Why India’s arms deals with Russia are about to become a headache for Biden

To date, the only countries sanctioned under the law are Turkey and China, both for purchasing the same S-400 system that is slated to arrive in India. It is a precedent that could place the Biden government in an awkward position with a key ally.

Narendra Modi’s government appears to have made the decision to proceed with the system and “they have not backed down in the last three years despite threats of sanctions,” said Sameer Lalwani. Senior Fellow for Asia Strategy at the Stimson Center.

“You have planned around it, made that commitment and reaffirmed it. They don’t blink and so we can play this chicken game as many times as we want, but the consequences will be worse for us, ”he said.

Modi was in Washington last week to meet with Biden and the other leaders of The Quad – India, Australia, Japan, and the US – to discuss a number of regional issues, but American and Indian officials refused to confirm that S-400 turned on was the order of the day.

India has been buying arms from the USA, Russia, France and Israel for decades. But in recent years, successive Washington governments have tried to wean India off Russian equipment. with important victories. But Russia keeps some key systems under control and sells nuclear powered submarines and warships to the Indian armed forces.

However, the S-400 air defense system is large.

In 2020, the Trump administration kicked Turkey out of the F-35 program and imposed sanctions under CAATSA after Turkey received its first S-400, a major step against a long-standing NATO ally.

Exclusion from the F-35 club was a bitter pill for the Turkish government, but Washington and its NATO allies had for years publicly and privately warned Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan against the conclusion of the deal. However, the Turkish leadership remained defiant all along. Just last week Erdogan said he was ready to buy a second S-400, promising that “no one will be able to interfere what kind of defense systems we buy from which country and at what level” .

The Indian government “was definitely watching it all very closely and warning them all the way,” said R. Clarke Cooper, deputy secretary of state for politico-military affairs under the Trump administration, now on the Atlantic Council. The message to the Indian government following the signing of the deal with Russia in 2018 was: “Look, you are receiving the S-400, you may be jeopardizing interoperability with the United States, and you may be jeopardizing interoperability with the United States other partners who value you, ”said Cooper.

The 2017 CAATSA Act was created in response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea and aimed to deter countries from buying Russian equipment while punishing the country’s defense industry. However, given the volume of Russian arms exports to the Asia-Pacific region, Trump and Biden’s administrations worked to balance the law against the burgeoning allies with a long history of buying Russian equipment.

India is an important part of this balancing act, and how the US treats India’s dealings with Russia will affect how other nations are treated.

The Indian embassy in Washington did not respond to a request to comment on possible sanctions.

Since CAATSA went into effect, the message to countries with longstanding ties to the Russian defense industry in general has been: “Keep your AK-47, but if you really want a modern military alongside the United States and partners, don’t risk it” said Cooper. “I would be surprised if the Biden team had a different type of conversation with the Indian government.”

A senior administrative official, who was not empowered to discuss the issue and asked for anonymity, said India’s proposed arms purchases from Russia are no secret, but “we urge all of our allies and partners to renounce transactions with Russia, the sanctions could trigger “. under CAATSA.

Foreign Minister Antony Blinken has made no stipulations on sanctions, and “CAATSA has no blanket or country-specific exemption,” said the official. Any transaction with Russia’s “defense or intelligence sector must be assessed on a case-by-case basis”.

In the case of Turkey, the concern within NATO was that the powerful Russian radar system tracking targets for the S-400 would send valuable information back to Moscow on the functioning of the F-35 and other aircraft. Leaders in Brussels said they would not bring their F-35s near this radar system even if it were operated by an ally.

India is still a huge market for arms exporting countries, which according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute accounted for 9.5 percent of all global arms imports in 2020 and is only surpassed by Saudi Arabia.

And billions of those expenses will continue to go to Russia.

“Whatever happens, be it sanctions or waivers, the real challenge for the government is figuring out how not to have to deal with it over and over,” said Lalwani of Stimson.

In 2023 India will receive the first two of four new frigates from Russia and will rent its third nuclear submarine from Moscow in 2025; all important contracts have already been concluded.

“The question will be whether this will trigger a wave of sanctions every time,” Lalwani said. “The other reason the government needs to work this out with Congress is because this sword of Damocles won’t hang over the relationship for the next five to ten years because these agreements have already been made and signed.”

In March, Senate Chairperson for External Relations, Sen. Bob Menendez (DN.J.) sent a letter Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin warned, “If India chooses to purchase the S-400, it will clearly be a significant and sanctionable deal with the Russian defense sector … the US in the development and procurement of sensitive military technology.”

While these grand deals will force Washington to count on its own political choices, industrial competition between the American and Russian defense industries will remain fierce.

In May, the State Department approved the sale of six P-8 submarine fighters to India, in addition to the twelve Boeing planes the country already operates. The deals all include stipulating that 30 percent of manufacturing will be in India, part of Modi’s Make in India program.

A big prize awaits in the coming months as India decides who will build its new fleet of up to 110 multi-role fighter jets. Lockheed Martin is working to sell India with its F-21 fighter, a derivative of the F-16.

Boeing offers its F-15EX Eagle II and F / A-18E / F Super Hornet, which compete with Saabs Gripen E / F, Dassaults Rafale and Eurofighters Typhoon, which are manufactured by a consortium of Airbus, BAE Systems and Leonardo. It is believed that Russia will offer both its MiG-35 and Sukhoi Su-35.

The Obama administration’s appointment of India as a key defense partner in 2016 should signal Washington’s desire to move closer to New Delhi while also getting the Indian government to avoid Russian equipment.

The deal gives India access to US defense technology on a par with its NATO allies and came shortly after Russia lost a $ 3 billion deal to Boeing to build Apache and Chinook helicopters.

The United States and its influential defense industry will not break away from these agreements and a growing relationship with India at a time when the country has become a close ally in deterring China. But since India will not give up its relations with Russia, Congress and the White House will soon have to decide how much they are willing to accept.

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