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EXPLAINED: Why US Senators Are Seeking Sanctions Relief For India's Triumf Missile Defence Deal With Russia

India is set to receive the first of the advanced missile defence systems from Russia in the last quarter of 2021

India is set to receive the first of the advanced missile defence systems from Russia in the last quarter of 2021

Two US Senators have pointed to growing bilateral ties to urge US Prez Joe Biden to waive impending sanctions against India over its deal with Russia

With India set to take delivery of the first of the advanced anti-missile S-400 Triumf defence systems that it has ordered from Russia, there is a looming threat of sanctions from US under its stringent CAATSA law that prohibits military purchases from those that Washington regards as its foes. However, two US Senators have written to Joe Biden in the White House to hold back on penalising India citing growing strategic ties between the two countries. Here’s what you need to know.

What Have The US Senators Said?

The two co-chairs of the Senate India Caucus, Democrat Mark Warner and Republican John Cornyn, who represent Virginia and Texas, respectively, in the upper house of the US Congress, told President Joe Biden in their letter that he should exercise his discretion as allowed by the law to extend the waiver to India as that “would advance the national security interests of the US”.

The duo said that any sanctions “could reverse or slow” the progress of “strengthening bilateral relationship” between the US and India. Noting recent developments in ties between New Delhi and Washington, they said that cooperation in fighting the Covid-19 pandemic and stepping up of engagement throught the revival of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or Quad — which also includes Australia and Japan — “has served as an additional mechanism for closer cooperation between our two countries”.

The Senators noted that India has a “long history” of buying weapons from Russia and, before that, the erstwhile Soviet Union, but said at the same time that it “has taken significant steps to reduce its purchases of Russian military equipment”.

To that extent, they said, “the application of CAATSA sanctions could have a deleterious effect on a strategic partnership with India… [and] not achieve the intended purpose of deterring Russian arms sales”.

What Is The Triumf Missile Deal?

In 2018, India had signed a deal for the purchase of five S-400 Triumf missile systems from Russia at a cost of close to USD 5.5 billion, which was regarded at the time as being one of the biggest defence acquisitions made by New Delhi.

The S-400 Triumf air defence missile system was developed by Almaz Central Design Bureau of Russia and entered service in 2007. The system comes with a multifunction radar and is capable of autonomous detection and targeting. It includes anti-aircraft missile systems, launchers, and command and control centre and packs three different types of missiles that enables it to engage all types of aerial targets, from aircraft and drones to ballistic and cruise missiles within a range of 400km and an altitude of up to 30km.

Experts say that the system — which can simultaneously engage 36 targets — “is twice as effective as the previous Russian air defence systems and can be deployed within five minutes”.

An Observer Research Foundation (ORF) report earlier this year said that notwithstanding the threat of US sanctions, for India, “there is no alternative system capable of serving its long-range air defence requirements, from the standpoint of either capability or cost”. It said that the capabilities of S-400 are “unmatched by typical Western systems offered up as analogues” and gives better bang for the buck with “typical configurations costing around half of their western equivalents”.

The report said that apart from India, Russia has sold the system to a handful of countries, including Belarus, Algeria, China and Turkey, the last of which was slapped with CAATSA sanctions by US immediately upon its decision to enter the deal with Moscow.

What Is CAATSA?

Short for Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, the legislation that was passed in 2017 under the presidency of Donald Trump slaps sanctions against Russia, North Korea and Iran.

Belarus and Algeria escaped sanctions under CAATSA as they had procured their S-400 systems before the legislation was brought in by the US. India argues that it had entered into negotiations for buying the S-400 system in 2016 and, hence, does not qualify for sanctions under CAATSA.

The US law is intended to also penalise countries that go for the procurement of advanced weaponry from any of these countries with ORF saying that the presence of a system like S-400 “will clearly impede certain technology transfers and joint operations, as evidenced by the immediate suspension of F-35 deliveries to NATO ally Turkey, even before sanctions under CAATSA came into force”.

While India is not a formal US ally, defence and strategic ties between the two countries have deepened in recent years and the S-400 can “place constraints on some contours of what the US envisions for the future of the US-India defence relationship”.

Why Are The US Senators Urging Against Sanctions?

The US Senators said that while CAATSA is “an important tool for the US government to discourage Russian arms purchases around the world”, US lawmakers had also laid down grounds under which waivers could be extended against sanctions “if doing so is in the national interest, and if it would not endanger US national security, adversely affect US military operations, or compromise US defence systems”.

The Senators told President Biden that “a waiver for India is appropriate for several reasons”, including that New Delhi’s quantum of defence purchases from Russia has been slowly coming down while US has seen its share in defence exports to India slowly go up. The letter noted that between 2016 and 2020, there was a 53 per cent drop in Russian arms exports to India as against the preceding five-year period even as purchases from the US amounted to USD 3.4 billion in FY20.

Further, they said that any sanctions slapped on India “could derail deepening cooperation… across all aspects of our bilateral relationship — from vaccines to defence cooperation, from energy strategy to technology sharing”.

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first published:October 27, 2021, 15:08 IST