THIS PIECE FIRST APPEARED IN THE HINDI LANGUAGE WEBSITE OF THE BBC:
It was an annual summit between the heads of states of two nuclear powers, two nations who’ve worked together through critical junctures in history.
Yet it was also a summit where expectations were fixated on one line.
And when that one line was there, in print, little else mattered.
The reference here is to the deal for five, Russian S-400 Long Range Surface to Air Missile systems for Indian Air Force (IAF). The contract for the supply of these systems was ‘concluded’ said point number 45 of the Indo-Russian joint statement. While the cost of the system is reportedly in excess of $5.4 billion, there was no official word.
For reasons we will go into a little later, Washington’s current crusade against Moscow is likely to land this deal and thereby India’s key interests in its crosshair.
Before proceeding, a little context will help.
The IAF, said to be the world’s fourth largest air force, is in dire straits.
While it must hold ‘at least’ 45 squadrons of fighter jets to defend India’s airspace (each squadron can consist of 17-18 fighter jets), what it holds is 31 ‘active’ squadrons. Indian Parliament’s Standing Committee on Defence, in its report in December last year was informed by the IAF that ‘as 14 squadrons of MiG 21, 27 & 29 (fighter jets) are due for de-induction in next 10 years, the present level of 33 squadrons will further go down to 19 by 2027, and may further reduce to 16 by 2032’. When it heard the response of the Ministry of Defence (MoD), the same committee remarked, ‘The issue of depletion in squadron strength has been taken up repeatedly by the Committee over the years. However, no concrete measure seem to be taken hitherto.’
Does it then come as a surprise that the IAF chief, Air Chief Marshal BS Dhanoa only on Wednesday termed the S-400 along with two squadrons of French Rafale jets, as a ‘booster dose’?
There is yet another side to the IAF’s predicament.
In the words of Ajai Malhotra, who was India’s Ambassador in Moscow between 2011 and 2013, “the S-400 was offered to India not long after it was inducted by Russia in 2007. We should’ve moved on it some years ago. With there being no comparable choice available and with China also signing up for the S-400 system, it has become a necessity for us”.
Now let’s shift focus to Washington.
Smarting under what it believes was Russian meddling in the elections that brought Donald Trump to the presidency and acting with a burning desire to make Moscow pay, the US Congress last year brought in a legislation named ‘Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act’.
What it does is to force the President’s hand in imposing five or more sanctions ‘with respect to a person the President determines knowingly, on or after such date of enactment, engages in a significant transaction with a person that is part of, or operates for or on behalf of, the defense or intelligence sectors of the Government of the Russian Federation.’
Malhotra’s successor in Moscow and currently the head of the National Security Advisory Board (NSAB), PS Raghavan contextualised it by saying, “CAATSA requires President Trump to say that India has reduced its dependency on Russia. But there is nothing to show that India has.”
If after determining that India’s actions do constitute a ‘significant transaction’, America’s Secretary of State and Secretary of Treasury initiate sanctions using Sec 231 of the Act, using Section 235 of the CAATSA, President Trump can waive or delay the imposition of sanctions.
To be sure, it is not an act that Trump signed happily.
In fact on the day of signing it, he went on record to call it ‘seriously flawed’ and added, “As President, I can make far better deals with foreign countries than Congress”.
There is one more thing he said that day,a line which many pragmatists in Delhi and elsewhere are holding onto.
He added, “(CAATSA) disadvantages American companies…because those sanctions could negatively affect American companies and those of our allies”.
Speaking of the defence sector alone, ‘American companies’ that Trump referred to have benefitted immensely from their entry into the Indian bazaar.
Unfortunately for India and fortunately for international defence equipment manufacturers, India has emerged an even stronger importer of weapons. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), between 2013 and 2017, India accounted for 12 per cent of the global share of imports, the highest for any country.
And the one country that has gained the most is not Russia but the United States.
Data analysed by SIPRI shows that while the volume of Russian weapons export to India remained unchanged between 2008-12 and 2013-17, that of the US increased by a whopping 557 per cent in that period!
Malhotra analysed, “Sanctioning India would meet neither Trump’s nor indeed larger US interests”.
Still no one wants to predict how Washington is going to react to a deal it did not want signed.
Observers however are firm – sanctions or no sanctions, when it comes to national security, India must protect her interests.
Malhotra said, “Let quiet diplomacy do its task of making the Americans better understand our position and appreciate our very genuine concerns. We may well take US views into account as regards Iranian oil, but will not do so in cases where our national security is involved”.
Even if the S-400 deal goes through with India unpunished, there are concerns about the long-term.
Raghavan remarked how US officials have more than once enunciated their desire to end India’s reliance on Russia. “After all, this is about selling major defence platforms to India. However, the level of technology that India gets from Russia, the US simply can’t give as yet, due to a variety of reasons,” he added.
Using acts like CAATSA, the US may want to make India move more firmly into its orbit which would basically mean making India more accountable and amenable to buying US platforms and moving away from Russia.
What must India do?
Raghavan offered the last word
“What the US needs to understand is India is in a very difficult position. We have to balance ties with China and Russia both on terms favourable to us, not the US. But you know, a deal is always possible”.
Isn’t that what Trump thinks too?