S-400 Triumf missile shield deal: U.S. repeats threat of sanctions

Acquisition sends the wrong message to Russia, said a senior State Department official.

May 31, 2019 10:10 pm | Updated June 01, 2019 09:00 pm IST - Washington DC

Caught in a crossfire:  The new S-400 surface-to-air missile system at a military base near Kaliningrad in Russia.

Caught in a crossfire: The new S-400 surface-to-air missile system at a military base near Kaliningrad in Russia.

India should not assume it will get a waiver from U.S. sanctions if it goes ahead with its purchase of the S-400 Triumf missile shield from Russia, Washington made it clear on Thursday. The purchase could also hamper the future of Indo-U.S. defence relationship, an official said.

“The [U.S.] President has been very clear that the acquisition of advanced Russian technology sends the wrong message to Russia at a time when it continues its aggressions in Ukraine, has interfered in our internal elections...And so those concerns…we hold high,” a senior State Department official told a group of reporters on Thursday.

$5 billion deal

India had committed last October to purchasing a Russian S-400 Triumf long-range missile defence shield for about $5 billion. The deal has run the risk of attracting sanctions from the U.S. under a 2017 law — the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA).

While sanctions can kick in only when payments start being made, the U.S. Congress’s annual defence budget authorisation, the National Defence Authorisation Act (NDAA) passed last year, allows the President to grant waivers from CAATSA sanctions under certain conditions.

The NDAA for fiscal year 2020 is currently making its way through Congress but the theoretical possibility of a waiver remains valid and does not have to be renewed each year with the NDAA.

The State Department official emphasised, however, that a CAATSA waiver was not automatic and it was for the President to grant waivers on a case-by-case basis.

This view that India should not bank on a waiver appears to be consistent across U.S. government departments.

“We have serious concerns about the S-400, and we would not encourage any country to rely on waiver status for the purchase of any prohibited Russian items, especially the S-400,” a senior administration official had separately told The Hindu on May 24.

“The irony of the U.S. pressing India on the S-400 is that several former U.S. defence officials have praised the military utility of Russian platforms like Brahmos cruise missiles and the S-400 system enabling India to face off against China. The U.S. can’t offer comparable anti-access/area denial capabilities,” said Sameer Lalwani, who heads the South Asia program at the Stimson Center, a non-partisan think-tank in Washington DC.

The S-400 question has come up with another U.S. ally – Turkey. Tensions in the U.S. – Turkey relationship have escalated recently with Turkey on the verge of deploying the S-400 (Turkish soldiers are already in Russia being trained to use the S-400). The country has also signed up for U.S. F-35 jets, and is a co-producer of the jets. It now risks facing CAATSA sanctions and being excluded from the F-35 production process. Congress has already blocked delivery of F-35s to Turkey until the issue is resolved.

“You can look at the very serious conversation that's taking place with our NATO partner Turkey. And the same concerns will apply should India proceed with an S- 400 purchase,” the State Department official said.

Purchasing the S-400 would preclude a deep and broad defence relationship with the U.S, the official said. India is currently in discussions to buy various other U.S. defence equipment including combat aircraft and the Sea Guardian drones.

“I think the broader issue is really…where is [sic] India's military relations headed? With whom is it going to share the highest technology and that operating environment. Because certain choices preclude other choices. As we have discussions about a combat aircraft sales and other advanced systems, the decisions that India makes with regard to S- 400 will have an impact on those conversations,” the official said.

“This really is a conversation about what is the future of us India military cooperation and interoperability of choices that are made now will establish the framework for the future… and we certainly have the ambitions for the broadest possible, deepest possible military relationship with India.”

Mr. Lalwani agrees that choosing one system could preclude access to the other.

“Even if India escaped sanctions, the S-400 purchase could likely kill any chance of Indian procurement and localized production of Lockheed’s F-21, which India sees as an on ramp to the F-35,” he said.

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