U.S. Urges India To “Forgo” Defense Transactions With Russia. But Geopolitics May Weigh In.

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U.S. has urged India, its South Asian ally, to reconsider its planned acquisition of an advanced Russian missile system. It’s “a move that risks potential sanctions under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA),” reported Janes.

“We certainly urge all our allies and partners to move away from Russian equipment … and really avoid any kind of acquisitions that would trigger sanctions on our behalf,” Pentagon chief Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said on Saturday in New Delhi –in response to a question from a reporter about India’s plan to acquire the S-400 defense system.

The United States has in recent years sought to pull India from Russia’s and China’s orbit with high-profile visits and increasing arms sales and military cooperation. “But India’s planned purchase of the S-400 could prove a flashpoint, particularly after Congress imposed sanctions on Turkey for acquiring the same system,” wrote Politico.

“We are aware of the fact that they have expressed interest in acquiring the system,” Austin said. But “they have not acquired an S-400 system yet, so there would be no reason for sanctions to be on the table.”

The Indian Air Force (IAF) is also looking to fast-track purchase of 21 used Mikoyan MiG-29 and 12 new Sukhoi Su-30MKI combat aircraft — valued at about USD1.4 billion, to boost its air combat capabilities.

According to Janes, the move is “partly in response to heightened border tensions between India and China”. That the IAF aims to take delivery of the aircraft next year (in 2022) could also uptick matters in the region,” says an observer.

CAATSA does not have any blanket or country-specific waiver provision. “There are strict criteria for considering a waiver, and each transaction is evaluated on a case-by-case basis,” an official from the State Department commented to Janes on 26 June regarding India’s planned acquisition of Russian fighter aircraft.

Will India get a waiver? According to a regional analyst, “the tacit alliance (between US and India) fashioned on 5th July 1947 will cushion India from any threats of US sanctions.” He tells DesPardes:

The United State’s primary concern is to contain China by surrounding it with China-averse US allies and partners –the QUAD, including India being the most potent instance. As long as China poses the most acute and perplexing challenge to US “systemic primacy”, and Washington suffers from “displacement anxiety”, India’s role as a key “swing state” will protect it from CAATSA – or other such sanctions. In short, if the USA feels it needs India more than India needs the USA, Delhi will enjoy and utilize its leverage on US strategic calculations. This being clearly the case now – there being little direct Chinese threat to India at present – Delhi will do what it wants to do, i.e., procure high-value air-defense and ballistic missile defense systems like the Russian S-400, without fear of major US sanctions. Washington, to warn other countries against buying Russian or Chinese hardware, will issue stern warnings, but will exercise the waiver which the law grants the Executive Branch. So, I don’t see the USA actually sanctioning India, whatever India does with Russia or any other country, so long as US-Indian collaboration against China continues. Recall that the USA provided India with “live intel” on China at least since early 2020, and that revival of the tacit alliance fashioned on 5th July 1947 will cushion India from any threats of US sanctions.

Asia-Pacific based South Asia affairs and US-China relations expert

A Pakistani defense expert while pointing out the sanctions against Turkey under CAASTA for its purchase of S 400 Missiles, says in the case of India, “this is less likely to happen, because of the U.S. compulsion to include India as part of QUAD, an informal alliance to counter China.”

“US is more likely to use this leverage to condition and force India to become an active member of QUAD.”

“Geopolitics will trump any U.S. legislation as is the case with Indian track record on democracy, freedom of expression and rights of the minorities.”

Pakistani Defense Expert