America’s India Problem Is All About Russia

Forget U.S. sanctions over arms deals. Indian-Russian alignment is in Washington’s best interest.

By Salvatore Babones, an adjunct scholar at the Centre for Independent Studies in Sydney.

This article is part of Foreign Policy’s ongoing coverage of U.S. President Joe Biden’s first 100 days in office, detailing key administration policies as they get drafted—and the people who will put them into practice.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi meet at Hyderabad House in New Delhi on Oct. 5, 2018.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi meet at Hyderabad House in New Delhi on Oct. 5, 2018. YURI KADOBNOV/AFP via Getty Images

The United States has an India problem, and it’s all about Russia. In 2018, India agreed to buy five Russian S-400 missile systems for the whopping price of $5.4 billion. The highly advanced S-400 system is considered on par with the United States’ best air defense weapons system, the Patriot missile. It’s the same missile system that led the outgoing Trump administration to impose U.S. sanctions on Turkey in December 2020. Now, India is next in line for similar sanctions—and that prospect has seriously strained bilateral relations, threatened the United States’ own defense sales in India, and called into question President Joe Biden’s commitment to working with allies to confront China.

Of course, the sanctions issue is not really about India. It’s about Russia. The Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), passed by Congress in 2017 to punish Russia for interfering with the 2016 U.S. elections, comes very close to requiring the president to impose sanctions on any country that makes “significant” purchases of military equipment from Russia. But it would be a big mistake for Biden to impose sanctions on India.

Quite the contrary: The United States should actually welcome India’s purchase of Russian arms.

When it comes to confronting China across Eurasia, the United States needs India much more than India needs the United States. For India, the United States is a welcome and valued security partner but too far away and not particularly reliable. For the United States, India is its only friend in the region that is willing and able to act as a counterbalance to China. If Washington wants New Delhi’s help in solving the region’s many smoldering conflicts, it will have to show some forbearance on sanctions. Better to let Russia off the sanctions hook than to catch India in the CAATSA net.

India is the world’s largest democracy and the world’s sixth largest economy, soon to become the fifth largest. It is also about to pass China as the world’s most populous country. India is a champion of stability in the Indian Ocean region and an important bulwark against Chinese expansionism. It is the cornerstone of America’s Indo-Pacific strategy and a founding member of the Quad, an alignment of Indo-Pacific democracies. It was the leader of the Non-Aligned Movement during the Cold War. And it is also a major purchaser of Russian military equipment.

It’s not just the S-400 that India has on its shopping list. India has been buying from Russia since the days of the Soviet Union. The Indian Air Force flies MiG-29 and Su-30 combat jets. Its navy flies Russian-made jets based on a Russian-made carrier. It also has several Russian frigates and has ordered a Russian nuclear-powered attack submarine. And despite a recent modernization and “buy Indian” program, the Indian Army is equipped mainly with Russian main battle tanks and other armored vehicles.

But India has never been a Russian or Soviet satellite state. It buys from Russia because Russia is a reliable commercial supplier of high-quality equipment. India also buys from France, Israel, and increasingly the United States. But even without the S-400 purchase, India would already be on the CAATSA bad countries list for all the other equipment it buys from Russia—and will continue to buy from Russia. Sanctioning India for its Russian purchases won’t lock in a future U.S. ally. It will merely drive away a potential partner—and increasingly lucrative military customer.

And for what? The strategic geography of Eurasia ensures that India’s S-400s will never turn on the United States or its allies. And unlike Turkey’s S-400s, they won’t reveal F-35 stealth secrets because India is not an F-35 customer and unlikely ever to be attacked by an air force that is. The sole purpose of applying CAATSA sanctions to India would be to use the law for the purpose for which it was enacted: to punish Russia. And that just goes to show what can go wrong when the U.S. Congress tries to legislate foreign policy.

The primary purpose of the Russia-related provisions of CAATSA was to exert pressure on Russia to suspend its global programs of cyber-espionage and cybermanipulation with sanctions on its defense industry thrown in for good measure. (Separate provisions of the law target Iran and North Korea.) Congress may well believe that any tool that limits Russian defense exports is good for the United States, perhaps even for the world as a whole. But a careful analysis of Eurasian geopolitics suggests otherwise.

The complicating factor is China. In recent years, India has been Russia’s biggest export destination for military hardware by far, accounting for nearly one-third of annual Russian arms exports, on average, between 2010 and 2019, according to data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. Until 2018, Beijing’s purchases of advanced Russian arms were rapidly catching up to New Delhi’s as China struggled to develop its own high-technology components such as jet engines. But the defense procurement relationship between the two countries stopped in 2019 over Russian allegations that China was reverse-engineering proprietary technologies. As a result, Russia has become reluctant to sell small batches to China, lest China copy the samples instead of placing large follow-up orders for the real thing.

India’s status as Russia’s best customer—and an honest customer to boot—gives India enormous leverage over the perennially cash-strapped Russian regime. Thus, when fighting broke out between India and China last year in Ladakh, Russia seemed to have acceded to Indian pressure to stop supplying S-400 technology to China. Indian demand is especially crucial for ensuring that Russia can keep military production lines and maintenance operations going at an industrial scale. That may not sound attractive to the United States. But because Russia also supplies weapons to other countries that are nervous about China’s growing ambitions, Russia’s arms industry actually promotes U.S. interests all across Eurasia’s interior.

When it comes to confronting China across Eurasia, the United States needs India much more than India needs the United States.

If the United States wants to contain China, Russia, or both, it needs other countries to do the heavy lifting—at least on land. U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy is essentially maritime, and as the United States winds down its presence in Afghanistan, it is unlikely that substantial U.S. ground forces will ever return to the Asian mainland other than the 8th Army still stationed in South Korea. A solid Russian-Indian relationship is the best guarantee that China won’t exert undue influence over the relatively vulnerable countries of Central Asia. It is also the most likely route to a stable future for Afghanistan, a country where India has a strong diplomatic presence.

A flourishing relationship between India and Russia is also preferable to the alternative scenario in which India becomes a staunch U.S. ally while a desperate Russia is forced to become a junior partner in a renewed Sino-Russian alliance. India’s main value to the United States is as an independent power in its own right; Washington has absolutely no interest in taking on new security obligations in Kashmir or the Himalayas. Meanwhile, Russia’s relatively equal relationship with India promises a stable partnership that can keep the peace without either country gaining the upper hand.

Biden cannot in good faith maintain that India’s procurement of Russian weapons is not “significant” in scale—the main criterion for applying sanctions. To enforce the law, he must invoke CAATSA. But once he starts the procedure, he can and should waive the implementation of sanctions under the national security exception built into the legislation. That exception is narrow, and it would probably require him to apply some creative labeling to make the exception stick. That said, the overriding U.S. interest in keeping India on its side is so strong that a little executive sleight of hand would go a long way toward preventing a serious security blunder against itself.

Salvatore Babones is an adjunct scholar at the Centre for Independent Studies in Sydney. Twitter: @sbabones