As US aims at Russia, India's defence preparedness caught in the crossfire

The United States of America (US) has leapt ahead of Russia as India’s biggest supplier of new weaponry. A recent report from Parliament’s Standing Committee on Defence reveals that, during the last three years, US firms concluded 13 contracts with India, worth Rs 288 billion. In the same period, Russia got 12 contracts, valued at just Rs 83 billion — not even one-third of the US bag. Now Moscow’s share could decline further, with New Delhi being squeezed by the threat of US sanctions against countries that buy weaponry from Russia.


These sanctions are embedded in legislation — titled “Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act” (CAATSA) — that the US Congress passed in mid-2017. While CAATSA is directed at Russia, Iran and North Korea, it is the Russian component of the law that most concerns India. It enjoins the US administration to impose sanctions against countries that engage in “significant transactions” with Russian defence and intelligence entities. India is highly vulnerable to that charge, with its military heavily dependent upon the purchase from Russia for spares, maintenance, and overhaul of its roughly 6,000 tanks and infantry combat vehicles, artillery and air defence guns, warships, submarines and large numbers of fighter and transport aircraft and helicopters. It would be no exaggeration to say that without large purchases from Russia, India’s military would grind to a halt. In addition to keeping its legacy fleet running, India is exploring crucial new transactions from Russia, such as the lease of a nuclear submarine, the purchase of 200 Kamov-226 helicopters and the S-400 Triumf advanced air defence systems.


Intriguingly, recent days have seen a resurgence of chatter in the strategic community about the possibility of India being sanctioned under CAATSA. It is speculated that India’s proposed purchase of the S-400 Triumf has caused red lights to start flashing in Washington DC. Like CAATSA itself, the S-400 proposal is not new; the defence ministry cleared it in principle in December 2015 and negotiations have been ongoing since then. But Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman’s visit to Moscow last month and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Monday meeting with President Vladimir Putin has heightened anticipation of an imminent contract. Washington insiders say that top US administration officials might be willing to condone procurements like Kamov light helicopters, arguing that is not a “significant transaction”. But the S-400 Triumf, which is an upgraded version of the S-300 missile system that China’s military uses, and which is a key preoccupation of US Air Force planners could never be accorded an exemption. Besides, the estimated $4.5 billion value of such a contract could hardly be ignored by Washington.


It is ironical that the US Congress, which is uniformly well disposed towards India, has enacted CAATSA, even though it directly undermines Indian defence capability. In fact, India is mere collateral damage in the operating of CAATSA, which is primarily directed at President Donald Trump. Practically every Democrat in the US Congress, and a large percentage of Republican Russia-hawks, have been furious at Mr Trump’s kid-glove treatment of Russia. Democrats believe Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election robbed Hillary Clinton of the presidency; meanwhile Republican orthodoxy can hardly countenance Mr Trump’s chumminess towards Mr Putin and his thuggish administration. With the common objective of forcing Mr Trump to confront Moscow, lawmakers from both sides of the aisle in the US Congress passed CAATSA. In this single-minded focus on binding Mr Trump to an anti-Russia course of action, the collateral damage being inflicted on national security allies has been disregarded.


Mr Trump could have sent CAATSA back to Congress, but he realised that, given his perceived closeness to Mr Putin, not signing off on it would only make things look worse. Besides, so overwhelming was the support in Congress for CAATSA that it might well have reappeared before Mr Trump in veto-proof form, backed by a two-thirds Congressional majority. So, while signing off on CAATSA on August 2, 2017, Mr Trump did what a number of US presidents have done over the last 30 years when signing legislation they had grave reservations about. He issued a “signing statement”, that said the bill was “seriously flawed — particularly because it encroaches on the executive branch’s authority to negotiate”. Stating that he was signing CAATSA for the sake of “national unity”, Mr Trump’s statement ended with characteristic flourish: “I built a truly great company worth many billions of dollars. That is a big part of the reason I was elected. As President, I can make far better deals with foreign countries than Congress”.


Realising CAATSA’s potential for damaging relations with key partners like India, Secretary of Defence James Mattis has been campaigning for a national security waiver from CAATSA for key allies, including in recent testimony before the US Congress. However, Democratic Congresspersons are virulently opposed to any waiver that might allow Mr Trump’s administration to bypass CAATSA. The Republicans might be more open to the notion of a waiver for a small handful of countries, but they do not want to give Mr Trump a free hand on Russia either.


Complicating matters is the fact that the administration itself is divided on the issue of a CAATSA waiver. There are administration officials who still bear a grudge against India, believing that Washington had conceded too much to New Delhi in the US-India nuclear deal. Mr Mattis is clearly on India’s side, but he is the only adult in the room for most administration confabulations. National Security Advisor John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo would have to be brought onto the same page, but they have both been in office for just days and have not revealed where they stand. Neither is a known friend of India.


The Indian Embassy in Washington has made sporadic efforts to reach out to individual Congresspersons for supporting a CAATSA waiver. However, Indian diplomats in Washington have not been great at “working the Hill”. They have relied instead on powerful allies — like Jim Mattis today — hoping they would fight the battle for India.


Perhaps to reduce the likelihood of sanctions, there have been noticeable efforts by New Delhi to downplay the Indo-Russia defence relationship. In February, India terminated its participation in the high-profile proposal to develop an Indo-Russian fifth generation fighter. During DefExpo 2018 last month, Ms Sitharaman noticeably cold-shouldered the Russian delegation. There are clear limits to how much, and how quickly, India can decrease its dependence upon Russian arms supplies, something that many US officials in Washington do not quite comprehend. But for now, it would appear that American officials are taking solace from the decreasing Indian purchases from Russia — evident from the Standing Committee report — a trend that US officials could use to justify waiving sanctions on India.