Indo-Russian S-400 Deal in Light of the US’ Afghanistan Predicament – Modern Diplomacy

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For four years now, the Indo-Russian deal for five regiments of the S-400 anti-aircraft missile system has constantly made the news. The deal, worth more than USD 5 billion, will make India the third foreign buyer of the system after China and Turkey. In short, S-400 ‘Triumph’ is a Russian long-and medium-range anti-aircraft missile system, designed to destroy all modern and promising means of aerospace attack built upon the legacy of S-300, S-200 and other versions which have been in deployment for a long time in diverse conditions. At the same time, the S-400 system costs around half of its western alternatives.
Since the outlines of the deal first came to light, the deal has worried both China and the United States for different reasons. Whereas China sees the deal as the embodiment of close India-Russia defence ties, Washington sees this deal through its inability to choke Russia through sanctions and the loss of market share for its own defence industry.
The story doesn’t end here. The possibility of invoking the CAATSA (On Countering America’s Enemies Through Sanctions) against India due to defence procurement deals with Russia, is a matter of concern for other prospective buyers like Saudi Arabia, Vietnam, and Indonesia which the US has long eyed as markets for its own defence offerings. However, the Indian case is unlike the Chinese and Turkish cases (both sanctioned for their S-400 deal) for several reasons because the US is envisaging New Delhi as a potential ally to counter China in the Indo-Pacific. Now, with the US withdrawing from Afghanistan and the security situation in South Asia in a flux, it will be imperative for the US to avoid alienating India who now stands as the sole player in subcontinental geopolitics to challenge Chinese hegemony.
What is CAATSA and why it matters?
CAATSA, signed by former US President Donald Trump in 2017, enables Washington to impose sanctions against companies, organizations, and individuals from any nation for conducting ‘substantial’ transactions with Russian defence sector enterprises. CAATSA recognises sanctions in 12 categories, at least 5 of which must be imposed when invoking the act. Some of these sanctions involve blocking loans from the US and international financial institutions and banning any procurement of defence equipment from the US by the sanctioned party, under both the foreign military sales and strategic partnership models.
An often-relayed message is that CAATSA sanctions are not designed to be punitive against partners and allies but are designed to impose costs on Russia in response to activities deemed hostile by the US. This gives the impression that the imposition of CAATSA would simply punish Russia, however, geopolitics in the realm of national security requirements make defence deals a much more convoluted reality.
There has been a widely held acceptance in Russian political circles that India is going ahead with the S-400 procurement despite the numerous American attempts to lure India away, either by CAATSA related pressures or by offering alternative defence systems to India. For Moscow, this shows New Delhi’s commitment to a strong relationship between the two nations. This re-strengthening of ties and commitment has become increasingly important for Moscow as its defence trade with China decreased since 2018 (after allegations by Russia about Chinese activities related to reverse-engineering of Russian proprietary technologies surfaced).
In recent years, there has been a narrative floated in Chinese and Pakistani media, about India moving away from its cold war era relations and of the Indian government being ‘pro-American’, which should make Moscow re-evaluate ties with New Delhi. To a certain extent, a lull observed between India and Russia for a decade between 2005-2015 gives credentials to this narrative, making way for insecurities between the two long-standing strong defence partners. For Russia, beyond securing a guarantee of New Delhi not falling gradually into Washington’s orbit in field of defence trade, the S-400 deal provides a boost to the Russian defence industry which has seen increasing competition in recent years from emerging competitors, especially China.
Moreover, it must be noted that procurement of such systems is not a short-term engagement, as such platforms are supposed to stand for decades on top of which newer versions can be built upon or upgraded. This is where the ‘generational opportunity‘ debate from US’ expert circles come into the picture which denotes the opportunity to penetrate any market through such platforms as a once in a generation opportunity
US’ CAATSA conundrum
According to some experts, the United States stands in a Catch-22 situation. It is not a question of ‘if’ CAATSA would be applied or not (as it gets applied the moment the clause of ‘significant transaction’ is satisfied). The questions are whether the waivers will be given, and if not, then which of the 12 sanctions will be applied.
There have been indications that the US has been trying to assess options to bypass the sanction clauses and provide a waiver to India under the modified waiver clauses introduced into the legislation in 2018. One of the clauses that can be invoked comes under the national security exception, which considers the waiver to be in the US’ national security interests. Another clause considers that the government with primary jurisdiction over the person (the Government of India in this case) is cooperating with the US government on other security matters that are critical to American strategic interests.
