As Washington mulls its options over ally New Delhi’s actions, China is likely to sway US decision.
India’s decision to purchase the Russian S-400 surface-to-air missile defence system has escalated tensions among three nuclear-armed nations. It has also raised the possibility of punitive action by the US, which is reminiscent of Washington’s sanctions against its NATO ally Turkey.
Though the $5.43 billion deal to purchase five S-400 regiments dates back to October 2018, the first consignment of the military equipment was delivered only recently. This has drawn a sharp rebuke from the US, a long-time ally of India.
Dmitry Shugaev, director of the Russian Federal Service for Military-Technical Cooperation (FSMTC), announced the development earlier this month ahead of President Vladimir Putin’s tour of India in December.
India’s defence preparedness is mainly aimed at countering China along its eastern and northern frontiers, as well as arch-enemy Pakistan along its western borders.
India has been a fair-weather ally of Washington over the years. It is also part of a regional grouping - along with the US, Japan and Australia - called the Quad. This strategic security alliance was formed to counter China’s growing military influence in the Indian Ocean and Asia-Pacific regions. China has also deployed two S-400 squadrons to Tibet, a region directly across two Indian-controlled areas — Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh — which is claimed by Beijing as its territory.
New Delhi recently deployed US-made weapons, such as Chinook helicopters, on its border with China to strengthen capabilities along the disputed Himalayan boundary.
However, the S-400 purchase has begun to blur the fundamental strategic partnership between Washington and New Delhi while raising questions on whether the US-India alliance faces the same fate as Turkey-US relations, which was also undermined by a similar S-400-triggered crisis, inviting US sanctions.
Common protocols with Russian weapons
On November 15, the US expressed 'concern' over India's purchase of the Russian defence system with Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby, saying that they have been very clear on their reservations about India acquiring the system.
US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman also earlier stressed that any country deciding to use the S-400 missile system is ''dangerous.'' But she hoped to resolve the differences between the US and India over the acquisition.
However, the current Indian government led by nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi is unlikely to renege on the deal despite warnings that the Russia weapons sale could invite US sanctions.
''India has made its stand clear that it needs the S-400 and will not go back on its contractual obligation towards the purchase, knowing fully well that US CAATSA (Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act) sanctions could kick-in,'' said retired Air Vice-Marshal Manmohan Bahadur of the Indian Air Force and a former Addl Director General at the policy think tank Centre for Air Power Studies.
According to Visne Korkmaz, Professor at the Nisantasi University, regional powers that act in delicate regions tend to diversify their relations. And India is one of those powers that cooperates with other regional actors in an effort to limit China's expansion and counter a bloc against itself.
''This also had to do with taking measures in case of a US renouncement of containing China. And Russia stands out in this sense,'' Korkmaz told TRT World, adding that India's Russia strategy also aims to limit the deepening of Russia-Pakistan relations and the cooperation between Russia and China.
''It is very important for India to develop its capabilities. The S-400s are just one of the measures taken by New Delhi in the face of China's increasing capabilities considering the air defence system. Here, S-400s are diversification tools.''
According to Manmohan, the Indian Air Force(IAF) has a robust and professional testing organisation called ASTE, which would have evaluated all systems on offer. The system might have considered that S-400s are suitable for their weaponry.
''70 percent of the IAF weapon systems are Russian. It may be better to buy S-400s since they would have common protocols with the systems - both ground-based and airborne - already in the Air Force. This compatibility factor would have been a major cog in the decision to acquire the S-400,” he added.
Though the US has not yet directly threatened sanctions against India, as they did in the case of Turkey, there has been a significant change in the course of bilateral relations. This is largely due to the potential threat of CAATSA sanctions by Washington.
On December 14, 2020, the US declared an embargo on Turkey's Presidency of Defense Industries (SSB) under section 231 of CAATSA for signing a significant deal with Rosoboronexport - Russia’s central arms export company - to acquire the S-400 system.
The sanctions involve banning all US export licenses and authorisations to SSB. They also involve freezing assets and visa restrictions on Dr Ismail Demir (SSB’s president) and other SSB authorities.
A statement from the US Secretary of State’s office in 2020 read, ''Today’s action sends a clear signal that the United States will fully implement CAATSA Section 231 and will not tolerate significant transactions with Russia’s defense and intelligence sectors.''
According to Jeff Smith, a Research Fellow from Heritage Foundation's Asian Studies Center in Washington, the possible impact of the S-400 acquisition on India-US relations won't be known until the Biden administration decides whether or not to waive CAATSA sanctions on India.
