Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to New Delhi on Dec. 6, which also marks the arrival of the first batch of the S-400 Triumf long-range air defense system, will test India’s diplomatic skills in balancing ties between its old Cold War ally and new strategic partner the US.
India may have taken a strategic tilt towards the US in the last decade, but according to the leading think tank the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), Russia continues to be its biggest supplier of defense equipment, accounting for 58% of arms imports.
Soon after Putin’s visit, India’s foreign and defense ministers will travel to Washington to meet with their counterparts in the 2+2 format in an attempt to resolve the issue.
While US officials have repeatedly warned that the 2017 Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) will apply to India in the wake of the arrival and operation of the S-400 missile system, sources in India are hopeful that President Joe Biden will waive sanctions for India.
Last month, visiting US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman described the S-400 deal as “dangerous” but expressed hope that the two sides could “solve” the issue. India signed a deal to purchase five batteries of S-400 systems worth around $5.5 billion in 2018.
In 2019, the US suspended Turkey from the F-35 fighter jet program over its decision to buy a similar air defense system from Moscow. Turkey has been a key member of NATO since it joined the alliance in 1952. It has the second-largest army in NATO after the US and has been protecting the alliance’s southeastern flank for decades
Acknowledging that balancing relations between Russia and the US would be a hard decision for the Indian establishment, Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan, the director of the Centre for Security, Strategy, and Technology, said India does not want to give up on the Russian relationship – despite Moscow’s ties with Beijing – but it also does not want to push the US too hard.
“These competing imperatives suggest on both sides that Washington and New Delhi will do their best to find a compromise solution that will allow Biden to avoid imposing CAATSA sanctions on India,” she said.
Russia still major arms supplier
Indian diplomats say that while they have increased defense purchases from the US, Russian equipment makes up about 70% of the country’s current arsenal, pointing out that it is difficult to reduce Russian purchases beyond a point.
The CAATSA, pushed by the Democrats during former President Donald Trump’s tenure, mandates the US government to impose financial sanctions and travel bans on any country or officials involved in transacting significant defense or intelligence deals with Russia, Iran, or North Korea.
According to Section 231 and 235 of the Act, the US president must impose actions that include stopping credit lines from the US; canceling or blocking sales of licensed goods and technology; banning banks, manufacturers and suppliers and property transactions from the sanctioned country, making it difficult to do trade; and financial and visa sanctions on specific officials.
While India has officially maintained that it accepts only those sanctions imposed by the UN, it did toe the US line by canceling its oil supplies from Iran and Venezuela in 2019. Although the US did waive sanctions to allow India to develop Iran’s Chabahar port as an alternate gateway for Afghanistan, in the wake of other sanctions on Iranian companies and oil entities, New Delhi was forced to reduce its investments.
Rajagopalan said it would be difficult for the US to impose CAATSA sanctions on any fellow members of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD), including India, Australia, and Japan.
She said a recent amendment proposal – the Circumspectly Reducing Unintended Consequences Impairing Alliances and Leadership (CRUCIAL) Act of 2021 – may come to India’s rescue as it makes a strong case for not applying CAATSA sanctions on QUAD members.
She added that the sanctions would adversely affect the security dynamics in the Indo-Pacific region.
‘Coercion will not work’
According to former Indian diplomat Pinak Chakravarty, coercion through sanctions will not work against New Delhi. Suggesting that the sanctions ball is in the American court, he said the CAATSA, if applied, will bolster and serve China’s interests and to an extent, those of Russia, with both for different reasons seeking to undermine the growing India-US ties.
“Today, China is seeking global hegemony. It has made it clear that it seeks to replace the US as the global hegemon. The geostrategic landscape has changed irrevocably, and India will play a pivotal role in the coming decades to maintain the strategic balance in Asia,” he wrote in a research paper published by the Observer Research Foundation, a New Delhi-based think tank.
China has already deployed two squadrons of S-400s at Ngari Gar Gunsa and Nyingchi airbase in Tibet, across Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh, respectively, according to Indian officials who requested anonymity as they are not authorized to talk to the media.
Concerned that a waiver to India may be protested by other countries and encourage other nations like Saudi Arabia to also go ahead and sign defense deals with Russia, multiple sources in India expect that at the moment, the Biden administration may just delay the sanctions but continue to keep the threat of CAATSA alive.
According to Intelligence Online, which publishes information about the intelligence world, Russia, during Putin’s visit, will try to sell its new anti-air S-550 missile defense system batteries to India. The publication claimed that Russia informally entrusted Dmitry Shugaev, the director of Russia’s Federal Service for Military-Technical Cooperation, with the strategic mission of selling its new anti-air defense system to the Indian army.
Speaking to reporters at the Dubai Airshow, Sergey Chemezov, the chief executive officer of Russian defense giant Rostec Corporation, said the S-550 would be designed to detect and intercept intercontinental ballistic missiles at a greater distance than the S-500 and that the physical components have already been created.
Soon after signing the deal to purchase the S-400 from Russia in 2018, India had also approved a $1-billion import from the US of Raytheon’s National Advanced Surface to Air Missile System-2 (NASAMS-2) for the air force to fortify the country’s missile defense shield over New Delhi.
Quoting a senior military officer, news website TheWire.in said that by clearing the purchase of NASAMS, India was offering the US a deal to avoid CAATSA. But it added that so far, it does not appear to have worked.
Experts in India maintain that in the days of cyber and electronic warfare, they would need both the NASAMS-2 and S-400 with different encryption systems to counter emerging threats.
Noted defense expert Pravin Sawhney argued that using the expensive S-400 against an incoming aircraft or unmanned object like a drone was not a good idea, as it was meant to protect against ballistic missiles.
“The S-400 is best used to protect major cities and high-value targets against ballistic missiles, which leave the atmosphere and then re-enter to high target,” he said.
The NASAMS, on the other hand, has a limited range designed to kill offensive aircraft and other aerial vehicles, including low-flying cruise missiles.
*Opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of The Asia Live.