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Why India just can’t walk out of the S 400 deal First Post 12 Oct 2021
Every time there are Indo-US talks the topic which raises its ugly head is the Indian decision to procure the S 400 Triumf air defence missile systems from Russia and possible US sanctions. A standard question, raised to US representative, in every press conference, following any bilateral meeting, is whether there would be sanctions on India. The standard reply, thus far, has been that the systems have yet to enter India and that as per CAATSA (Countering American Adversaries Through Sanctions Act) the US president has the power to grant a waiver. This implies that the sword of CAATSA still hangs.
CAATSA was signed into law in 2017 aimed at sanctioning Russia over its actions in Ukraine and Syria. It is basically a battle between the US and Russia, with other nations being drawn in as pawns. India is amongst them. Indian representatives have always stated that the Indo-Russia deal for the S 400 was signed in 2016, whereas CAATSA was introduced in 2017. Hence, the deal predates CAATSA.
They further add that India has an independent foreign and security policy, and the nation is at liberty to choose weapon platforms needed and the country from which it would import. India had assessed the S 400 to be the best in its class, even more effective that US systems on offer, and therefore considered it suitable for its national needs. Bending to US demands would have been detrimental to India’s interest, despite the two nations sharing a close bond.
India has moved away from its traditional non-allied status with a pro-Russia tilt to being a US strategic ally, though it maintains close ties with Russia and works alongside it in the SCO (Shanghai Cooperation Organization), RIC (Russia-India-China trilateral) and BRICS (Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa) grouping. Currently over 65% of Indian armed forces equipment is of Russian origin and India continues to bank on Russia for spare parts, though Russian equipment percentages are steadily declining. Recent Indian procurements are from western nations and Israel.
Russian origin equipment in service necessitates support from Russia. As the Indian foreign secretary had stated when discussing Indo-Russia relations, that without Russian spare parts and maintenance help, ‘our ships won’t sail, our planes won’t fly.’ India has also signed a three-billion-dollar deal to lease a Russian Nuclear powered Akula Class Submarine, likely to be delivered by 2025. India must also keep Russia away from providing Pak similar equipment as India. Hence, terminating its relations with Russia is illogical and would damage India’s defence preparedness.
India-US relations have grown over the past decade. Currently they are close allies in the QUAD, which is a diplomatic grouping involving a military element, aimed at containing China. India sought no allied support when it was dealing with Chinese intrusions along its northern borders. It is capable of handling its own national security threats. Indo-US defence trade has surpassed USD 20 Billion and is likely to grow further. Even within the QUAD, Indian military power is only next to the US. The creation of AUKUS would enhance Australian naval power in the coming decades. The sole military and economic power in Asia to counter China is India. The US is aware that it cannot brush aside Indian interests, while simultaneously, not acting against India would draw criticism from nations facing US sanctions.
The US must realize that attempting to impose CAATSA on India would push it into the Russian camp. Indo-US arms deals, a major benefit to the US would be lost. India has the resources to procure its own military hardware and there are many global suppliers wooing India, aware that it remains a large market. India and the US have signed basic foundation agreements which involve close cooperation in matters of defence. Mutual trust between US and India must be built, not broken.
The recent US National Defence Authorisation Act (NDAA) 2021 has focused on the Indo-Pacific. Currently, India and the US are collaborating on multiple issues including Afghanistan. To damage this cooperation and push growing ties onto a slippery slope for a procurement considered essential in Indian national interest is illogical. Further, CAATSA is aimed at punishing Russia, but by placing India under CAATSA, would break the growing cooperation. It would damage the bonhomie within the QUAD, weakening the one alliance China is concerned about. It would benefit China, against whom Indo-US ties are aimed at countering.
Militarily also, India has procured no US equipment which would involve vital inputs being obtained by Russia. Turkey was a NATO ally and possessed NATO equipment. As an immediate measure it was removed from the US’s F 35 program. In fact, at one stage, Trump offered a waiver under CAATSA in case India procured US F 16’s, which India refused. Many US lawmakers have also realised the futility of placing sanctions on India.
Senator Todd Young from the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee mentioned in an article that ‘imposing sanctions on India would not deter New Delhi’s purchase of the S-400 missile system from Russia but would weaken two strategic fronts at a critical time — undermine Washington’s relationship with India and also affect the QUAD’s ability to counter China.’ He added, ‘Russia could take advantage of the sanctions to reclaim its role as India’s military partner of choice. Paradoxically then, sanctioning New Delhi over its Russian-made defence system would actually prove to be a geostrategic victory for Moscow.’
It is evident that India will not back down. It will never cancel the deal as it has more to lose in its relationship with Russia. It cannot risk placing its currently operating armed forces platforms at risk due to shortfall in spares. Nor will India surrender its strategic autonomy and become dependent on the US. It has explained this clearly to the US leadership. On the contrary, the US would lose a close and strong ally, which would leave Russia and China smiling. The ball is in the US court. The final call is that of President Biden.