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A Russian S-400 Triumf surface-to-air missile system in Red Square, Moscow. Photo: Xinhua

With eye on China, US thinks twice about sanctioning India for Russian missile system

  • After Biden talked of stronger ties, there are indications Washington may reconsider tough stance on New Delhi’s US$5.5 billion deal for S-400 Triumf system
  • US may have concluded that upsetting a friend in the Indo-Pacific was not worth the risk after controversial Aukus alliance and exit from Afghanistan
Just days after US President Joe Biden hosted Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the White House and said the two countries were “destined to be stronger, closer and tighter”, what might be the first signs of that new relationship have come into view.

In the first such signal to New Delhi, visiting US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman indicated on Thursday that Washington might reconsider slapping sanctions on the Indian government when New Delhi takes delivery of five Russian-built S-400 Triumf anti-aircraft missile systems in a US$5.5 billion deal later this year.

Speaking on the first day of her two-day visit to India, Sherman said that while it was “dangerous” for countries to use the Russian missile system, the United States was unlikely to act harshly against New Delhi.

“We want to be very thoughtful about the ways ahead and discussions between our countries try to solve problems. I hope we will be able to in this instance as well,” Sherman said.

US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman. Photo: TNS

Sherman’s statement was in contrast to Washington’s tough stance so far.

There has been unease in Washington ever since 2016 when India announced the deal with Russia, which remains New Delhi’s biggest defence partner.

Between 2010 and 2020, 62 per cent of India’s arms imports came from Russia and it procured 12 per cent of weapons from the US, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

In August 2017, the US Senate approved the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, or CAATSA, a move widely seen as targeting Moscow for its annexation of Crimea that year.

In addition to imposing sanctions on Russia, Iran and North Korea, the act provides for secondary sanctions against nations that enter into “significant transactions” with any of the three countries.

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Since 2018, Moscow and New Delhi have concluded defence deals worth US$15 billion, from fighter jets to assault rifles to stealth frigates.

This year, the US invoked the act to impose sanctions on Turkey after it bought the S-400 missile system from Russia. The US also kicked out the Turkish government from the transnational programme to develop and acquire F-35 fighter jets.

In January, US officials reportedly conveyed to the Modi administration that it was unlikely to grant New Delhi a special pass on the issue.

Last month, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken took a similar stance. “Well, we have our laws. We’ll apply our laws, but we shared our concerns with India about this,” Blinken said.

US officials, including Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin, have since tried to kick the can down the road, saying sanctions would apply only after the missile systems were delivered.

US President Joe Biden walks to the Quad summit at the White House in September with Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga. Photo: AP

But despite stiff opposition from the US, New Delhi has been defiant about acquiring the missile systems. It sees them as critical at a time when it is locked in a stand-off with the Chinese army at numerous points along the countries’ de facto Himalayan border known as the Line of Actual Control in Ladakh.

A report by the Observer Research Foundation (ORF), a New Delhi-based think tank, said the S-400 was the most effective weapon system of its kind and critical for India’s needs.

“From the Indian Air Force perspective, there is no alternative system capable of serving its long-range air defence requirements, from the standpoint of either capability or cost,” the report, by Kashish Parpiani, Nivedita Kapoor and Angad Singh, said.

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“The ability of the S-400 to constrain the adversary’s air operations even within their own airspace, is unmatched by typical Western systems offered up as analogues,” it added.

This week, though, that possibility came closer when the new Indian Air Force chief Marshal VR Chaudhari said that the first set of S-400 systems were to be adopted by the end of the year.

Analysts said the inevitability of the deal probably softened the US response.

“The softening of the US stance is a sign of the recognition in Washington DC that the deal is going through, and that India was not going to call it off, despite the pressure on it,” said Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan, the director of the Centre for Security Strategy and Technology at the ORF.

Other analysts said the change in the American approach might be to do with the timing.


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“The US will think twice before penalising a partner like India at a time when there are renewed doubts about its reliability as a partner,” said Sameer Patil, a fellow of the International Security Studies Programme at the Gateway House think tank.

Patil pointed to the fallout between the US and France after Biden announced the Aukus security alliance with Australia and the UK, as well as the hasty, unplanned US withdrawal from Afghanistan that was criticised by America’s allies.

“The US has a history of treachery with its partners and sanctioning India at this crucial stage would only make the impression stronger,” Patil said.

But experts said Sherman’s visit showed the US was unlikely to upset the momentum of US-India ties. On Wednesday, Sherman said India’s security concerns were “first and foremost” and “front and centre” for Washington, a statement widely seen as reassuring New Delhi that the US shared its worries about terrorism emanating from a Taliban-ruled Afghanistan.

Sherman also downplayed any differences between the two countries on Afghanistan, saying they shared “one mind, one approach” on the issue.

Analysts said sanctioning India over the missiles would derail much of the closeness that the two countries seemed to have achieved in the recent past.

Sanctions under CAATSA can range from America denying visas to individuals to choking off a country’s ability to get loans or procure goods internationally.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in New Delhi. Photo: EPA

Many in India remember when the US sanctioned the country after its nuclear tests in 1998.

Captain (retired) Vikram Mahajan, the director of Aerospace and Defence at the US-India Strategic Partnership Forum, said any sanctions would have a “very limited scope”.

“But what the US needs to realise is that its ramifications on ties between the two nations would be far more significant,” Mahajan added.

Patil, the Gateway House Fellow, said if the US sanctioned India it would fuel calls for the Modi administration to rethink its closeness with the US.

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The sanctions, if approved, would also cast a shadow on joint military engagements and arms deals, said Mahajan.

This would be bad news for both countries, and particularly for Washington’s bid to increase its presence in the Indo-Pacific region and take on China.

It would also cast a shadow on the Quad’s future and India’s involvement in it and might even end up pushing New Delhi closer to Moscow, experts added.

“In fact, after its exit from Afghanistan, there is an expectation that the US is likely to devote much more time and resources to the Indo-Pacific,” Rajagopalan said.

Some observers suggested there were better ways for the US to reduce India’s reliance on Russian military hardware.

“Instead of sanctioning New Delhi, the US should invest in India to build an ecosystem in defence manufacturing, where American manufacturers could come [to India] and build complex defence systems,” said Mahajan.

“Such a plan might help India achieve self-reliance while helping the US wean it away from Russia.”

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: delhi ‘unlikely’ to face pain over moscow deal