense, system and Raytheon’s Patriot system.

About 13 countries have expressed interest in buying the S-400. China, India and Turkey have already signed purchase agreements for the missile platform. China is in the middle of receiving its final shipment of the S-400 system. Turkey, a NATO ally, is slated to receive its S-400 next year and is expected to have the system ready for use by 2020.