India’s decision to buy Russian anti-aircraft weapons threatens to jeopardize a landmark defense cooperation agreement with the United States, senior Republican senators warned this week.
“It does affect that,” Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., told the Washington Examiner. “When you talk about buying Russian weaponry, we’ve been very clear on what that means.”
India inked a deal to purchase S-400 anti-aircraft systems last week. The sale could provoke sanctions mandated by a federal law cracking down on Russia’s defense industry, though Indian officials maintain that the threat doesn’t worry them.
But they might be underestimating the degree to which would undercut the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement, or COMCASA, the security and intelligence-sharing agreement signed to great fanfare last month.
“Getting India on board with COMCASA is a significant development that enhances our security cooperation with an important regional partner,” Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn., told the Washington Examiner in a statement. “India should not undercut this progress by triggering provisions of U.S. law passed with strong bipartisan support in Congress.”
That agreement — signed in New Delhi by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, and their Indian government counterparts last month — paved the way for the transfer of sensitive military equipment and real-time intelligence-sharing with India. U.S. officials did little to obscure the hope that India would help stifle the potential threat of Chinese aggression in the region.
“This set of meetings,” Pompeo told reporters during the trip, “they’re really about things that are big and strategic and will go on for 20, 40, 50 years.”
But India’s top army general downplayed the significance of the pact during negotiations with the Russians.
“When Russians asked about the American sanctions, my reply was, ‘Yes, we do appreciate that there could be sanctions on us, but we follow an independent policy,’” Army chief Bipin Rawat said during a speech last Sunday. “You can rest assured. While we may be associating with America in getting some technology … we follow an independent policy.”
India has a history of nonalignment dating back to the Cold War, when it refused to partner directly with the United States or the Soviet Union. In that era, India also developed a heavy reliance on Soviet military equipment that has necessitated an ongoing relationship with the Russian defense industry. With that in mind, Mattis lobbied Congress to grant him the authority to waive sanctions on the purchase of Russian arms, in part to facilitate the agreement with India.
Lawmakers expected that waiver to be invoked for deals involving legacy systems — no one wants a U.S.-India confrontation over ammunition for Kalashnikov rifles, for instance. They did not expect India to purchase a major new weapons system, even as Russia partners with China in opposition to U.S. interests around the world.
“[India is] strengthening the hand of a country that doesn’t align with you politically, philosophically,” Florida Rep. Ted Yoho, who chairs the Foreign Affairs subcommittee for Asia, told the Washington Examiner. “So, why would you increase the income to a country like that that’s going to work against us?”
“It’s not just Russian equipment, it’s the advisers that come with it that get access to all the rest of the equipment, that you expect those two to stay separate,” Lankford, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, explained. “But they’re going to step in and say, ‘Let me show you how to do this,’ and, ‘Here’s how it works with all of this [COMCASA technology].’”
That risk won’t become a reality unless and until India deploys the S-400s, which doubles as the trigger for sanctions under a precedent set last month when the United States blacklisted a Chinese military entity for purchasing the same anti-aircraft weaponry. That leaves some time for diplomatic engagement between the United States and its newly-minted major defense partner.
“India’s going to have to decide,” Yoho said. “You can’t have an alliance in both areas when they’re competing interests.”