India pulled off a coup of sorts when it signed a deal with Russia for the US$5.3 billion S-400 air defense missile system on Oct. 5 in New Delhi, while ensuring that the United States agreed to waive any sanctions.

Section 231 of the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) invites sanctions if any country signs an agreement with a nation deemed hostile to US interests.

For months, the Indians have been working with their counterparts in Washington to try and get a waiver from President Donald Trump’s administration. With Russian President Vladimir Putin in New Delhi, the deal was slated to be a show-stopper.

Indian foreign ministry officials privately told Asia Times that the Russians were insisting that the deal was signed before other agreements were inked.

But as an acknowledgment to US sensibilities, the signing of the S-400 deal was the only one kept away from public gaze on Friday night.

The details were buried in a 68-paragraph joint statement that was later issued. Top foreign ministry sources told Asia Times that even though the Russians were keen to highlight the deal, the Indians pointed out that this was simply not possible.

“We didn’t specify the Americans, but we held our ground that we would go ahead with the deal and it wouldn’t get top billing in the statement,” a senior official said on the condition of anonymity.

The statement recorded that both sides “welcomed the conclusion of the contract for the supply of the S-400 Long Range Surface to Air Missile System to India” and expressed “satisfaction” on the progress in other military projects, such as the purchase of small arms, tanks and armored carriers.

For decades, Russia was India’s top military equipment supplier until the Israelis moved in a few years ago. Military deals with the US are still fairly limited and low technology, leading to deals in transport aircraft, ultra-light howitzers and weapon locating radars.

India is in talks to purchase the NASAMS (National Advanced Surface to Air Missile System) from the US under the Foreign Military Sales (FMS) route. “Waivers of the CAATSA section 231 will be considered on a transaction-by-transaction basis. We cannot prejudge any sanctions decisions,” a US embassy spokesperson stated in New Delhi.

A transport and launching unit of the S-400 anti-aircraft missile system that India is purchasing from Russia. Photo: AFP/ Vitaliy Ankov / Sputnik
A transport and launching unit of the S-400 anti-aircraft missile system that India is purchasing from Russia. Photo: AFP/ Vitaliy Ankov / Sputnik

For decades India had to navigate a bi-polar world, with a blow hot, blow cold relationship with the US, while maintaining a strategic relationship with the former Soviet Union. This historical context to the S-400 deal is symptomatic of how things will unfold in the near future.

“In the 1950s, India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru went to the US looking for technology to set up steel plants. They insisted that this should be handed over to the private sector. Nehru immediately went to the Soviets, who happily supplied the technology without imposing their politics,” a former top foreign official told Asia Times.

“This showcases how the bilateral relationship between India and the US, vis-a-vis Russia, has been shaped through the decades since independence.”

India signed the COMCASA (Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement) with the US exactly a month ago in the 2+2 dialogue between US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and US Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis with their Indian counterparts Sushma Swaraj and Nirmala Sitharaman.

This, along with the LEMOA (Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement) are some of the “foundational agreements” that New Dehli has signed with Washington.

These “foundational agreements,” US diplomats say, are key for a possible military alliance in the future. “Such an alliance is very far away, but without these, even the possibility does not exist. We recognize India’s independent foreign policy and reluctance to be part of any military alliance, but these agreements help,” an American diplomat told Asia Times.

“The US must acknowledge that India is in pursuit of its enlightened self-interests as a strategic partner. In a strategic relationship, it is key that both sides respect each other’s sensitivities. India is aware of the need [of the US] for engaging Pakistan and they should recognize India’s need to engage other strategic partners,” Vivek Katju, a former diplomat and secretary to the Indian government, told Asia Times.

After nuclear weapons tests conducted by India in May 1998, bilateral relations with the US dipped. But secret talks between then foreign minister Jaswant Singh and Strobe Talbot ushered in a new era that has endured and grown since then. According to analysts, this is unlikely to be reversed and may even earn India a waiver to import Iranian oil.

Best Air Defense Available

Major General PK Chakrovorty (retired), who spent decades shaping India’s air defense capabilities in the army feels that the S-400 is the best air defense system available to the country.

“The Americans are not even offering the THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) air defense system to Japan, one of their closest allies. So why will they offer it to India? Nor is the Patriot system available. That makes the S-400 the best and in many ways, it is even better,” Chakrovorty said.

The Russian system has an approximate range of 400 kilometers, much more than the 180km that the THAAD offers.

“The S-400 may be slower at Mach 5.9, as compared to the THAAD’s Mach 8.1. But it has three radars – a search radar, a tracking radar and one on board the missile. This enhances its capability to hit a high-speed moving target with incredible accuracy,” Chakrovorty said.

The fact that it will be coupled with the US NASAMS is also a factor from a strategic view. “It can also counter stealth aircraft and that is a major plus,” Chakrovorty added.

In the past, deals with Russian have included long leases on nuclear submarines. From the mid-1980s, such leases helped India build its indigenous nuclear submarine.

And although India canceled plans to jointly develop a fifth-generation aircraft recently, it is unlikely to sour relations between the two countries, even as Russia inches closer to China.