Post its annexation of Crimea in 2014, sanctions began being applied against Russia. With the US claiming Russia’s active interference in its Presidential polls, sanctions only increased. The diplomatic cold war kicked in when the US expelled 60 Russian diplomats and closed its Consulate in Seattle. Russia responded likewise distancing ties with the west. The Syrian chemical weapon incident and counter strikes have added to the distance.
In Aug last year, Trump was pushed into signing a law termed the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATS) based on Russian interference in US Presidential elections. Trump was initially unwilling to pass the act; however, it was pushed down by the US Congress, compelling him to sign it. This act states that any country engaging in ‘significant transactions’ with Russia’s intelligence or defence sectors could be punished. Amongst the nations most impacted is India, whose defence ties with Russia go back decades.
India had signed an inter-Governmental agreement for the purchase of the S-400 Air Defence system in Oct 16 in Goa, but the same has been held up due to price negotiations. It is now likely to be cleared when PM Modi visits Moscow later this year. In addition, the two nations are at an advanced stage of procurement for four Krivak III guided-missile destroyers for the navy. The Indian armed forces have 60% of their equipment of Russian origin, spares for which continue flowing from Russia. Downtrend of relations would impact maintainability of the equipment.
Thus, India cannot ignore Russia. There is no way, despite any US actions or threats, that India would sacrifice the maintenance of its Russian origin equipment. In addition, the US had requested India to assist in maintaining Afghanistan’s equipment, mainly those of Russian origin, since the US could not purchase spares as it had imposed sanctions on Russia. India did the needful.
Russia has remained India’s largest arms supplier over the years, followed by the US in recent times and then Israel. Indian relations with Russia were always strong, however as it began tilting towards the US, there has been a slow thaw in ties. Indian attempts to re-ignite the earlier relationship appears to be stalling. Russia has begun moving closer to China and Pak, with claims of a Russia-China-Pak collusion.
As per the CAATS India could be barred from purchasing US defence equipment, if it procures military hardware from Russia. The basic fault in the approach of CAATS is that the act was meant to sanction Russia, however, by targeting the purchaser, it would be sanctioning India. For India, if CAATS is seriously applied, it would be a loser in some way or the other, mainly because it procures from both nations. Therefore, this would adversely impact Indo-US ties.
Should India be concerned about US sanctions post this purchase or should its own national security be paramount is the debate.
India-US ties have mushroomed in recent times, despite differences in some domains, mainly economic and H1B visa’s. The US considers India as its critical security partner in the region. It coordinates with India to counter a rising China, support in the development of Afghanistan and as a net security provider in the Indo-Pacific. India is today amongst the most important security partners of the US. The signing of the LEMOA has only brought the two nations closer. Thus, Indo-US ties are on the rise, which could be offset in case the US considers implementing sanctions. It recently warned Turkey over the purchase of the S-400, which has had no impact.
For the US, presently involved in different forms of conflicts on multiple fronts, India is an essential partner. With China the US is in an economic standoffand over the South China Sea while pursuing a diplomatic stand off with a militarily strong Russia. In addition, its military involvement in Afghanistan requires a nation which can financially support development of the country. Thus, India assumes a significant role in its security strategy, in both the Indian sub-continent and the Indo-Pacific region. It cannot simply override Indian security concerns for its own diplomatic battles.
Simultaneously, India needs to be concerned about its own national security. Despite a slight thaw in Indo-China ties, there is always a doubt on what the dragon could attempt next. With winters receding there is a likelihood of more encounters akin to Doklam. Chinese development of infrastructure close to the border, especially in Arunachal Pradesh has compelled India to enhance its deployment. There has been no change in Pak’s approach to supporting subversive activities on Indian soil. In addition, a Pak-China nexus, resulting in a two- front conflict is always a concern.
India, therefore needs to take its own decisions on which equipment it needs for its armed forces. It cannot be cowed down by US sanctions on issues concerning its own national security.It was offered the earlier version of US Patriot Missiles, which it turned down, in favour of the Russian S-400.
The US also realizes that it can push India only this much and no further. Indo-US ties have begun looking up after a prolonged period. For the US, Pak was a natural ally as India drifted close to Russia. With Pak unwilling to change its spots on supporting terror groups and aligning closely with China, the US drifted away. Further an economically rising democratic India, the only nation in the region to counter a hegemonistic China, becomes a natural ally of the US.
India being amongst the largest purchaser of military hardware, increasingly from the US in recent times, is responsible for enhancing employment within the country. The two nations cannot risk letting a skewed policy come between increasing security and economic collaboration. If the US even considers threatening India on CAATS, it would be the loser, as India would be compelled to avoid purchase of US military hardware.
India moved towards Russia for military hardware in the seventies due to clauses in US policy of stopping supplies, if the equipment was employed against US allies. It has restarted, post the US amending this clause specifically for India. A new threat would break the growing bondage for a long time. It would damage US strategy for the region while simultaneously leaving India vulnerable. The only logical solution is talks through this skewed law, to avoid undesired distancing of relations.