WASHINGTON ― U.S. President Donald Trump has held back enacting mandatory sanctions for NATO ally Turkey’s acquisition of the Russian S-400 missile defense system, and the world is watching ― especially India, which is counting on America’s lenience.
Despite passage of the 2017 Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, which could apply sanctions to individuals and organizations that engage or do business with Moscow’s intelligence or defense sectors, America’s partner, India, placed an $800 million down payment this month for an S-400 system. India plans to complete the purchase by 2025.
After that deal, India earlier this week made another deal with Russia, a $3.12 billion contract for local production of 464 T-90S main battle tanks after paying a technology transfer fee to Russia. Though India’s state-owned Ordnance Factory Board will build the tanks in India, the platforms are likely to rely on engines and transmission systems manufactured in Russia.
As the U.S. seeks allies in the Indo-Pacific region who will join together to push back on China’s influence, it is reckoning with the relationships India ― and Vietnam and Indonesia ― have with America’s other rival, Russia. All three are maintaining multiple relationships as a hedge or are partially dependent on Russian military equipment.
“All of them have close security ties with Russia. In at least in two of those cases, India and Vietnam, the U.S. is making inroads selling U.S. equipment. But the question remains: If they continue to make large defense orders, what does that mean?” said Dhruva Jaishankar, director of the U.S. Initiative at the New Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation. He noted that former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson made cases for sanctions waivers.
Generally, the Pentagon and the White House seem inclined toward a waiver if India can make a good case it’s moving toward a stronger partnership with the U.S. But it appears a lot will depend on evolving U.S. relations with Russia and with Turkey, and how the U.S. approaches Pacific partnerships.
Members of Congress in July said they expected CAATSA sanctions to be applied after Turkey accepted the S-400, but Trump has been slow to act and has expressed sympathy for Turkey. There was no action from Trump, even as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan continued to flout Congress’ objections to the deal last week.
Yet, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jim Risch, R-Idaho, told Defense News he would advance legislation to impose stiff sanctions for Turkey’s military incursion into northern Syria “sooner rather than later.”
Risch noted that the U.S. has already expelled Turkey from the multinational F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program over the purchase of the S-400, and suggested CAATSA sanctions must come into play as well. He was speaking on the sidelines of the Halifax International Security Forum.
“It’s important that ... and in particular NATO partners know, that we’re serious about this,” Risch said.
Asked if allies in the Pacific, who are weaning themselves off Russian equipment, should be considered separately, Risch took a hard line. “It’s got to be across the board. This isn’t something that’s got gray area in the middle, OK? This is something we feel very strongly about, and it needs to be enforced.”
U.S. Indo-Pacific Command’s chief, Adm. Philip Davidson, declined to weigh in, saying it was a political decision. But he struck a conciliatory note toward India, whose legacy equipment requires Russian maintenance and ammunition. Still, he stressed, common equipment with the U.S. would “make coming together in a crisis a much easier process.”
“[W]e believe the future is in more interoperability and compatibility between our two nations, and I think the path to that is more U.S. equipment,” he told reporters on the sidelines at Halifax. “For all the discussion of India and the S-400, when you peel it all back, 70 percent of what India buys is U.S. defense equipment, so that puts us in a pretty good place.”
Those remarks come after R. Clarke Cooper, assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs, said last month that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has made clear to India that the country "cannot expand into what I would say are larger defense articles with their previous relationship.”
"What we’re talking about is significant acquisitions. The S-400 is a perfect example of a significant acquisition,” Cooper told reporters.
Along similar lines, Jaishankar argued that alienating New Delhi would hurt the American defense industry. India’s major procurement efforts involve MH-60R Seahawk helicopters from Sikorsky and a sale of Sea Guardian drones from General Atomics ― and potential deals for Lockheed Martin F-21s and Boeing F-18s.
“All of that would be jeopardized by the U.S. imposing sanctions,” Jaishankar said. Still, he downplayed that possibility, saying U.S. officials signal privately that “a solution can be found."
"They’re all turning corners to make the strongest case possible for the White House to grant [India] a waiver,” he added.
Joe Gould is the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He served previously as Congress reporter.