By Dost Muhammad Barrech

Sanctioning India under CAATSA

January 12, 2022 - 10:55

Moscow has started supplying New Delhi with S-400 air defense missile systems said Dmitry Shugayev, the head of the Russian military cooperation agency. S-400 air defense missile systems deal between Russian and India worth around U.S.$5.5 billion was signed in 2018 for five long-range surface-to-air missile systems, that New Delhi believes are crucial to counter China.

The deal attracts a great deal of attention of the experts to the U.S. legislation called Countering America's Adversaries through Sanctions Act (CAATSA). CAATSA is the U.S. Federal Law signed on August 2, 2017, that requires the U.S. President to sanction Russian, North Korean and Iranian, sectors, punishing direct or indirect support of them. The three sections of CAASTA are aimed at curbing Iran’s nuclear program, reducing Russian growing influence in Europe and Eurasia and curbing North Korean weapons of mass destruction.

The U.S. applied CAASTA on Turkey in January 2021 after buying S-400 systems from Moscow. But sanctioning India under CAATSA appears to be a herculean task for Washington nor does New Delhi worry about  CAATSA as it considers it the U.S. law, and not one by the United Nations. In March 2021 Lloyd Austin, visiting the U.S. Secretary of Defense raised concerns over India’s planned procurement of the S-400 air defense missile. He had accentuated that the U.S. allies and partners ought to shun “any kind of acquisitions that will trigger sanctions”. Austin soon after clarified that the question of sanctioning India was not under consideration as New Delhi had not taken delivery of the system; sanctions would be applied only when deliveries took place, Austin added. Interestingly, India at the current juncture has purchased S-400 air defence missile systems from Russia. A few queries remain unanswered. Will the U.S. impose sanctions against India under CAATSA? If sanctioned are applied what would be the Indian reaction?

India, arguably, is a robust bulwark of the U.S. against the containment of China sanctioning would loss a strategic ally in the Indo-Pacific region. Meanwhile, India and Russia have a long history of military relations since the era of the Soviet Union. Currently in the military services of India nearly 86 per cent of the weapons, equipment, and platforms are of Russian origin. The U.S. started selling weapons and equipment to India in 2001 after easing its relations with New Delhi. Russian air defence system is extensively used in the Indian military; the latter is unlikely to compromise on the former’s sophisticated weapons. Sanctioning India will reduce Indian military buttress vis-à-vis China and will swing New Delhi to Moscow that the U.S. never wants to happen. The US is fully cognizant of the fact that if sanctions are imposed will alienate India resulting in losing Indian arms market damaging the U.S. military-industrial complex. The fact of matter is that instead of sanctioning and alienating India, the U.S. presumably will occupy the Indian arms market by competing with Russian weapons and equipment in terms of performance and price. 

On the other hand, there is a great deal of likelihood that CAATSA will bypass India, under the Act’s “modified waiver authority” for “certain sanctionable transactions’ granted by the U.S. president Joe Biden. India has already been lobbying in Washington for CAATSA waiver over the S-400 air defense missile systems. Indian diplomats and security officials reassured the U.S. that both India and the U.S. had a comprehensive global strategic partnership and both were having a threat from China and S-400 air defense missile systems were attributed to countering China. New Delhi had also guaranteed the protection of the U.S. materiel and the U.S. “technical and operational secrecy”.

India predominantly reassured Washington that the former was willing to reduce its dependency on the Russian defense equipment in the foreseeable future. India, as a result, was backed by three Republican senators presented an amendment in Congress to the National Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2023 with the aim of making obstacles for the U.S. in the imposition of CAATSA on India. The U.S. latest legislation, called the Circumspectly Reducing Unintended Consequences Impairing Alliances and Leadership (CRUCIAL) Act, 2021 maintains that CAATSA will only weaken the U.S. security in the Indo-Pacific region. Ted Cruza a Republican senator argues that “Now would be exactly the wrong time for President Biden to undo all of that progress (in partnering India) through the imposition of these sanctions”.

S-400 obviously ushers a path to a diplomatic crisis for the Biden administration. Applying CAATSA on India will dilute the strategic coherence of Quadrilateral Security Dialogue QUAD in the Indo-Pacific undermining U.S. diplomatic ties with India in the containment of China. Moscow also looks forward to taking advantage of the sanctions reclaiming its role as an Indian bona fide military partner. Applying of sanctions would remain a geostrategic victory of Russia damaging the U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy overwhelmingly.

Beijing remains as a prime adversary of the U.S. and India that forces both countries to be strategic allies in the region. However, the S-400 air defense missile somewhat caused a rift in the diplomatic ties of the U.S. and India. It can be argued that the U.S. irresponsible withdrawal from Afghanistan and the non-inclusion of India in the AUKUS compelled India to move towards Moscow in a bid to pressurize the U.S. The U.S. certainly hangs in the balance as far as CAATSA is concerned. On one hand, sanctioning India will bring New Delhi and Moscow further closer, weakening the U.S. containment policy of China and the credibility of the Quad. On the other, non-imposition of CAATSA would tarnish the U.S. image globally, showcasing its selective approach in punishment of the countries. 

The writer is a Research Associate at the India Study Centre at the Institute of Strategic Studies Islamabad (ISSI). He is also Ph.D. (IR) candidate at the International Islamic University Islamabad IIUI. He can be reached at dostmuhammad@issi.org.pk 

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