A new piece of legislation in the US, essentially aimed at imposing crippling sanctions on Russia, but one that, by extension, also seriously affects India, has sparked off a debate among policy-makers in New Delhi. Interestingly, this comes at a time when a recent Indian abstention on a crucial Russian resolution at The Hague has been interpreted as New Delhi’s attempt at maintaining a safe distance from Moscow, to ensure minimum disruption in its current, close engagement with Washington and its Western allies.
The legislation, called Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, or CAATSA, which was passed by the US Congress in August 2017, is fast turning into the eye of a new diplomatic storm. The fact the US and China are also in the throes of a trade war only makes matters worse for India, which has high stakes in all three relations.
The CAATSA proposes to impose sanctions on Russian entities in the intelligence, energy and defence sectors. But section 231 also imposes secondary sanctions on nations that engage or conduct significant transaction with Russia in these sectors.
Over 70 per cent of Indian military hardware is from Russia, and a large number of Indian firms have huge investments in the Russian energy sector.
“CAATSA hangs like a Damocles’ sword over India’s head,” says P.S. Raghavan, India’s former ambassador to Moscow.
Indian leaders and officials have already discussed the issue with both the US and Russia. The efficacy of the law will depend on America’s future ties with Russia, as well as on US President Donald Trump’s own stature within his own country, especially with his adversaries in the US Congress.
India’s recent abstention on a Russian resolution at The Hague’s Organisation for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) raised quite a few eyebrows among sceptics, since abstentions in diplomacy are regarded as ‘considered opinion’. The matter was about the alleged poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal (66) and his daughter Yulia (33) in Salisbury, UK, last month over which Moscow and its former Cold War adversaries are fighting a diplomatic battle. The UK has alleged Russia of using Novichok, a military grade nerve agent developed in Russia, to poison Skripal and his daughter. Russia denied any involvement and argued that Novichok has, over the years, also been developed elsewhere. The UK brought the matter to the OPCW to investigate the origin of the chemicals used in Salisbury. The Russian resolution was to be part of the investigation, but was rejected by a 15: 5 vote, with 17 abstentions, at the OPCW.
Many observers felt Delhi should have voted in favour of Moscow, especially since China has been among the handful countries to have done so. It also raises questions if in future India could still bank on a Russian veto if it faces a ‘push-comes-to-shove’ situation at the UN Security Council.
“India has taken note of the allegations about the recent use of chemical weapons in the United Kingdom,” India’s ambassador at The Hague, Venu Rajamony, said. He added, “India is against the use of chemical weapons anywhere, at any time, by anybody, under any circumstances.” While stressing on the ‘non-discriminatory’ record of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), Rajamony also expressed hope that the probe will be conducted ‘strictly’ in accordance with the Convention’s procedure.
Moscow has interpreted the large number of abstentions at the OPCW as a victory, as most countries refused to blame Russia outright in the Skripal case. But a sense of unease remains in sections of the Indian foreign policy establishment about Moscow’s likely response.
Though India did not join the 15 pro-West group to condemn Russia, it also stayed away from being clubbed with the motley group of China, Azerbaijan, Algiers, Iran and Sudan who voted in favour of the Russian resolution. Some senior diplomats have approved of the ‘clever’ and ‘correct’ stand by India. But others felt it indicated strains that have entered India-Russia ties, particularly over the budding Moscow-Islamabad relations.
It must be admitted that Russia’s friendly approach to Pakistan also stems from India’s perceived ‘pro-Western’ policy, which itself arose out of India’s quest for more strategic space to deal with the challenge posed in the region by an assertive China.
The US and other European countries have joined the UK’s move to punish Russia by expelling a large number of its diplomats, to which Moscow has reacted with tit-for-tat expulsions of Western diplomats. This is now being followed by the US and others with a series of proposed sanctions on Russia, raising the sceptre of another ‘Cold War’.
Though CAATSA has been in the works almost since Trump’s victory in the 2016 American presidential elections, it was brought in formally by US legislators in August last year. Indian diplomats point out that much of this controversial legislation stems from America’s internal politics and much of it is aimed at putting Trump in a spot.
On one hand, the CAATSA forces countries to move away from Russian defence sector and pose opportunities for American companies to step in. On the other, it jeopardises the American president’s attempt at any rapprochement and normalisation of US’ relations with Russia. “It no doubt puts Trump in a bind,” says an Indian diplomat. “If it is implemented it surely will sour ties with Moscow and kill any chances of normalisation between the two former adversaries, but for a person who had been stressing on ‘America first’ since he arrived on the political scene, it is also difficult to ignore the opportunities it might bring for American industry.”
According to some agency reports, some American lawmakers have also described the latest Indian move to purchase the S-400 air defence missile system from Russia as a “sanctionable activity”.
These developments are ‘worrisome’, says former Indian foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal. “It is serious, since it totally leaves the decision in the hands of the Americans,” says Sibal, who has served as India’s ambassador to Russia.
The US Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for South Asia Joe Felter recently tried to reassure India. “We understand India’s concern about this and we are very concerned as well. These sanctions are intended to target Russia—not India,” he was quoted as saying.
There is an ongoing negotiation—said to be in an advanced stage—between India and Russia for five S-400 systems worth $4.5 billion. The air defence system includes radar, missile launchers and command centre technology, according to an agency report.
Felter further said, “”We appreciate Indian concerns. We are very concerned because we very much hope to maintain the momentum and the trajectory of this relationship. We want to deepen our cooperation and not to reduce it.” The issue, he said, was raised and discussed between the two sides. But Felter also made it clear that the decision to impose sanctions on countries was beyond the department of defense.
Given our dependence on Russia for the acquisition—and, most importantly, the upkeep—of our military hardware, even a partial use of the legislation can be harmful, and embarrassing, for India. Besides, how tenable can it be for India to turn away from a trusted ally like Russia completely?
“There is no way that we can stop our cooperation with the Russians,” says a senior Indian diplomat. “It is a fundamental question of a country’s security.”
This is what has been conveyed by Indians officials so far to their American counterparts. It has also been argued that if this policy is pursued it will force Russia further into the arms of the Chinese—a thought that is not only seriously worrying for the Indians, but can also be a major concern for the Americans too, now that they are firing tariff and tax salvoes at each other.
But, with several flashpoints already active in different parts of the world, the question that key international players need to ask is whether they need another reason for one more conflict—something that can dangerously rachet up America’s continually simmering tension with Russia.
However, with an unpredictable leader like Donald Trump as America’s president, no decision, irrespective of how it affects the rest of the world, should come as a surprise.