''If it chooses not to waive CAATSA sanctions on India, it will likely create some friction in bilateral ties, providing ammunition for critics of India-US ties in New Delhi,'' Smith told TRT World. He added that it will strengthen perceptions of the US as an unreliable ally that infringes on India's strategic autonomy.
On the other hand, Mohammad Walid Bin Siraj, a security analyst focusing on South Asia, stated that Washington may behave more ‘kindly’ towards New Delhi because of the lobby factor in the Congress and Senate.
''The lobby’s interest is convincing the US Senate and Congress against sanctions and having them lead the White House on this issue," said Siraj, who is a deputy news editor at TRT World and also works as a surveillance and security system consultant at Dragoman Strategies, an Australian think tank.
On October 26, two key US Senators, Mark Warner of the Democratic Party and John Cornyn of the Republican Party, issued a letter to President Joe Biden urging him to grant a CAATSA waiver to India as this may advance US national security interests.
''We would encourage your administration to continue reinforcing this concern to Indian officials and engage with them constructively to continue supporting alternatives to their purchasing Russian equipment,'' they wrote.
Smith said the letter communicates the belief that the sanctions would negatively impact ''one of America's most important strategic partnerships in the Indo-Pacific.''
In this context, India's former Director-General Corps of Army Air Defence, Vijay Kumar Saxena told TRT World that such sanctions would disrupt the bilateral defence export relationship the two nations have built over three decades.
''The US has walked an uphill path in building a defence export relationship (with India). '' , he added that this year the Biden administration notified Congress on the potential for over $2.5 billion in arms sales to India.
''I don't think that the US will let this booming export relationship get doomed because of sanctions on account of S-400.''
While the US has not made a decision yet on any potential waiver, State Department Spokesperson Ned Price indicated that CAATSA does not have a country-based waiver provision attached to it.
''It is not for us to speak to any systems that the Indian government may or may not have received. It is for us to speak to the laws that are on the books and the requirements under those laws,'' Price said during a press conference.
However, according to Korkmaz, if the US grants a special exemption to India, it would not be the first time.
''While making of US-India Civil Nuclear Cooperation initiative in 2005, the US actually broke some of the rules that it had set for Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), hence, made an exception in a way,'' she said, referring to the approved US proposal to lift a global ban on nuclear trade with India. Doing so would be a big step towards sealing a controversial US-Indian atomic energy deal brokered over a decade ago.
''Both in the base of Afghanistan-South-Southeast Asia and the Indo-Pacific Ocean axis, the US needs to keep India close and make it strong enough to provide a certain balance against China, together with countries such as Japan and South Korea''
Korkmaz also underscored that the lack of a joint defence organisation like NATO in this region may be one of the reasons for this type of exemption.
''Actors in this region are bound by bilateral alliance agreements or stand alone,'' she said, adding that in a region where there is no institutionalised collective defence organisation, such an exception can be made for New Delhi due to the Chinese threat.
Furthermore, according to India's former ambassador to South Korea, Vishnu Prakash, the long-term fundamental defence cooperation between India and Russia is not unusual, and the US acknowledges this fact.
''India has historically been sourcing some 70 percent of her defence imports from the USSR and Russia. Thus, we have a legacy defence relationship that has served us very well. Our American friends are aware of the ground realities,'' he told TRT World.
In this framework, the Biden administration may pursue a different policy towards India compared to Turkey.
For Smith, India's purchase of the S-400 also does not touch on the same sensitive issues that it does in the Turkey context. An example would be Turkey's removal from the F-35 fighter Joint Strike Fighter programme due to its purchase of the S-400.
''There is a broad perception in Washington that Indian and US strategic interests are increasingly converging while Turkey-US relations have faced significant turbulence in recent years and their geopolitical trajectories are diverging,'' he asserted.
Hence, according to Smith, if the Biden administration does not waive CAATSA sanctions, it would likely cause some turbulence in India-US relations.
''It is an open question how much reputational damage might be done, and the degree to which it would undermine some of the momentum that has propelled India-US ties to new heights in recent years.''
Korkmaz said that if the US makes its alliances feel that it is willing to harm relations by using CAATSA as a political tool, it may cause the alliance ties to loosen even more, which would conflict with current US interests.
''We are at a time when the US needs its allies and prefers to strengthen NATO. In short, an exemption can be granted to New Delhi. In fact, Ankara may request a similar exemption. That's why the issue is being watched very carefully by Ankara,'' she said, adding that a prescriptive CAATSA policy would make it difficult for the US to take a constructive approach towards nation-states.
''CAATSA is a tool that makes things difficult to the US considering its current relational understanding…If the US continues to use it as a political tool, we will probably see that Washington would take more exception decisions than sanctions.''