India’s S-400 tripwire act
S M Hali


The high point of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s two-day visit to New Delh, i was finalizing the $5 billion Dollars’ deal for Indian acquisition of the Russian S-400 Triumf, air defence missile system. The contract with Russia is likely to invoke American sanctions under the US administration’s domestic law, “Countering America’s Adversaries through Sanctions Act” (CAATSA), to impose sanctions on any country that has “significant transactions” with Iran, North Korea or Russia.

Only a day prior to signing the deal, the US had urged India to forgo its proposed deal with Russia warning that the deal could attract American sanctions. India is probably counting on the possibility that President Donald Trump has the power to waive these sanctions for specific countries and specific transactions. US officials have repeatedly said in the recent past that India should not expect an automatic waiver if it goes ahead with the purchase from Russia because the S-400 deal falls in the category of sanction able transactions.

It may be remembered that on September20, 2018, the Trump administration imposed sanctions on the Chinese military for buying fighter jets and missile systems from Russia, in breach of CAATSA. According to the US State Department, the sanctions are related to China’s purchase of 10 SU-35 combat aircraft in 2017 and S-400 surface-to-air missile system-related equipment in 2018. Beijing expressed anger at the announcement and demanded the sanctions be withdrawn.

The question here arises as to why Narendra Modi opted for concluding the deal and possibly provoking US angst. Readers may recall that the finalization of the Indo-Russo contract came almost exactly a month after the first Indo-US 2+2 dialogue, where James Mattis and Mike Pompeo had discussed this scenario with Nirmala Sitharaman and Sushma Swaraj. Indian media claims that their side had expressed the view that India needed the S-400 and had a long legacy of sourcing defence equipment from Russia, which New Delhi was unwilling to compromise. The US side reassured Delhi that the CAATSA law would not apply to legacy platforms or spares, but new buys could be impacted. According to Times of India report of 5 October 2018, Mattis and Pompeo spent over an hour with India’s NSA Ajit Doval for a deeper conversation on two issues – imports of Iranian oil-post sanctions that will kick in from 4 November 2018 and the S-400 from Russia.

The arrangement has not been able to estimate what the US can deliver and how far India will go in trusting the US for critical weapons systems. On the obverse side of the coin, the perceptions of Indian defence planners are still clouded by the cold war syndrome

The Trump administration still has to certify to Congress that India is reducing its weapons buys from Russia. That is a condition for a waiver on CAATSA, a provision written into the otherwise inflexible law by sustained diplomacy by the Trump administration. The waiver will be available to India, Indonesia and Vietnam. But, as Randy Shriver, US undersecretary in the Pentagon declared, India should not treat this as a blanket waiver.

The Modi administration was desperate to conclude the deal with Russia for a number of reasons. Firstly, the French Rafale fighter aircraft deal, which was being termed as a “game changer” for India, has met with serious roadblocks because of the charges by Congress of BJP having manipulated the deal and French President Hollande confirming it. With the 2019 general elections in India looming closer, Modi wants to show the domestic voters that he had taken care of the air defence even though its endeavours for acquiring a credible aerial offensive platform had backfired.

Thirdly, despite the growing Indo-US bonhomie and Logistic Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA), perception about India becoming a “Client State of US” solidifying, there are reports that US has precluded any potential F-35 stealth fighter jets’ sale to India.

There are visible gaps in Indo-US. defence relations although a number of bilateral military exercises have taken place in the near past; there are shortcomings in defence trade. The Defence Framework and Defense Technology and Trade Initiative to pursue joint development and co-production of defence equipment have failed to address India’s needs. The arrangement has not been able to estimate what the US can deliver and how far India will go in trusting the US for critical weapons systems. On the obverse side of the coin, the perceptions of Indian defence planners are still clouded by the cold war syndrome. Russia has been India’s largest defence equipment supplier at agreeable terms and New Delhi may have drifted away from Kremlin after cozying up to Washington D.C. but it cannot ignore that Russia has helped India with strategic technologies like leasing and developing nuclear-powered submarines while the US is still not open to supplying India with advanced weapons platforms and military technologies.

India may be counting on the strength of its order of defence equipment worth $18 billion from the US but it will be a test case for Donald Trump, whether he sanctions India or gives it a waiver because he needs India in his calculus of containing China; that is India’s trip wire act.