As President Donald Trump has held back enacting mandatory sanctions for NATO ally Turkey’s acquisition of the Russian S-400 missile defense system, the world is watching―but especially India, which is counting on America’s lenience.
Despite of the 2017 Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, which could apply sanctions to individuals and organizations that engage do business with Moscow’s intelligence or defense sectors, America’s partner, India, placed an $800 million downpayment this month on its own S-400 system, with plans to complete the purchase by 2025.
After that deal, India earlier this week made another deal with Russia, a $3.12 billion contract for local production of 464 T-90S main battle tanks after paying a technology transfer fee to Russia. Though India’s state-owned Ordnance Factory Board will do the building in India, the tanks are said to rely on engines and transmission system manufactured in Russia.
As the U.S. seeks allies in the Indo-Pacific region who will join together to push back on China’s pattern of intimidation and coercion, it is reckoning with the relationships India―and Vietnam and Indonesia―have with America’s other rival, Russia. All three are maintaining multiple relationships as a hedge or are partially dependent on Russian military equipment.
“All of them have close security ties with Russia. In at least in two of those cases, India and Vietnam, the U.S. is making inroads selling U.S. equipment but the question remains, if they continue to make large defense orders, what does that mean,” said Dhruva Jaishankar, director of the U.S. Initiative at the New Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation, adding that former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson made cases for sanctions waivers.
While, generally, the Pentagon and White House seem inclined towards a waiver if India can make a good case it’s moving toward a stronger partnership with the U.S., it appears a lot will depend on evolving U.S. relations with Russia, Turkey and how the U.S. approaches Pacific partnerships.
Members of Congress in July said they expected CAATSA sanctions to be applied after Turkey’s accepted of the S-400, but Trump has been slow to act and has even expressed sympathy for Turkey. There was no action from Trump even as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan continued to flout Congress’s objections to the deal last week.
Yet Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jim Risch, R-Idaho, told Defense News he would advance legislation to impose stiff sanctions for Turkey’s military incursion into northern Syria, “sooner rather than later.”
Risch noted that the U.S. has already expelled Turkey from the multinational F-35 joint strike fighter program over the purchase of the S-400, and suggested CAATSA sanctions must come into play as well. He was speaking on the sidelines of the Halifax International Security Forum.
“It's important that we do, we that the world knows, and in particular NATO partners know, that we're serious about this,” Risch said.