It is not just India that is waiting for the fog to clear on waivers and sanctions; other prospective buyers are waiting to see if the US will impose sanctions without considering the newly emerging geopolitical landscape. A hard-line approach towards the application of CAATSA will certainly put pressure on the likes of Vietnam and Saudi Arabia to make a hard choice between US and Russia for defence imports, whereas a milder approach might increase hopes for avoiding sanctions through diplomatic efforts with Washington while negotiating with Moscow for the defence deals.
The deal with Saudi Arabia will be especially important as it might shape how the US and Russia will be perceived in the Persian Gulf in terms of having the capability to be a security provider in the coming future. Although former president Trump adopted a softer approach towards the Khashoggi murder case in 2018, President Joe Biden has frozen the sale of weapons to Saudi Arabia, which included a potential sale of the THAAD missile system. Saudi Arabia might now use the Russian S-400 system as leverage over the US, as losing the Saudi market for defence exports will be a substantial blow for the US defence industry. Keeping in mind the emerging volatile situation in Afghanistan as well, weakening of relations with Gulf nations might cut off the US from influence in the wider West Asian region while Russia makes a return to South Asia after having carved an influential space in West Asian geopolitics by saving President Assad’s regime in Syria.  
What lies ahead for India and the S-400 deal?
Unlike Turkey, which is a NATO member with a huge Western defence technology base, the Indian defence base overwhelmingly comprises of Russian and Soviet equipment. India has several joint projects with Russia like the BrahMos hypersonic missile and the assembly of T-90 tanks in India. Even if recent Indian diversification plans are taken into consideration, a significant decrease in India’s reliance on Russian equipment cannot be imagined in upcoming years. Like the cold war era, India and Russia have switched to settlement in national currencies due to the US blocking payment possibilities in dollars. This not only fits with ongoing Russian plans for de-dollarization but also helps India to fit into the wider narrative of a multipolar world and shield itself against any aggressive US policies in future.
Russia is looking towards delivering the first batch of the S-400 system by the end of this year. With unclarity around the sanctions and waivers, India and Russia will want to investigate future ideas for defence cooperation. Concerning a recent visit of Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to New Delhi, and his statement highlighting confidence in terms of the S-400 deal, the Indian experts picked up his comment on deepening military-technical cooperation within the framework of the ‘Make in India’ program. According to this view, production of Indian air defence systems on Indian territory through a joint initiative can be a possible way of overcoming sanctions for Indo-Russian cooperation. The delivery of the S-400 systems to India in the coming months will surely be a much-celebrated event, how China and the US react, will have to be waited for. Sanctions or not, in any case, the Indo-Russian defence relationship is bound to strengthen after the S-400 procurement.
The question remains whether the increasingly evident importance for US of keeping warm ties with India will lead to waivers from sanctions. India too on its part will be wary now more than ever as the security situation in South Asian region will remain in flux for some time to come as Taliban takes over and engages with China and Pakistan. Any souring of India-US ties is bound to negatively affect both nations’ interests especially in areas both hope to engage for strategic hedging against China.
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On September 26th, Russian Television Today (RT) published an article titled ” Plenty more subs in the sea: AUKUS nuclear deal could end up pushing Russia and China closer together but dividing Europe,” written by historian Tarik Cyril Amar of Koc University in Istanbul.
Former US President Barack Obama claimed that Russia is nothing more than a “regional power” at the start of the article, but Russia quickly replied by assisting in the thwarting of the US “regime change” in Syria. Russia and Syria were not in the same region.
The article pointed out that Western adversaries frequently misrepresent or overestimate Russia’s might. Despite the fact that it cannot be compared to the United States, which was preoccupied with starting conflicts after the Cold War, Moscow is powerful enough to make an influence. Russia’s regional security interests cover half of the globe, from Central Europe to the Sea of Japan. As a result, the newly created AUKUS alliance between the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia drew the attention of Russian authorities and the Minister of Defense.
At initially, Russia’s attitude was cautious, but it quickly turned critical. Nikolai Patrushev, the Russian Federation’s Secretary of the Security Council, denounced AUKUS as “the model of NATO in Asia” that would expand its reach by attacking China and Russia.
