Two powerful US Senators have urged President Joe Biden not to impose provisions of the punitive Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act against India for buying the S-400 surface-to-air missile system from Russia.
In a letter to Biden, Senators Mark Warner of the Democratic Party and John Cornyn of the Republican Party on Tuesday urged the president to grant a national interest waiver to India as provided under CAATSA as this is in America's national security interest.
“We strongly encourage you to grant a CAATSA waiver to India for its planned purchase of the S-400 Triumf surface-to-air missile system. In cases where granting a waiver would advance the national security interests of the US, this waiver authority, as written into the law by Congress, allows the President additional discretion in applying sanctions,” the two Senators wrote.
Warner is chairman of the Senate permanent select committee on intelligence, and Cornyn Senate minority whip for the GOP. Both are co-chairs of the Senate India caucus, the only country specific caucus in the US Senate.
“We share your concerns regarding the purchase and the continued Indian integration of Russian equipment, even with these declining sales. We would encourage your administration to continue reinforcing this concern to Indian officials, and engaging with them constructively to continue supporting alternatives to their purchasing Russian equipment,” they wrote.
In October 2018, India signed a $5 billion deal with Russia to buy five units of the S-400 air defence missile systems, notwithstanding warning from the then Trump administration that going ahead with the contract may trigger US sanctions under CAATSA.
The S-400 is known as Russia's most advanced long-range surface-to-air missile defence system.
CAATSA is a tough US law which authorises the administration to impose sanctions on countries that purchase major defence hardware from Russia in response to Russia's annexation of Crimea in 2014 and its alleged meddling in the 2016 US presidential elections.
In their letter, the two senators wrote that while India has taken significant steps to reduce its purchases of Russian military equipment, it has a long history of purchasing arms from the Soviet Union, and later Russia.
“In 2018, India formally agreed to purchase Russian S-400 Triumf air-defense systems after having signed an initial agreement with Russia two years prior. We are concerned that the upcoming transfer of these systems will trigger sanctions under the Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, which was enacted to hold Russia accountable for its malign behaviour,” they said.
The CAATSA's provisions, including sanctions targeting Russia's defence and intelligence sectors, serve as an important tool for the US government to discourage Russian arms purchases around the world.
“However, in the case of this current S-400 transaction involving India, we believe that the application of CAATSA sanctions could have a deleterious effect on a strategic partnership with India, while at the same time, not achieve the intended purpose of deterring Russian arms sales,” the two Senators argued.
Warner and Cornyn said that the Congress established criteria for determining the appropriateness of waiving CAATSA sanctions. Specifically, the fiscal year 2019 National Defence Authorisation Act allows the president to issue a waiver if doing so is in the national interest, and if it would not endanger US national security, adversely affect US military operations, or compromise US defence systems.
“We believe that a waiver for India is appropriate for several reasons,” they argued.
“First, India has taken significant steps to reduce its imports of Russian military hardware in recent years. From 2016 to 2020, there was a 53 per cent drop in Russian arms exports to India compared to the preceding five-year period,” the letter said.
Meanwhile, India has shown its intent to purchase equipment from the United States, with sales reaching $3.4 billion in FY20.
These are positive trends that show India's effort to reduce reliance on Russian equipment, and a desire to take advantage of its new status as a strategic trade authorisation-1 partner, they wrote.
“Second, we believe there is a national security imperative to waiving sanctions. Imposing sanctions at this time could derail deepening cooperation with India across all aspects of our bilateral relationship -- from vaccines to defence cooperation, from energy strategy to technology sharing,” they said.
“Furthermore, sanctions have the potential to embolden critics within India who warn that the United States will not be a consistent and reliable partner for cooperation, and to thwart the Indian government's efforts and long-term strategy to reduce Russian purchases and reliance on Russian defence hardware," the Senators said.
“We share your concerns regarding the purchase and the continued Indian integration of Russian equipment, even with these declining sales. We would encourage your administration to continue reinforcing this concern to Indian officials, and engaging with them constructively to continue supporting alternatives to their purchasing Russian equipment,” they said.
Warner and Cornyn proposed that the Biden administration should establish a bilateral working group to identify ways to promote the security of the US technology, and to chart a path forward to develop strategies to enhance US-India military interoperability.
"We believe these actions reinforce India's status as a major defense partner and will provide another avenue to counter PRC (China) influence in the Indo-Pacific,” the two Senators wrote.