As the China-India conflict over the Himalayan Border continues to unfold, Russia’s arms exporters find themselves treading increasingly uncertain geopolitical ground.
Russia’s flagship missile defense system, the formidable S-400 Triumf quickly became one of Moscow’s most successful military hardware export products. The S-400’s market triumph came, in no small part, from a slew of contracts with the world’s biggest importers: among them, Turkey, India, and China. The former deal, inked in 2017, became the focal point of a crisis between Turkey and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization that eventually cost Ankara its place in the F-35 program. But the onset of China-India clashes along contested parts of the Himalayan border portends what could be a new S-400 scandal.
Beijing was the first foreign S-400 customer, placing an order for two regiments back in 2015. Piecemeal S-400 shipments to China began in early 2018, with initial fire tests occurring later that year. Also in 2018, India formalized a gargantuan $5.43 billion defense deal with Russia that included the delivery of five S-400 regiments. The S-400 shipments to India began in 2020.
Then came the Himalayan conflict. Moscow, which values its lucrative and geopolitically significant defense relationships with both China and India, has little interest in becoming a party to ongoing border clashes between Indian and Chinese troops. There is a clear and present danger that either side will deploy their newly acquired S-400 systems against the other, potentially rupturing the Kremlin’s relations with New Delhi, Beijing, or both. Russia took steps to mitigate these risks in the summer of 2020 by reportedly suspending further S-400 deliveries to China. According to both Russian and Chinese reporting, the S-400 shipments to China’s Armed Forces were only partially complete by mid-2020. At that time, China was still waiting to receive vital components from Russia, as well as necessary training and installation work. By halting these ongoing activities, Russia essentially froze China’s S-400 acquisition. Neither Russia nor China issued official statements on this matter, but Chinese media outlets tried—rather unconvincingly—to ascribe the halted shipments to coronavirus concerns, calling it a “very heartwarming” show of Russian solidarity with Beijing’s fight against the pandemic. Indian media outlets seized on the story, suggesting that the S-400 snafu is part of a broader downturn in Sino-Russian relations.
Interestingly, India has not fallen under similar restrictions. According to Rosoboronexport—Russia’s official arms export agency—India’s S-400 contract is proceeding according to schedule. Earlier this week, it was revealed that Indian specialists traveled to Russia back in January to receive training on how to operate the S-400 system.
These parallel developments suggest that Russia could be stymying S-400 deliveries to China, even as it proceeds in full pace with S-400 shipments to India. It is difficult to determine what could account for the Kremlin’s seeming difference of approach, as the current state of S-400 talks between Moscow and Beijing remains ambiguous. As of the time of writing, it is unclear if S-400 shipments to China, as well as the associated training and installation work, have been fully resumed.
Mark Episkopos is the new national security reporter for the National Interest.