The S-400 Triumph air defense system is produced by Russia’s Almaz Central Design Bureau. It is an upgrade of the previous S-300 defense system. It is capable of firing three types of missiles with short, medium and long ranges, which creates layered defense. These missiles work in integration with autonomous detection and targeting systems, anti-aircraft missile systems, multi-functional radar and launchers. It can simultaneously destroy 36 targets, including all types of aerial targets, radar detection, ballistic and cruise missiles, and hypersonic targets, from a distance of 400 kilometers (248 miles) and an altitude of up to 30 kilometers.
So far, Belarus, China, Turkey and India have purchased the S-400s. The Saudis have initiated talks with Russia too. Turkey is the first NATO member state that has bought it. However, other NATO member states such as Bulgaria, Croatia, Slovenia and Greece had previously purchased the Russian S-300 defense system. The United States imposed economic sanctions under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) on Turkey’s purchase of the S-400s. The applicability of CAATSA on India’s purchase of S-400 remains a puzzle, and the discussions regarding a sanction waiver for India are of high importance for the U.S.
In 2018, India had signed an agreement worth $5.43 billion for five S-400 defense systems with Russia. The delivery was expected to begin toward the end of 2020, whereas the first delivery took place in December 2021. Since China and Turkey’s S-400 deal resulted in the CAATSA sanctions, it was expected that the U.S. would follow the same procedures for India too. However, due to geopolitical and geostrategic reasons, India presumably might receive a sanction waiver under a clause in the fiscal year 2019 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that allows the U.S. president to issue a waiver to CAATSA sanctions. Nonetheless, the issue of granting an exemption remained ambiguous during the administration of former U.S. President Donald Trump. However, members of the U.S. Senate, U.S.-India Business Council and some think tanks argue that U.S. President Joe Biden’s possible CAATSA sanctions against India will negatively affect the strategic partnership between the two countries.
Indian officials reported that the first S-400 battery would be placed on the country’s western border to counter possible threats from China and Pakistan. Since its independence in 1947, India has experienced many border conflicts with China and Pakistan. China, India and Pakistan have been a power politics playground between the U.S. and Russia to enhance their regional interests. China’s rapid economic growth and recent military advance have made India an inevitable partner for the U.S. To counterbalance China’s growing power, the U.S. faces the S-400 stalemate for implementing CAATSA sanctions to a strategic ally like India.
According to Indian sources, the Biden administration is “willing” to grant a presidential waiver to India “only” for the S-400 deal as a one-time exception. A possible CAATSA sanction waiver is expected to be implemented on the condition that India reduces its military dependence on Russia. In addition, the Biden administration will not endanger the growing India-U.S. relations with CAATSA sanctions. The U.S. has refrained from sanctioning Germany within the Nord Stream 2 energy agreement between Germany and Russia. Thus, it is very likely that India will be treated the same way. Moreover, the military cooperation between Russia and India goes back to the Soviet era. Some 86% of India’s military equipment is of Russian origin. For instance, India’s air power is mainly equipped with Russian aircraft. On the contrary, U.S.-India military relations date back to post-2001. Thus, the U.S. is not in a position to force India to step back from the S-400 deal, and economic pressures such as CAATSA would not uphold India from acquiring S-400, as it happened in the case of Turkey.
Another reason which puts the Biden administration in a stalemate is Australia, the U.S., India and Japan’s Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QSD), or the Quad, to advance peace and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific. Furthermore, the new amendment to the NDAA for Fiscal Year 2022 makes the CAATSA sanctions even more difficult to be applied on the Quad members arguing that the imposition of CAATSA sanctions on Quad member states will adversely affect the security dynamics in the Indo-Pacific region. As far as the China factor plays a vital role in India-U.S. relations, the U.S. factor in Russia-India relations too is of utmost importance for Moscow. The deterioration of relations between Russia and the U.S. in recent years and India’s participation in the Quadrilateral Indo-Pacific cooperation have made Russia very uncomfortable. Nonetheless, numerous bilateral defense and economic agreements were signed during Russia's President Vladimir Putin’s recent visit to New Delhi on Dec. 6, 2021. The agreements included India’s production of more than 600,000 Kalashnikov assault rifles. It is expected that the annual trade volume of the two countries will increase to $30 billion in 2025.
