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Explained: India’s caution as US sanctions Turkey over the S-400 deal

While India has got a waiver from the outgoing Trump administration on the S-400 air defence system, Delhi hopes that the incoming Biden administration would not work towards reversing the decision.

The Russian-built S-400 Triumf — identified by NATO as the SA-21 Growler — is the world’s most dangerous operationally deployed modern long-range surface-to-air missile system. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The United States has imposed sanctions on Turkey on Monday over Ankara’s acquisition of Russian S-400 air defence systems. Ankara acquired the Russian S-400 ground-to-air defenses in mid-2019 and says they pose no threat to NATO allies. Washington has long been threatening sanctions on Turkey and had removed the country from an F-35 jet program last year.

With India set to get the consignment of the S-400 air defence system early next year, New Delhi is watching Washington’s moves closely. While it has got a waiver from the outgoing Trump administration, Delhi hopes that the incoming Biden administration would not work towards reversing the decision.

What is the S-400 air defence missile system? Why does India need it?

The S-400 Triumf, (NATO calls it SA-21 Growler), is a mobile, surface-to-air missile system (SAM) designed by Russia. It is the most dangerous operationally deployed modern long-range SAM (MLR SAM) in the world, considered much ahead of the US-developed Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system (THAAD).

The system can engage all types of aerial targets including aircraft, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV and ballistic and cruise missiles within the range of 400km, at an altitude of up to 30km.

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The system can track 100 airborne targets and engage six of them simultaneously.

It represents the fourth generation of long-range Russian SAMs, and the successor to the S-200 and S-300. The S-400’s mission set and capabilities are roughly comparable to the famed US Patriot system.

The S-400 Triumf air defence system integrates a multifunction radar, autonomous detection and targeting systems, anti-aircraft missile systems, launchers, and command and control centre. It is capable of firing three types of missiles to create a layered defence.


The S-400 is two-times more effective than previous Russian air defence systems and can be deployed within five minutes. It can also be integrated into the existing and future air defence units of the Air Force, Army, and the Navy.

The first S-400 systems became operational in 2007 and is responsible for defending Moscow. It has been deployed in Syria in 2015, to guard Russian and Syrian naval and air assets. Russia has also stationed S-400 units in Crimea to strengthen Russia’s position on the recently annexed peninsula.

From India’s point of view, China is also buying the system. In 2015, Beijing signed an agreement with Russia to purchase six battalions of the system. Its delivery began in January 2018.


China’s acquisition of the S-400 system has been viewed as a “game changer” in the region. However, its effectiveness against India is limited. According to experts, even if stationed right on the India-China border and moved into the Himalaya mountains, Delhi would be at the limit of its range.

India’s acquisition is crucial to counter attacks in a two-front war, including even high-end F-35 US fighter aircraft.

In October 2015, Defence Acquisition Council considered buying 12 units of S-400 for its defence needs. But, on evaluation, in December 2015, five units were found adequate. The deal is worth about USD 5 billion.

The deal is near fruition, and negotiations are at an “advanced stage”, and now it is expected to be signed before a summit meeting between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Turkey and Saudi Arabia are negotiating a deal with Russia, while Iraq and Qatar have expressed interest.


What is CAATSA, and how did the S-400 deal fall foul of this Act?

Countering America’s Adversaries through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) was passed unanimously by the US Congress and signed reluctantly by US President Donald Trump. Enacted on August 2, 2017, its core objective is to counter Iran, Russia and North Korea through punitive measures.

Title II of the Act primarily deals with sanctions on Russian interests such as its oil and gas industry, defence and security sector, and financial institutions, in the backdrop of its military intervention in Ukraine and its alleged meddling in the 2016 US Presidential elections.


Section 231 of the Act empowers the US President to impose at least five of the 12 listed sanctions — enumerated in Section 235 of the Act — on persons engaged in a “significant transaction” with Russian defence and intelligence sectors.

