India sticking to S-400 deal with Russia despite threat of possible US sanctions

  • Russia is set to train the first group of Indian military specialists in operating the S-400 and the first batteries are expected by September.
The Russian S-400s air defence system(Representational image/REUTERS)
The Russian S-400s air defence system(Representational image/REUTERS)
Published on Jan 27, 2021 07:12 PM IST
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India is sticking to its guns on the $5.4-billion deal with Russia for S-400 air defence systems despite reports of possible US sanctions, an issue with the potential for becoming an early irritant with the new Biden administration.

India’s decision to acquire the S-400, instead of other air defence systems offered by the West, was based on a thorough evaluation and national security requirements, including already delayed plans to create a ballistic missile defence shield over key cities, people familiar with developments said on condition of anonymity.

The lingering standoff with China in Ladakh has seen India deploy a raft of weapons and systems in the sector, including hardware bought from the US, Russia and France, to strengthen its military deployments.

“India’s strategic interests are supreme and it is for us to decide what weapons we buy and from whom to pursue those interests. If the US has concerns about procurements from Russia, the latter is also upset over military equipment we are importing from the US,” a senior government official said on condition of anonymity.

“We buy platforms factoring in the security threats we face,” the official said, adding the US and Russia understand India’s complex security challenges.

A second official, who too declined to be named, acknowledged India is walking a fine line in defence cooperation with Russia and the US, which are both strategic partners.

“But the more important point is the country’s independent foreign policy and strategic autonomy to decide defence purchases in line with national security interests,” the second official said.

Though India has been procuring US military hardware in growing numbers, including Apache and Chinook helicopters and P-8I maritime surveillance aircraft, about 60% of the inventory of the three services continues to be of Russian-origin.

The US has sanctioned its NATO ally Turkey under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) for taking delivery of the S-400, and this was mainly due to concerns that Western platforms operating in the same environment as the S-400 would provide Russia valuable data on how to defeat those systems, said Vipin Narang, associate professor of political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“The fact that Turkey didn’t escape CAATSA sanctions suggests the US is very concerned about the S-400 system, and it's probably not just junk. India's insistence to take delivery of its first S-400 batteries later this year therefore sets the Biden administration potentially on a collision course on the sanctions question with India,” Narang said.

Russia is set to train the first group of Indian military specialists in operating the S-400 and the first batteries are expected by September.

Air Vice Marshal (retired) Manmohan Bahadur of the Centre for Airpower Studies said no other country, no matter how friendly, can have a veto on India’s defence purchases. “The US is a valued partner and would, rather should, understand India's interests. Washington's geo-political necessities cannot override India's imperatives and one is sure no action would be taken that hurts New Delhi's position,” he said.

There are also concerns that US sanctions, even if seen as a slap on the wrist, will revive old concerns about America’s reliability as a defence partner and bring back memories of punitive sanctions after India’s 1998 nuclear tests that set back several defence programmes, including one to develop the light combat aircraft (LCA). The US had then held back engines to power the LCA.

Narang said it may be “very hard” for the US to apply different standards to India than it did to Turkey, which hosts American nuclear weapons. “If India does not receive a waiver, it is possible the basket of sanctions – over which there is some leeway – may be simply symbolic, and not painful,” he said.

“Applying even symbolic sanctions, it seems to me, would be counterproductive. It would not only fail to deter India from purchasing Russian military equipment, it would likely accelerate it and empower those in Delhi who have been sceptical of the reliability of the US as a defence partner,” Narang said.

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