'India can't abruptly give up Russian arms': Scramble in the US to prevent Russia sanctions from affecting US-India relationship

Provisions of a recent US law to impose sanctions on Russia have also put India squarely on the path to US sanctions.

'India can't abruptly give up Russian arms': Scramble in the US to prevent Russia sanctions from affecting US-India relationship
All three Indian armed forces rely heavily on Russian military hardware. Pictured is a fly-by of the Indian Air Force, all Russian. From left to right: Sukhoi Su-30, Mikoyan MiG-29, Mikoyan MiG-27 and Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-21. (Picture: Sainik Samachar)

The United States cannot expect India to abruptly stop using Russian military hardware, a top US military commander has told the US Senate. India's use of Russian arms came up during a hearing on how the wording of a recent US law imposing sanctions on Russia could hurt the American relationship with its partners and allies.

The law in question is the Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), which was passed by the US Congress in July 2017 and signed into law by Donald Trump in August. The law is aimed at sanctioning Russia for its interference in the 2016 US elections and its continued military engagements in Ukraine and Syria. The law also imposes sanctions on individuals and countries that deal with Russia's intelligence and defence sectors.

And these are the provisions that could put the US foreign policy and defence establishment in a bind with their expanding cooperation with India. Considering India's continuing and significant use of Russian military hardware and its joint development of defence projects like BrahMos and the negotiations over the Sukhoi/HAL FGFA, it would qualify to be sanctioned by the US government under Section 231 of CAATSA.

The sanctions include blocking of licences and permissions for any US entity to export a significantly large number of items to India. The restrictions on this front would include any arms sale or the transfer of nuclear equipment or technology. The US and India are in the process of working out multiple nuclear power plant and arms sale projects.

The strains that CAATSA could place on the India-US relationship was in focus at a hearing of the US Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday. Admiral Harry Harris, the commander of the US Pacific Command, told the committee that India is "a key partner and a great strategic opportunity".

"Seventy per cent of their military hardware is Russian in origin. You can't expect India to go cold turkey on that. I think we ought to look at ways to have a glide path, so that we can continue to trade in arms within India," said Admiral Harris, reported news agency PTI. He expressed hope to achieve some relief from the rigidity of the wording of CAATSA.

His comments were made in the context of the classified letter from US Secretary of Defence General James Mattis (retd) seeking exemptions from Section 231 of CAATSA for a number of US partners and allies. India is believed to be part of this list. 

US Republican Senator Tom Cotton, who is closely allied with Donald Trump, who was part of the committee hearing said, "I do have some concerns about potential unintended consequences among countries that, for various historical reasons, still have Russian hardware and it'd be hard to avoid Russian hardware." 

"I assume Secretary Mattis' point in this classified letter is, do you have a country like India that's a close ally, and growing ever closer, but for historical reasons going back decades, they just rely on a lot of Russian equipment, and would really impair them and therefore, our relationship with them, to try to ask them to go cold turkey immediately," Cotton added.

Both houses of the US Congress, after holding these hearings, would have to consider ways to give waivers to countries like India. The existing provisions allow the President to delay the imposition of sanctions under CAATSA by certifying every six months that the individual or country in question is significantly reducing transactions with Russian defence or intelligence sectors. There is no way such a certification can be given to India any time soon, which would make an exemption the imperative.

(With inputs from PTI)