The United States has an India problem and it’s all about Russia. In 2018, India agreed to purchase five Russian S-400 missile systems at a cost of $ 5.4 billion. The sophisticated S-400 system is considered to be the best air defense weapon system in the United States, the Patriot missile. It is the same missile system that prompted the outgoing Trump administration to impose US sanctions on Turkey in December 2020. Now India faces similar sanctions – and that prospect has seriously weighed on bilateral relations, threatening India’s own defense sales, and questioning President Joe Biden’s commitment to working with allies to confront China.
Of course, the sanctions issue is not really about India. It’s about Russia. The Law to Combat America’s Opponents Through Sanctions (CAATSA), passed by Congress in 2017 to punish Russia for meddling in the 2016 US election, comes very close to the president’s call for sanctions to be imposed on any country in “significant” purchases of military equipment are made in Russia. But it would be a huge mistake for Biden to impose sanctions on India.
On the contrary, the United States should really welcome India’s purchase of Russian weapons.
When it comes to confronting China across Eurasia, the United States needs India much more than India needs the United States. For India, the United States is a welcome and valued security partner, but too distant and not particularly reliable. For the United States, India is the only friend in the region willing and able to act as a counterweight to China. If Washington is to help New Delhi’s help resolve the many simmering conflicts in the region, it must show some leniency towards sanctions. It is better to let Russia off the sanction hook than to catch India in the CAATSA network.
India is the largest democracy in the world and the sixth largest economy in the world that will soon be the fifth largest. It is also about to overtake China as the most populous country in the world. India is an advocate of stability in the Indian Ocean and an important bulwark against Chinese expansionism. It is the cornerstone of America’s Indo-Pacific strategy and a founding member of Quad, an approximation of Indo-Pacific democracies. It was the leader of the Non-Aligned Movement during the Cold War. And it is also a major buyer of Russian military equipment.
It’s not just the S-400 that India has on its shopping list. India has been buying from Russia since the days of the Soviet Union. The Indian Air Force flies MiG-29 and Su-30 fighter jets. The Navy flies Russian-made jets based on a Russian-made carrier. It also has several Russian frigates and has ordered a Russian nuclear submarine. And despite recent modernization and a “Buy Indian” program, the Indian army is mostly equipped with Russian main battle tanks and other armored vehicles.
But India was never a Russian or a Soviet satellite state. It buys from Russia because Russia is a reliable commercial supplier of high quality equipment. India is also buying in France, Israel and increasingly in the US. But even without buying the S-400, India would already be on the list of bad CAATSA countries for all other devices it buys from Russia – and will continue to buy from Russia. Sanctioning India for its Russian purchases will not include a future US ally. It will only sell a potential partner – and an increasingly lucrative military customer.
And what for? Eurasia’s strategic geography ensures that India’s S-400 will never attack the United States or its allies. And unlike the Turkish S-400s, they will not reveal any F-35 stealth secrets as India is not an F-35 customer and is unlikely to be attacked by an air force. The sole purpose of applying CAATSA sanctions to India would be to apply the law for the purpose for which it was enacted: to punish Russia. And that only shows what can go wrong when the US Congress tries to regulate foreign policy.
The primary purpose of CAATSA’s Russia-related provisions was to pressure Russia to suspend its global cyber espionage and cyber manipulation programs, with sanctions largely imposed on its defense industry. (Separate provisions of the law target Iran and North Korea.) Congress might well believe that any instrument that restricts Russian defense exports is good for the United States, and perhaps the world as a whole. However, careful analysis of Eurasian geopolitics suggests otherwise.
The complicating factor is China. In recent years, India has been by far Russia’s largest export destination for military hardware, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, accounting for an average of almost a third of Russian arms exports between 2010 and 2019. By 2018, Beijing’s purchases of advanced Russian weapons quickly caught up with New Delhi when China struggled to develop its own high-tech components such as jet engines. However, defense procurement relationships between the two countries ended in 2019 as Russia claimed China had reverse engineered proprietary technologies. As a result, Russia is reluctant to sell small quantities to China so that China does not copy the samples, rather than placing large follow-up orders for the real thing.
India’s status as Russia’s best customer – and an honest customer at that – gives India an enormous influence on the constantly financially troubled Russian regime. When fighting broke out between India and China in Ladakh last year, Russia appeared to have joined Indian pressure to stop supplying S-400 technology to China. Indian demand is especially important to ensure Russia can maintain military production lines and maintenance on an industrial scale. That may not sound attractive to the US. But because Russia is also supplying arms to other countries nervous about China’s growing ambitions, the Russian defense industry is actually promoting US interests throughout the interior of Eurasia.
If the United States is to contain China, Russia, or both, it needs other countries to do the heavy lifting – at least on land. The US Indo-Pacific strategy is essentially maritime, and with the US scaling down its presence in Afghanistan, it is unlikely that substantial US ground forces will ever return to mainland Asia, except for the 8th Army, which is still stationed in South Korea is. A solid Russian-Indian relationship is the best guarantee that China will not exert undue influence on the relatively vulnerable countries of Central Asia. It is also the most likely path to a stable future for Afghanistan, a country where India has a strong diplomatic presence.
A thriving relationship between India and Russia is also preferable to the alternative scenario in which India becomes a firm ally of the US while a desperate Russia is forced to become a junior partner in a renewed Sino-Russian alliance. India’s main asset to the United States is a separate independent power. Washington has absolutely no interest in making any new security commitments in Kashmir or the Himalayas. Meanwhile, Russia’s relatively equal relationship with India promises a stable partnership that can keep the peace without either country gaining the upper hand.
Biden cannot in good faith claim that India’s Russian arms procurement is not “significant” – the main criterion for the application of sanctions. To enforce the law, he has to call CAATSA. As soon as he initiates the procedure, however, he can and should refrain from implementing sanctions under the national security exception built into the legislation. This exception is narrow and it would likely require him to apply creative labeling for the exception to stick. However, so great is the overwhelming US interest in keeping India on its side that a little sensitivity on the part of the executive would go a long way in preventing a serious security breach against itself.