The Indian Defense Minister Nirmala Sitharaman recently said the following about the status of India’s S-400 Triumf air defence missile systems negotiations with Russia: “We have mentioned (to the US) that CAATSA cannot impact the India-Russia defence cooperation…The S-400 deal has been on for a very long time and we have reached the final stage of negotiations. That explains it”. Despite the effusive conviction in the Minister’s recent reassurance that India is likely to follow through with buying the S-400 Surface to Air (SAM) mobile missile systems for the Air Force from Russia, there are both near and long-term strategic impediments in New Delhi’s way.

In the near term, India’s primary challenge would be to avoid American sanctions under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) rules while still securing the S-400 purchase. In the long term, India faces the dilemma of effectively balancing between two rival major powers in Asia by generating enough strategic interests for both. India’s primary predicament being in navigating through the labyrinth of converging the US and Russian interests in its defense sector. For India, some of these challenges are not very far in time and are likely to confront her in two forthcoming summits, each with the US and Russia. India is poised to engage with the US in their 2+2 dialogue likely to be held in July 2018, comprising the Secretary of State and Defense Secretary from the US and their defense and external affairs counterparts from India. With Russia, India is scheduled to hold its 19th annual India-Russia Summit in October 2018. Both the meetings are extremely important for India apropos countable strides that they eventually result in as well as the symbolism that they generate. In the current context, both the meetings are expected to be decisive for India’s S-400 deal with Russia.

The US-India 2+2 dialogue will be the first of its kind, importantly so, after having been postponed in the past due to structural disagreements between the two sides. Both India and the US would want this meeting to be a memorable one. On the other hand, the likely annual meeting between India and Russia scheduled in October would mark 70 years of diplomatic relations between India and Russia, exhorting the two sides to make it count. In the days leading up to the meetings, both the US and Russia seem to be preparing their grounds well. In what appears to be an intended harbinger for the agendas of the July 2+2 dialogue, the Donald Trump administration has approved a deal to sell six AH-64E Apache helicopters to India for $930 million. Facilitated by a government-to-government process, the contract also includes fire control radars, Hellfire Longbow missiles, Stinger Block I-92H missiles, night vision sensors, and inertial navigation systems. In the past, India has significantly made up for its technological and strategic deficits through acquisitions from the US by the government-to-government sale process. Among other things, India has bought the C-17 transport aircraft, 155 mm Light-Weight Towed Howitzers, UGM-84L Harpoon missiles, Support for C-130J Super Hercules aircraft etc. As such, the current approval in excess of $900 sets lucratively persuasive ground for the July talks between the two sides.

As for Moscow-New Delhi ties, the bilateral relationship has amassed quite a few worries in the last few years, especially vis-a-vis Russia’s relationship with Pakistan and India’s own strategic partnership with the US. India had taken particular exception to the joint exercise DRUZBA 2017 between special forces of Pakistan and Russia Armies in Minralney Vody, Russia. Besides, India’s skepticism about Russia’s position on issues concerning China is often dominated by Moscow’s interests. In this regard, the recently held informal summit held in Sochi seems to have proven timely as it certainly addressed some key concerns regarding the S-400 negotiations besides broad converging concerns about an equitable world order and the SCO summit that would have followed. The meeting certainly drew inspirations from the Wuhan informal summit between India and China in the preceding month. That the Sochi summit was the first of its kind between the two sides, is a pointer to the then requisite immediacy for such a meet. It would be pertinent to note that the India-Russia informal summit was strategically placed before the 2+2 US-India dialogue to be held in July and also the India-Russia annual meet to be held in October of this year – to mitigate any US sanctions pressure on India to pull out of the S-400 deal and also to substantially prepare the grounds for the big-ticket announcement when the two sides meet in October.

From the aforementioned, it appears that India could be quite on track to buy the S-400 systems from Russia, surprisingly even under the looming possibility of US sanctions on India under its CAATSA rules which came into effect starting January 2018. Anticipating India’s successful S-400 deal with Russia would beg quite a few questions. First, why is the S-400 SAM defense systems so critical to India (is it worth the sanctions risk)? Second, would the US Congress make an exception for India, which it has recognized uniquely as a Major Defense Partner (MDP)? Third, if the US does indeed make an exception for India, what would be the terms of the bargain for the former? Fourth, would a possible exception for India mean extension of exceptions of some form or the other to a host of other countries that seems lined up to buy Russian anti-missile/aircraft systems and other military hardware? And fifth, where would a successful S-400 deal with Russia place the India-US relations, especially in the areas of sensitive technology sharing and interoperability?

