India's purchase of Russia’s flagship missile-defense system has placed the country directly in the crosshairs of U.S. sanctions designed to target the Russian military. The Trump administration is now weighing whether or not to waive the sanctions—and the message that would send to allies interested in buying equipment from Moscow.
India and Russia finalized the purchase of the S-400 on Friday, shortly after Russian President Vladimir Putin met with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The sale puts India at risk of sanction under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, which Trump begrudgingly signed into law in August 2017.
CAATSA subjects anyone who engages in a “significant transaction” with blacklisted Russian entities to U.S. sanctions. That list includes Russia’s arms-export entity responsible for the S-400 deal, Rosoboronexport.
There’s a catch: Trump may waive sanctions that are not in the “vital national security” of the United States. In August, Congress passed specific waiver conditions in the 2019 National Defense Authorization bill which require Trump to certify that the targeted country is either taking steps to reduce their dependence on Russian arms or is cooperating on operations “critical to United States strategic interests,” and that the waiver will not endanger U.S. alliances, like NATO.
President Trump told reporters Wednesday that “India will find out” about the U.S. response to the deal with the Kremlin. Asked when that would be, Trump replied, “you’ll see. Sooner than you think.”
When it comes to the S-400 deal, Indian defense officials are betting that Trump will sign the waiver.
“There is a hope that [Trump] will sign, and in many quarters an expectation, with the caveat that it’s not a given,” said Tanvi Madan, director of the India Project at Brookings Institution.
The S-400 is Russia’s newest long-range surface-to-air missile-defense system, capable on paper of knocking out drones, missiles, and incoming fighters up to 400 kilometers away. The mobile system can be deployed in minutes, and can engage multiple targets simultaneously, possibly including China’s stealth aircraft that threaten India’s eastern border.
Defense officials are wary of handicapping India’s military buildup, which is critical to countering China’s rise. The United States’ newly unfurled National Defense Strategy prioritizes “great power competition” with Russia and China.
In May, the U.S. Pacific Command was renamed the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command to reflect the importance of the U.S.–India partnership. During a trip to New Delhi last month, Defense Secretary James Mattis and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo signed a landmark defense agreement that allows for the sale of secure communications and data equipment to India and for the U.S. to offer real-time data-sharing with the Indian military.
The State Department declined to forecast future sanctions, but officials have said that the law was not intended to punish U.S. allies.
Mattis pushed for the inclusion of broad waiver authority in April, telling senators on the Armed Services Committee that India was one of many nations “trying to turn away from formerly Russian-sourced weapons and systems.” Pompeo also advocated for the authority when he testified to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in May.
Of course, it is possible that Trump will use the waiver as leverage to cut a deal with India on trade or other policy. “Will he say, for strategic reasons, this [waiver] is important and we’ll go through with it, or will he want something in return?” asked Madan.
During last week's unveiling of the United States–Mexico–Canada Agreement, Trump called India “the tariff king,” and said that he wants immediate trade talks. It’s also unclear when Trump would need to sign the waiver—China was subjected to CAATSA sanctions just last month, only after its purchase of a S-400 was delivered.
India has attempted to diversify its defense imports and build its domestic industry over the past decade, said Aparna Pande, director of the Hudson Institute’s Initiative on the Future of India and South Asia. But Russia remains India’s largest arms supplier, a legacy of the Cold War relationship between India and the Soviet Union, and integrating western equipment into its existing systems can prove challenging.
“If my entire apartment has IKEA furniture, and I want to go buy from West Elm, I cannot replace one leg of my table with a West Elm leg,” said Pande. “The military has gotten used to … the supply chain, the training, that sort of thing.”
The policy of “diversification” may also become untenable as air-defense systems become integrated, amid concerns over data security and interoperability. “Diversification is a high-maintenance strategy,” said Madan. “The ability to plug-and-play is contingent upon interoperability, on a shared understanding of things like security of information.”
Concerns over data security are already causing problems outside of India. Last month, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan roiled NATO allies by finalizing a deal for the system. The sale was cited by Congress in the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act as cause for freezing the sale of F-35 fighters to Turkey, which could be vulnerable to the S-400.
“You’re seeing the fault lines of the air-defense market here in Istanbul, in Riyadh, in other Gulf States, and in New Delhi, and in Beijing,” said Thomas Karako, director of the Missile Defense Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Saudi Arabia, Iran, Vietnam, Algeria, and Belarus are eyeing the S-400 system; Sweden, Romania, and Poland, have announced they intend to purchase the comparable Patriot system. Other countries are eyeing European or Israeli alternatives.
“At the end of the day, the world is dividing up into IAD zones, integrated-air-defense zones,” said Karako. “India, as well as other folks, are going to have to decide in what flavor of air defense they’re going to be.”
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