After the political tensions with the U.S. over Ukraine and Belarus, Putin’s visit to India was a very effective political cooperation against the U.S. In addition to the S-400 procurement, the two sides signed 28 investment pacts, including steel, shipbuilding, coal, and energy. In addition, it was reported that Russian oil company Rosneft would supply 2 million tons of oil to India by the end of 2022. It should be noted that India is the world’s second-largest arms importer, accounting for about 10% of global defense trade. In an effort to reduce India’s defense industry dependence on Russia, the U.S. offered discounts on the sale of 20 Sky Guardian and 10 Sea Guardian drones worth $3 billion, including the establishment of the first maintenance and repair (MRO) center in the region.
Adding to the fact that India is a party to the Quad Indo-Pacific cooperation, and it is a major defense industry importer, it is also the only important ally in the region for the U.S. that could challenge China in Eurasia. Also, India is the most populous country after China, and it is among the top five economies in the world. Hence, it is seen as an important bulwark against China’s expansionism. Therefore, any possible CAATSA sanctions over the S-400 could seriously harm U.S. national interests.
The geopolitical location of states positions the defense industry at the forefront of strategic importance. Thus, states have the right and free will to engage in economic and defense cooperation based on their self-interests. However, states’ individual behavior has sometimes brought crippling sanctions from the military and economic blocs of which the states are members. Turkey’s purchase of the S-400 has served as a glare for this spectacle. Having an active role in producing the fifth-generation F-35 combat aircraft, Turkey was exposed to CAATSA sanctions after purchasing the S-400. Also, despite paying $1.25 billion for the F-35 aircraft, it was excluded from the F-35 program, and the $2.5 billion worth of the S-400 activation is still a matter of debate.
India’s purchase of the S-400s was to strengthen its air defense system against threats from the neighboring countries Pakistan and China. On the other hand, Turkey focused on acquiring the S-400 against the missile threat from Syria, Iraq and Iran. The main factor that paved the way for Turkey’s purchase was the reluctance of the U.S. and other NATO members to sell the Patriot and SAMP-T air defense systems to Turkey. In addition, after Turkey’s two Syrian operations targeting the Afrin region in 2018 and the PKK/YPG beyond its eastern borders in 2019, apart from the Spanish Patriot missiles in Adana, other NATO members had withdrawn their air defense systems. Nonetheless, since a new generation of technology is used in the S-400s, NATO members, especially the U.S., are concerned that Russia may gain access to NATO information if Turkey activates this system.
The sanctions against Turkey’s purchase and the criticism from NATO members are justified through the advanced technological system that both NATO and S-400 uses. NATO uses an advanced system called Identification Friend or Foe (IFF) to distinguish between friend and foe, and NATO aircraft cannot fly within the area protected by the S-400. It is argued that the activation of S-400 by Turkey would bring a series of technical conflicts, and the S-400 computers could record data from NATO’s joint systems, making the intelligence available to Russia. Moreover, following Russia’s deterrent policies in eastern Europe, Russia is still NATO’s biggest adversary, which further complicates Turkey’s activation of the S-400.
Turkey and India’s S-400 adventure has quite different strategic dimensions. While Turkey uses F-16 American combat aircraft, India uses Russian-made SU-30s. Furthermore, India is not a NATO member, and it has historically used Russian-made military equipment. On the other hand, Turkey’s purchase of the S-400 was the first large-scale defense agreement with Russia. Accordingly, India’s purchase of the S-400 does not create tactical contradictions for the U.S. or NATO. In addition, India’s geopolitical position in Eurasia is an uncompromising factor for the U.S. Possible CAATSA sanctions will cause serious strain on bilateral defense and security relations between India and the U.S. In this context, even if CAATSA sanctions against India’s S-400 purchase come into effect, a one-time sanction waiver can be used by Biden.
Above all, U.S.-Turkey relations deteriorated after the 2016 military coup attempt, which worsened with the U.S.' reluctance to sell the Patriot defense system to Turkey. Additionally, Washington used harsh diplomatic language toward President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s administration on several issues. In particular, the Biden administration made statements that strained bilateral relations. While Turkey is experiencing the negative impact of U.S. sanctions, there have been major developments in U.S.-India relations recently. Former U.S. President Donald Trump and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi made mutual country visits and numerous new agreements were signed in the defense and economic fields. India-U.S. relations are further developing under the Biden administration within the scope of the Quad.