A BrahMos cruise missile launcher rolls past during an Indian Republic Day parade. Russian-Indian defense cooperation has included joint development of the missile. (Agence France-Presse)
WASHINGTON AND NEW DELHI — The Obama administration’s threatened sanctions against the Russian defense sector, raised by US officials March 20, would likely have little impact on the US armed forces, for whom Russian goods make up a tiny fraction of arms purchases.
But for US allies who would likely face US pressure to follow suit if sanctions are imposed, Russia is a critically important supplier.
Russia is the world’s second largest exporter of arms, trailing the US, but far ahead of others. What makes its defense sector different is its extraordinary reliance on a few big clients to provide the vast majority of purchases.
According to research by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) released this month, half of Russia’s arm sales over the past five years went to two countries: India and China. Many other countries to which Russia sells, such as Syria, wouldn’t likely be swayed by US efforts to limit Russian sales. China, which accounted for 12 percent of Russia’s sales over that period, also would likely ignore any US overtures toward a unified ban.
But the situation with India, which according to SIPRI accounted for 38 percent of Russia’s sales over the five-year period, is more complicated. The country is enormously dependent on Russian military hardware, with 75 percent of India’s imports over the last five years coming from Russia, compared to only 7 percent from the US.
That relationship, however, is changing. According to research by IHS Jane’s, the US surpassed Russia as the top exporter to India in 2013, with $1.9 billion in sales. That creates a new dynamic where, if the US decided to move ahead with sanctions against Russia, it might have a greater interest in trying to guarantee that the one major Russian arms buyer it is closely aligned with did the same.
US sanctions don’t automatically carry over to other countries, but typically, in an effort to increase their effectiveness, the US tries to rope as many allies into a sanctions effort as possible.
There is a big difference in the way the US and Russia have approached weapons deals with India, said Nitin Mehta, a defense analyst in India. Russia remains a strategic partner, as it has given technology and transferred high-tech weaponry. India and Russia have jointly developed a supersonic cruise missile, the BrahMos.
“The United States only remains a seller of weapons, so far, to India, and has yet to begin any big-ticket joint development of weaponry,” Mehta said.
The close relationship extends to planned large purchases.
“For India, Russia continues to be an important source of weaponry and equipment, and will continue to remain that way as India has signed several big-ticket defense programs with Russia, including the joint development of the Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft, for which India would give an order worth over $20 billion,” Mehta said.
What may also push India to maintain its close ties to Russia, even if the US applies broad pressure on sanctions, is the need for parts and upgrades to its vast inventory of Soviet-made equipment.
US officials have avoided giving details on what defense sanctions could look like, instead describing them as one option in the White House’s efforts to influence Russian President Vladimir Putin’s actions. And although the Obama administration is threatening defense sanctions, they haven’t yet been imposed.
If imposed, they would likely be incremental, a former senior administration official said.
“You don’t want to shoot your top sanctions too early, because you want to ratchet up pressure to influence behavior,” the former official said.
Potential sanctions against the Russian defense sector would also be a bit out of the ordinary for the US, the official said. “Most of the time, it’s financial sanctions.”
The more immediate concern appears to be the planned delivery of French Mistral helicopter carriers to the Russians. US officials have declined to answer questions about whether there has been any pressure applied on France to prevent delivery, instead insisting that each country is entitled to make its own decisions on sales.
“Decisions about such sales are a matter for sovereign states taking into account a host of factors, including international law and regional stability,” State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf said at a briefing earlier this month.
But the Mistral deals were always contentious in the US, and there will be pressure to do something, the former senior official said.
“The French endured a lot of criticism for the sale to begin with,” the former official said. “They have not traditionally placed scrupulous attention on their [arms] sales; they typically view sales in terms of commercial opportunity rather than foreign policy. That makes it difficult for them to walk back a sale.” ■