There are quite a few reasons why India is ready to take the risk of going ahead with the S-400 deal with Russia, despite the risk of sanctions from the US. While India’s improved relations with the US in recent years has provided the rationale for an anticipated conciliatory approach from the US, New Delhi’s conviction for acquiring the S-400 lies more in perceived strategic advantages from the systems, particularly in the area of air defense against ballistic missiles, cruise missiles and advanced aircraft, an area where domestic strides have been painfully slow. India has sought to buy 5 systems of the S-400 for a whopping US $4.5 billion. Besides seeking to fundamentally alter India’s air defense capabilities, the S-400 is being seen as a fill up for India’s rapidly depleting air capabilities. The S-400’s deployment would potentially be lethal as its radars can detect targets as far as 600km and can destroy them as far as 400km. The S-400 beats all extant air defence systems in its range of superior performance. Besides engaging 72 targets at a time, it can track another 160 targets simultaneously. To add, it provides super maneuverability through its ability to engage targets flying as slow as 17km/hr. By comparison, its US counterpart, the Patriot Missile Long-Range Air-Defence System fades – the radar system has a range of up to 100km, capacity to track up to 100 targets and can provide missile guidance data for only up to 9 missiles. For India, S-400 deployment would not only mean cutting down on China’s edge (which is also one of the client countries for Russia’s S-400) but effectively bringing all of Pakistan’s bases under its range. Apart from the strategic advantages, the S-400 deal could also be seen as a strategic recompense from India for pulling out of the Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA) recently, potentially bringing the bilateral defense relations with Russia on track. Apart from improving Russia’s relations with India, the S-400 deal in the pipeline for Russia could bring major relief to its sanctions-hit economy.

Whether India will circumvent US sanctions in going ahead with buying the S-400 will largely be contingent on the US Congress, even if the deal receives a Presidential assent. The chairman of the US House Armed Services Committee, William Thornberry, has already raised concerns about the proposed sale of Russian S-400 Triumf air defence missile systems to India. The primary concern for the US is that the deal will complicate interoperability between the militaries of India and the US. The involvement of radars and other sensitive technologies from Russia within the S-400 would make the access to similar or related technology transfers difficult from the US. As the largest importers from both the US and Russia, India will find it hard to functionally juxtapose such transfer of technologies from both the countries while still amicably addressing both their concerns. This would mean further roadblocks in the way of Defense Trade and Technology Initiative (DTTI) between India and the US which could stop knowhow transfers concerning a few ongoing projects under the DTTI. However, there is some probability that the US Congress could create a special provision for India’s purchase of the S-400 from Russia, especially in the light of India’s unique MDP status.

The other way around the whole conundrum for the US would be probably by striking a grand bargain; striking a bang for the buck in allowing the S-400 deal to go through even unwillingly with India. In such a scenario, the most favorable terms for the US would be to push through its two ‘foundational agreements’ with India that still remain in the pipeline on its own terms: The Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) and Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA). Tina Kaidanow, principal deputy assistant secretary of the US State Department’s Political-Military Affairs Bureau, was in Delhi to convince the Indians to sign the COMCASA and BECA as follow up to the LEMOA agreement. Besides, she also pushed for the American Patriot air defense system sale to India. Although it is highly unlikely that either the US or India will agree to this swap of a bargain. For the US, even if the foundational agreements were to be signed, allowing the S-400 deal to go through will further complicate the interoperability problem. For India, it would be difficult to sign the COMCASA and BECA on US’ terms, as it is precisely on that ground that the agreements are being hitherto resisted.

The Russian S-400 has indeed created a global ripple with a host of countries wanting to buy the air defence systems, giving its rival the Patriot air defense systems a run for its money. The countries that possess the S-400 or are likely to include Russia, China, Turkey, India, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Morocco and some others very soon. Interestingly, countries like Saudi Arabia and Qatar who are already operating the US Patriot systems are switching over to more modern S-400 systems. Turkey has already bucked the trend, unlike other NATO members like Romania and Poland who recently acquired American Patriot systems, by signing the S-400 deal with Russia. The technology and capability gap between the American Patriot systems and the Russian S-400 systems could potentially open the Pandora’s box of acquisition and counter-acquisition in the Middle East, if Saudi Arabia and Qatar, the first in the line to buy, were to deploy the S-400 systems. Also, the debate on the effectiveness of the Patriot systems PAC-3 interceptor missile in the ongoing Saudi-Yemeni conflict against the Burqan-2 missile (a scud variant) fired by the Houthi rebels hasn’t helped the American cause of marketing their air defense system to the world. In contrast, the deployment of S-400 in Syria has sent robust signals.

In the days leading up to the S-400 negotiations, India’s diplomacy will be at test. India’s position of being non-aligned still could help in this predicament. But more than the legacy of ideology and foreign policy, India’s concerns should be tethered around pragmatic realities in the region, strategic benefits out of asset acquisition and subsequent deployment and above all long term interests resulting from the deal. It will be interesting to see which side weighs heavy in diplomacy and conviction on New Delhi in the S-400 negotiations process.