It will be hard for the US to ignore New Delhi’s distinct position while making a determination under CAATSA.
By Nivedita Kapoor
Earlier this week, the United States invoked the Countering America’s Adversaries through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) against Turkey’s for their purchase of the S-400 missile defence system from Russia. In a related briefing, Assistant Secretary Christopher Ford said the hope was that other countries ‘take note’ of the US commitment to implement sanctions under CAATSA and that they should avoid further acquisitions of Russian equipment, especially those that could trigger sanctions.”
This has again raised concerns in India about the possibility of sanctions, having placed a US$ 5.3 billion order for five units of S-400 in 2018 and paid the first tranche of US$ 800 million in 2019. The US State Department decides on a case-by-case basis whether to implement sanctions or grant a waiver. For sanctions to be triggered, a defence deal has to meet the threshold of being a ‘significant transaction’ with specifically listed entities of Russian defence or intelligence sectors. The determination is based on factors like “significance of the transaction to US national security and foreign policy interests, the nature and magnitude of the transaction, and the relation and significance of the transaction to the defence or intelligence sector of the Russian government.”
The US has said that the aim of the sanctions is not to negatively impact the defence capacities of any country but instead to punish Russia for ‘its wide range of malign activities.” It has argued that this would deprive the Russian defence industry of funds and reduce its influence with different partners. Up until now, Turkey and China have acquired the S-400 and both have seen specific defence entities and related persons sanctioned. While no decision has been made with regard to India, it might be pertinent to look at what tilted the balance against Turkey as the State Department made its decision to sanction a NATO ally.
The Turkish case
As an alliance partner that possesses significant American defence equipment, Turkey fell foul of the stipulation of a ‘significant transaction’ impacting US security interests. The US noted that the induction of the S-400 will ‘endanger the security of US military technology and personnel” by gathering technical data on the ‘capabilities of F35s’ and passing it on to Moscow. This had already resulted in Turkey being suspended from the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter partnership, after it refused to take up offers of “alternative NATO-interoperable systems” in the form of the Patriot system. The US also wants to deny Russia access to the “Turkish armed forces and defence industry.” The sanctions have targeted the main weapons procurement agency SSB, barring it from any aid from the US Export-Import Bank along with an assets freeze and visa sanctions against the head of the SSB plus three other individuals affiliated to the entity.
The Indian case
The State Department has clearly cautioned other states against any significant defence purchases from Russia, which would be a cause for worry for India. However, there are several dissimilarities in its case versus that of Turkey.
Firstly, the US worries about the F-35s’ technical data being passed on to Russia through inter-operability in Turkey is not applicable in the case of India, given that it does not possess those fighter jets. However, acquisition of the S-400 will complicate or even scuttle the possibility of India acquiring certain advanced defence technologies from the US, an avenue that opened up after the former was designated a Major Defence Partner in 2016. While Washington offered Turkey its own Patriot missile defence system, experts have noted that it is the S-400 that meets the operational requirements for India. Some have even called it “crucial to counter attacks in a two-front war.” Therefore, India has had good reason to pursue the system, besides endeavouring to strengthen itself as an “independent-minded country” working to achieve its national interests.
Given that the S-400 was signed a year after CAATSA came into force means that the Indian government was fully cognizant of the consequences. The best explanation for this behaviour can be explained through two factors: one, India is interested in continuing its defence ties with Russia; and second, the calculated risk was taken in the belief that a waiver could be negotiated with the Americans in good faith.
For a waiver or delay under certain conditions, the US President can submit to the congressional committee an application to the effect that it is in the vital national security interests of the US, that it would not significantly increase the risk of compromising United States defence systems and operational capabilities; or that the government of the to-be-sanctioned is taking steps to reduce its dealings in terms of Russian weapons purchases or is in cooperation with the US on other security matters that are critical to the US strategic interests.
On each of these criteria, India would meet the standard. The US is cooperating with India closely and is important for its plans in the Indo-Pacific. At the moment, it does not threaten US systems and India’s dependence on Russia has gone down based on its own requirements and interests, without the threat of CAATSA hanging on its head. Russia’s share in India’s arms imports has come down from 70 percent in 2010-14 to 58 percent in 2014-18. In fact, the US and Israel have been major beneficiaries of this shift and estimates suggest that the past decade has seen deals worth $20 billion between New Delhi and Washington. However, Russia will remain the key supplier of weapons systems to India even as diversification efforts continue. Not only does India get valuable high-end technology from its strategic partner that is not available from any other source, both are engaged in joint production networks and the long history of military-technical cooperation between the two countries is unlikely to end anytime soon.
Thus, while CAATSA sanctions will not only negatively impact the growing Indo-US relationship, it is also unlikely to persuade India to abandon its defence linkages with Russia that constitute a key pillar of its bilateral ties with a strategic partner. New Delhi is also cognizant of the fact that encircling Russia on all sides will only push it closer to China, which is detrimental to Indian interests and eventually, American interests as well.
It is evident that India will find it hard justify that the S-400 purchase is not a significant transaction. However, the above-mentioned provisions of waiver are a cause of hope for quiet diplomacy to strike a deal. This was seen during the Trump administration when despite the fact that no blanket waiver was issued, senior officials like Secretary of Defence James Mattis came out in support of a waiver for countries like India, Indonesia and Vietnam; keeping in the mind the precarious regional situation in Asia and US interests therein.
Another hope has emerged due to the limited scope of sanctions on Turkey. When asked a direct question about the rationale, State Department officials said they were trying to make a point while also attempting to preserve the relationship with an ally. This gives hope in the case of India as well, where there is room open for negotiation based on strategic concerns. This is especially because unlike growing tensions in US-Turkey relations, the Indo-US relations have been on an upswing.
A tough balancing act
Thus, we can see that it will be hard for the US to ignore New Delhi’s distinct position while making a determination under CAATSA. It is hoped that the trust built through sustained engagement in the Indo-Pacific and a long-term view will prevent imposition of sanctions. However, given that the US remains focused on imposing costs on Moscow through various measures at its disposal, it remains to be seen if a waiver for India will prevail over the American policy to weaken Russian influence.