Last Tuesday, Bloomberg reported that a $500 million financing plan is in the works to gradually replace India’s stock of Russian equipment with American gear. Although American arms exports have expanded over the last decade, this marks the first attempt to actively reduce India’s military dependence on Russia. Nonetheless, the issue of Indo-Russian dependence has deeper roots than the proposed plan implies.
Despite tumultuous shifts in American foreign policy between administrations, security ties between Washington and New Delhi expanded steadily in response to swelling Chinese regional ambitions. However, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine revealed that India does not view Russia as a threat to world order in the same way the United States does.
The difference in outlook is not trivial and may even lead to U.S. sanctions on New Delhi. To preserve the gains made in Indo-American relations over the last two decades, Congress should exempt India from secondary sanctions arising from its defense imports from Russia.
In February, Indian prime minister Narendra Modi refused to condemn the Russian invasion and join the U.S.-led sanctions program. Instead, his government called for both sides to reach a peaceful settlement. This decision is unsurprising. Since the Cold War, successive Indian governments have maintained close relations with the Kremlin. As a recent study put it, “a slight ideological preference for the Soviet Union, Washington’s support for Pakistan, Moscow’s crisis-time political and military support for India, but most importantly, a robust and generous arms sales program that facilitated an enduring military-technical relationship … coalesced to form the logic behind the Indo-Soviet relationship, which has, in many ways, carried over into the present day.”
This defense dependence profoundly influences India’s neutral posture toward President Vladimir Putin’s invasion. Somewhere between 60 percent and 85 percent of India’s military arsenal is Russian-manufactured, and this will undoubtedly remain the case for at least the next decade. New Delhi can hardly afford to alienate Moscow, as it faces two recurrently hostile neighbors, China and Pakistan.
Yet, India’s latest import from Russia, the S-400 air defense system, has created a significant rift with its other strategic partner: Washington. In March 2021, Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Robert Menendez claimed that the purchase could trigger American sanctions. Under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), the U.S. government can impose sanctions designed to punish countries that buy weapons from suppliers like Russia, Iran, and North Korea. The measures could include a freeze on using dollars for defense purchases and restrictions on American military equipment and technology imports. Needless to say, this would devastate the U.S.-India defense partnership and force India to escalate its defense purchases from Russia.
Historically, American sanctions on India have failed to alter Indian policy. They did not force New Delhi to dismantle its nuclear program after the 1998 Pokhran-II tests. Nor did they push Indira Gandhi to support the Vietnam War in 1968. Not only did sanctions fail to achieve their intended result in both cases, but they also reinforced India's suspicion that the United States does not respect it as an equal power responsible for its own security and autonomy. As a former ambassador to India put it, “Keeping the possibility of CAATSA sanctions lurking over the relationship jeopardizes vital U.S. interests by gradually eroding the trust and cooperation that has been assiduously built up with India since the turn of the century.”
Fortunately, CAATSA provides exceptions. President Joe Biden may waive sanctions on particular purchases deemed essential to national security. Biden has remained publicly undecided since an exemption would undercut his efforts to isolate Moscow. However, there are hints he may choose to waive. Nonetheless, even if Biden renounces sanctions on the S-400 deal, India’s dependence on Russian arms is not going away any time soon, meaning the current situation is likely to repeat over the next decade.
Considering India’s structural dependence and the harmful consequences of sanctions, exempting it from CAATSA provisions makes sense. The “Circumspectly Reducing Unintended Consequences Impairing Alliances and Leadership Act” or “CRUCIAL” Act does just that. The exemption would, in part, put to rest New Delhi’s suspicions that the United States does not treat its partners as equals. Secondly, it would allow India to continue diversifying its arsenal and developing indigenous production.
Of course, exempting India would pose political problems at the current moment. A presidential waiver would complicate the White House’s efforts to maintain a consistently tough-on-Russia policy. An exemption amendment to CAATSA would certainly attract criticism for appearing to aid Russian arms sales when Moscow is waging an unjustifiable war of aggression. However, a CAATSA-sanctioned India is more dependent on Russia and less trusting of the United States. All told, it would be the outcome of choice for Beijing, who fears the growth of U.S.-India ties. The futile desire for international unanimity on this issue should not get in the way of vital national interests.
Ultimately, the issue at stake is whether the United States sees India as more critical to American goals in Europe or Asia. The answer to this question should be obvious. India is a crucial partner in reining Chinese expansionism in the region. Exempting India from sanctions reaffirms this proposition and signals to New Delhi that Washington views India as an equal and sovereign partner.
James Himberger is a Spring 2022 Marcellus Policy Fellow and graduate of Tufts University. He previously wrote for Foreign Brief Geopolitical Risk Analysis. He lives in Washington DC.