As part of Section 231 of the Act, the US State Department has notified 39 Russian entities, dealings with which could make third parties liable to sanctions. These include almost all of the major Russian companies/entities such as Rosoboronexport, Almaz-Antey, Sukhoi Aviation, Russian Aircraft Corporation MiG, and United Shipbuilding Corporation which are active in manufacturing defence items and/or their exports.


However, mere naming of 39 Russian entities by the US authorities or dealings by any country with these entities does not automatically lead to the imposition of sanctions under the CAATSA provisions. The key determinant for imposing sanctions is “significant transaction” between the named Russian entity and an outside agency.

CAATSA, if implemented in its stringent form, would have affected India’s defence procurement from Russia.

Russian maker of S-400s — Almaz-Antey Air and Space Defense Corporation JSC — is on the list of 39 Russian entities.

Apart from the S-400 air defence system, Project 1135.6 frigates and Ka226T helicopters will also be affected. Also, it will impact joint ventures, like Indo Russian Aviation Ltd, Multi-Role Transport Aircraft Ltd and Brahmos Aerospace. It will also affect India’s purchase of spare parts, components, raw materials and other assistance.

But why does the US have a law like CAATSA to begin with? And what does it mean for India’s defence landscape?

Following the US elections and allegations of Russian meddling – some call it collusion – in the US elections, the strain between Washington and Moscow has reached a new level. Angry with Moscow’s actions around the world, US lawmakers are hoping to hit Russia where it hurts most, its defense and energy business, through CAATSA.

“As per the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) Arms Transfer Database, during the period 2010-17, Russia was the top arms supplier to India. The Russian share in India’s arms imports during the same period has declined to 68 per cent, from an all-time high of 74 per cent during the 2000s, whereas the combined share of the US and Israel has increased from nine to 19 per cent.

Between 2013 and 2017, Russia’s share declined further to 62 per cent, whereas the combined share of US and Israel increased to 26 per cent.13 Accounting for about 15 per cent, the United States is the second biggest supplier of arms to India during the five year period ending 2017. Between 2000-2009 and 2010-17, US arms deliveries to India have increased by a whopping 1470 per cent.

Most of India’s weapons are of Soviet/Russian origin – nuclear submarine INS Chakra, the Kilo-class conventional submarine, the supersonic Brahmos cruise missile, the MiG 21/27/29 and Su-30 MKI fighters, IL-76/78 transport planes, T-72 and T-90 tanks, Mi-series of helicopters, and Vikramaditya aircraft carrier,” an exhaustive paper on “Implications of CAATSA for India’s Defence Relations with Russia and America” by Laxman K Behera, a Research Fellow at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), said in April ‘2018.

How did the exemption for India come about?

CAATSA impacts Indo-US ties and dents the image of the US as a reliable partner. At a time when the US is projecting India as a key partner in its Indo-Pacific strategy, with the US National Security Strategy 2017 explicitly supporting New Delhi’s vital role in this regard.

Admiral Harry Harris, Commander of the US Pacific Command, referred to a classified letter written by Secretary of Defense James Mattis to the concerned members of the Senate Committee on Armed Services, wherein Secretary Mattis has requested for “some relief from CAATSA” for countries like India.

In his argument, Admiral Harris has also favoured relief citing the “strategic opportunity” that India presents to the US and also the opportunity “to trade in arms with India.”

After months of six months of hectic lobbying – CAATSA came into force in January this year — on Tuesday, a US Congressional committee has proposed waivers for India from stringent sanctions under Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA). This is directed against those doing business with Russia’s defence industry.

The Senate and House Armed Services Committee in a joint conference report to the National Defense Authorisation Act (NDAA)-2019 provided a modified waiver to section 231 of CAATSA. A conference report refers to the final version of a Bill that is negotiated between the House of Representatives and the Senate via a conference committee.

The NDAA-2019 now moves to the Senate and the House for formal passage before it can be sent to the White House for President Donald Trump to sign into law.