According to the article, the essence of AUKUS is simple. Its center is the transfer of technology from the United States to Australia, which includes nuclear-powered submarine technology. Only six nations have it so far: China, France, the United Kingdom, Russia, the United States, and India, which uses Russian technology in a complicated arrangement.
Despite the fact that a submarine fueled by a nuclear reactor is not the same as one capable of firing nuclear weapons, this technology has significant strategic value. “Excellent speed, range, stealth, and endurance make nuclear submarines a very powerful offensive weapon that can project power and bring the fight closer to the opponent,” according to the US Naval Research Institute.
There is no question, according to the author, that the AUKUS pact boosted Australia’s military dominance while also indirectly increasing US military influence. At least for the for being, Australia’s political clout in Washington has grown. “The United States has no closer and more reliable ally than Australia,” said US President Joe Biden.
Although the media viewed the US, UK, and Australia signing of AUKUS as primarily aimed at countering China, according to the author’s research, AUKUS can have an impact on Russia in three ways: through its impact on Russia, China (or wider Asia), and the European Union’s influence. In the eyes of China and Russia, Australia’s prospective nuclear-powered submarines will have the range to approach North Pacific seas where the Russian fleet is frequently stationed. These submarines will become a more severe concern if they are outfitted with missiles capable of striking Russia (which is physically possible). As a result, Russia may decide to increase the size of its nuclear submarine fleet in the Pacific. Under these conditions, the current strategic cooperation between China and Russia will only become stronger.
AUKUS, especially when combined with the existing “Quad Security Dialogue” mechanism (Quad) between the US, Japan, India, and Australia, as well as the “Five Eyes Alliance” intelligence cooperation between Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the US, could eventually lead to an alliance. Encourage the formation of an opposition coalition.
Although AUKUS gives optimism to those in the West who want to start a new Cold War with China, its most significant component—the nuclear submarine supplied by the US to Australia—will take more than ten years to complete. Time is something that can be provided. Russia has cause for concern, but it must not overreact. In reality, only those Westerners who want a rerun of the Cold War will gain from this.
This does not rule out the possibility that Russia, like other countries, would seek its own benefits. For example, Russia may use AUKUS to share its nuclear submarine technology with Asia and other countries. Last but not least, Russia may seek to capitalize on nations like Indonesia and Malaysia’s displeasure in order to enhance bilateral ties and security measures.
Although AUKUS is primarily geared at China, the report stated that it is not only China that is dissatisfied with it. France, an EU member, is the only country in the world that is more enraged than China. The United States’ formation of a new alliance in the Pacific area has caused the most hurt and insult to the United States’ longest European partner. France was booted out of the submarine agreement with Australia, and the United States’ harshness is generally reserved for tiny Middle Eastern countries (except for Israel and Saudi Arabia, of course).
After being booted out of the submarine agreement, France recalled its diplomats in Washington and Canberra and made vehement statements about “stabbing in the back,” but the insult to France appears to have remained mostly unchanged. The European Union’s relationship with the United States has deteriorated. Regardless of differing viewpoints, the EU will not unify behind France. There are indications that the European Union as a whole is hesitant to challenge the US seriously just because France feels embarrassed.
Because of France, the author argues that Western Europe does not want to offend the United States. Following the announcement of AUKUS by the US, UK, and Australia, the European Union’s High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy, Borelli, first backed France, then issued a mild warning to the US, UK, and Australia, reminding them of an obvious truth: partnership usually entails cooperation and coordination. However, the EU’s response to the United States will be limited to this. Anyone in France who believes this is foolish.
The article concluded that, under Macron’s leadership, France has become the most ardent supporter of European “strategic autonomy”—basically, the idea that the world is so affluent, crowded, and developed that it should be treated as such. The region should be self-sufficient. However, no consensus has emerged in Western Europe on this subject. Europe was unable to achieve an agreement even after Trump declared his brutal “America first” strategy and the implementation of AUKUS. Any Russian who expects France’s humiliation to create a schism between the United States and the European Union will be disappointed: the EU is neither clever nor united enough to do so.
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The portents are that the United States has once again found a convenient scapegoat to blame for the Afghan debacle. Wow, the US generals have vowed. “We need to fully examine the role of Pakistan sanctuary.” They emphasised “the need to probe how the Taliban withstood US military pressure for 20 years”. Claiming that the Taliban was and remains a terrorist organisation, the top US general Milley said: “It remains to be seen whether or not the Taliban can consolidate power or if the country will further fracture into civil war.”
