Report

Washington Warns of Sanctioning India Over Russian Missile System

The world’s two largest democracies have a burgeoning defense relationship. Moscow could play spoiler.

A Russian S-400 anti-aircraft missile system is displayed at the exposition field in Kubinka's Patriot Park outside Moscow on Aug. 22, 2017. (Alexander Nemenov/AFP/Getty Images)
A Russian S-400 anti-aircraft missile system is displayed at the exposition field in Kubinka's Patriot Park outside Moscow on Aug. 22, 2017. (Alexander Nemenov/AFP/Getty Images)

The United States is refusing to rule out sanctions on India—a stated ally—if New Delhi goes through with a planned purchase of Russia’s new S-400 missile system this year, a top U.S. Defense Department official warned ahead of historic talks between the two countries next week.

The S-400 “is a system that’s particularly troubling for a lot of reasons, and I think our strong preference … is to seek alternatives,” said Randall Schriver, the U.S. assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific security affairs, during an Aug. 29 event in Washington. “If they choose to go down that route, like I said, I can’t sit here and tell you today that the waiver will necessarily be used.” The waiver Schriver referred to is a congressional loophole designed to insulate allies from ongoing U.S. sanctions against Russia.

Defying the Pentagon’s demands so far, New Delhi is reportedly poised to approve the purchase of the S-400 anti-aircraft system this year, with deliveries planned to start in 2020. India’s purchase of the S-400 is especially concerning to U.S. officials because the system is designed to track and destroy aircraft, even stealth aircraft, at unprecedented ranges. It also has the ability to glean information about the capabilities of aircraft in its vicinity, which could include the U.S.-built F-35 fighter jet.

The United States is facing a similar dilemma over Turkey’s planned purchase of the S-400 and has retaliated by blocking the transfer of F-35s to Ankara. As a member of NATO, Turkey’s use of the S-400 poses problems because integrating it with the alliance’s air defenses would give the Russian-built system critical data about NATO’s operating tactics and procedures. Washington has not yet imposed sanctions on Ankara.

Punishing India over its purchase of the S-400 would be a significant break with precedent. New Delhi has in the past skirted around some of Washington’s foreign-policy priorities—notably around its sanctions on Iran—and escaped punitive measures. Meanwhile, India has grown military ties with the United States in recent years and continued to participate in a long-running annual naval exercise between the two countries and Japan.

Until recently, it looked like India’s purchase of the S-400, too, would escape penalty. U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis fought hard this year for flexibility from sanctions on Russia; while the measures targeted Moscow for its meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, they could indirectly impact U.S. allies such as India. Mattis ultimately won the right to seek national security waivers for countries that have historically had a relationship with Russia but now want to buy U.S. weapons.

Since the days of the Soviet Union, Moscow has provided a significant chunk of New Delhi’s arms imports while Washington supplied very little, but the United States has worked hard over the past few years to narrow that gap.

Mattis’s strong push on Capitol Hill for the waiver authority, often citing India as a flagship example of a U.S. ally that would be hurt by the sanctions, created the impression that Washington would “insulate India from any fallout from the legislation, no matter what they do,” Schriver said. Indeed, several recent reports indicated that India’s S-400 purchase would escape the sanctions threat.

But “that’s a bit misleading,” Schriver clarified. “We would still have very significant concerns if India pursued major new platforms and systems.”

India’s proposed purchase of the S-400 will likely be part of talks in New Delhi next week at the inaugural 2+2 dialogue, when Mattis and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will travel to India to meet their direct counterparts.

The final determination about whether to seek a waiver for India’s S-400 purchase would be made at the highest level of the U.S. government, Schriver said. The administration needs to weigh its concerns about the impact of India acquiring such a system against its desire to strengthen the strategic partnership between the two countries, he noted.

The United States is willing to discuss the possibility of selling India an alternative U.S. missile defense system to meet India’s defense requirements, Schriver said.

“When you invest in a system, you are investing in a relationship as well. Russia is not going to be a good partner to India or anybody else given the nature of that regime,” he said.

Lara Seligman is Foreign Policy's Pentagon correspondent. @laraseligman

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