The portion of the bill — National Defense Authorisation Act — that amends CAATSA does not mention any country, but the intended beneficiaries of the amended waiver are India, Vietnam and Indonesia.

What’s in it for Washington?

The US sees India as a major market for the US defence industry. In the last one decade, it has grown from near zero to USD 15 billion worth of arms deals.

“Since 2008, the US has bagged more than $15 billion in arms deals including for the C-17 Globemaster and C-130J transport planes, P-8 (I) maritime reconnaissance aircraft, M777 light-weight howitzer, Harpoon missiles, and Apache and Chinook helicopters.

Between 2013-14 and 2015-16, the US has won 13 contracts worth Rs 28,895 crore ($4.4 billion). Both in term of the number and value of contracts, the US is way ahead of other major suppliers. In percentage terms, the US share of Indian arms imports total 23 per cent in terms of the number of contracts and 54 per cent by value,” Behera wrote, in his paper in IDSA.

This value is all set to increase further with the US likely accepting an Indian request for Sea Guardian drones.

In addition, US defence contractors, including Lockheed Martin and Boeing, are also strong contenders for a number of high-profile arms deals, including the recently floated tender notices for 110 fighter planes for the Indian Air Force, 57 Multi-Role Carrier Borne Fighters for the Indian Navy, and 234 naval utility and multi-role helicopters.

Does the exemption for India also have a wider global significance in which Russia and China are factors?

This exemption means that growing defence and security cooperation that prompted India to sign a logistics pact with the US, the US designating India as a Major Defence Partner, and both countries coming together on Indo-Pacific strategy, the newly formed Quad, are on a stable footing.

It also makes a point on principles that, as a sovereign country, India cannot be dictated about its strategic interests by a third country.

With uncertainties in the global power landscape shifting, with the Trump administration being unpredictable, China being more assertive and Russia finding new partners, this waiver or “carve-out” would mean India has been able to hedge its bets. 📣 Follow Express Explained on Telegram

It also shows the need for India to be nimble-footed in its diplomacy when it comes to its key major power relationships – and one cannot be sacrificed at the cost of another.

How does these new sanctions on Turkey complicate the issue?

Senior US officials said that Ankara’s purchase of the S-400s and its refusal to reverse its decision, despite repeated pleas from Washington, left the United States with no other choice.

The sanctions target Turkey’s top defence procurement and development body Presidency of Defence Industries (SSB), its chairman Ismail Demir and three other employees.

The measures, which received a bipartisan welcome from the U.S. Congress, were announced under the CAATSA- the first time the act has been used against a fellow member of the NATO alliance.

Turkey condemned the sanctions as a “grave mistake” and urged Washington to revise its “unjust decision”. It said sanctions would inevitably harm mutual relations and threatened unspecified retaliatory steps. 

“The United States made clear to Turkey at the highest levels and on numerous occasions that its purchase of the S-400 system would endanger the security of U.S. military technology and personnel and provide substantial funds to Russia’s defense sector,” US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said.

Pompeo has told Turkey its purchase of the S-400 missile defense system will endanger the US military.

Christopher Ford, US Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Nonproliferation, said Washington had sought a solution but Ankara rejected all offers.

The sanctions, near the end of Trump’s presidency are likely to weigh on Ankara’s ties with Democrat Joe Biden’s administration when he takes over as president next month.

So, is India off the hook?

India hopes that Washington understands New Delhi’s security imperatives, especially with a hostile China along the border. This is more important since Indian and Chinese soldiers have been in a face-off situation for more than six months now, with no resolution in sight.

In January this year, a senior US official had said that the US administration does not want to make a decision that “degrades the defence capabilities” of India which is its ‘Major Defence Partner’. The official was referring to the potential sanctions under CAATSA which prohibits countries from purchasing significant military equipment from Russia.

How the Biden administration acts will also be reflective of how much it appreciates and understands India’s concerns on China, and whether it is going to support New Delhi against a belligerent Beijing. It could well turn out to be the litmus test.

First published on: 15-12-2020 at 05:12:02 pm
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