Chairman of the Joint Chief General Mark Milley told the Senate Armed Services Committeealso claimed, “We estimated an accelerated withdrawal would increase risks of regional instability, the security of Pakistan and its nuclear arsenals”. Both generals, however, declined to discuss more on their concerns about Pakistan’s nuclear weapons and the potential that they could fall into the hands of terrorists.
They acknowledged, “We need to fully examine the role of Pakistan sanctuary,” The general emphasised the need to probe how the Taliban withstood US military pressure for 20 years. They implied that it was Pakistan’s legerdemain that helped taliban carry the day. They said they would discuss this and other sensitive issues in a closed session with the senators.
Purpose of Pakistan bashing
The Pakistan bashing is an outcome of India’s pressure who wants quid pro quo for participation in the QUAD.  The US wants to return to the good old days when Pakistan provided vital air corridors to bomb Afghanistan.
Familiar pattern
The Pakistan bashing has a familiar pattern.  After a lull, they take out the old skeleton of nuclear proliferation and whip it into the international media. India is always in the forefront of this orchestrated campaign.
For instance, Press Trust of India dated January 10, 2006 reported “Pakistan continues to be the hub of nuclear black-market involved in trading surplus goods to other countries despite the uncovering of the proliferation network of disgraced former top scientist A Q Khan two years ago, a report said today citing European intelligence sources. The Khan network may not have been completely put out of action, an unnamed administration official has been quoted as saying by the ‘Washington Times.’9 not Washington Post). …”Khan has been pushed aside, but other, younger people have taken over,” David Albright, a nuclear analyst tracking the A Q Khan network at the Institute of Science and International Security told the daily. European intelligence agencies have come to the conclusion that Pakistan continues to procure – including from Europe- far beyond its needs”. It is believed that there are as many as 20 Pakistani government offices, laboratories, companies and trading organisations that are actively involved in the procurement effort with the end users being front companies of Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission or the trading firms that are active on behalf of Islamabad. “In developing its nuclear installations, Pakistan depended on deliveries of equipment from abroad, particularly from Europe,” according to an intelligence assessment of July 2005, which noted that there have been attempts since 2004 at procurement with the range of materials bought going “clearly beyond” Pakistani requirement for spare parts.”
Unfortunate bias
It is unfortunate that Pakistan is unduly chastised in media. All countries procure dual-use equipment through secret means. India for instance,Sidney Emery Jr, chief executive of the US company, MTS Systems Corp, confirmed that his  company, along with five other companies,  was investigated by US government agencies for possible violation of federal export laws.  The charge against the MTS Corporation and five other companies was that they illegally sold high-tech material-testing equipment to Bhabha Atomic Research Centre and Indira Gandhi Centre for Atomic Research.  The equipment, employing hydraulic pressure, was designed for nuclear weapons research. In several other cases Indians have been arrested and punished in the USA for attempting to procure dual-use equipment for export to India.
A dossier on nuclear proliferation by Pakistan only
International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS) published a ‘research’ dossier titled ‘Nuclear Black Markets: Pakistan, A. Q. Khan and the Rise of Proliferation Networks‘. The information in the dossier is largely re-churned old wine in new bottle. Still, there are  silver linings in the dossier.
The title of the dossier suggests that it is exclusively focused on Dr Qadeer. However, it throws light on bomb espionage activities of several other countries, including India. The dossier is accompanied with a prefatory statement by Dr Johan Chipman, Director General of the IISS. This statement gives a fair opinion of Pakistan’s motivation to go nuclear.
Dr Chipman points out, ‘Pakistan’s motivation to acquire nuclear weapons was sparked in large part by competition with India. .. the major boost [to Pakistan’s weapons programme] came in December 1971 after Pakistan’s traumatic defeat by India. Embitterment over the loss of East Pakistan also provided a psychological motivation to Dr A.Q. Khan offers his services to his home country by stealing enrichment technology from his workplace in the Netherlands. With that boost, it took Pakistan only ten years to reach the point where it could produce a nuclear weapon, despite the withdrawal of nuclear assistance from Western countries’.
Despite its pro-India bias, the dossier admits ‘Khan may have acted largely on his own volition, for his own profit’ (page 2). ‘Khan’s nuclear activities were largely unsupervised by Pakistani governmental authorities and his orders of many more components, than Pakistan’s own enrichment programme required, apparently went undetected’ (p. 66). ‘Most of Khan’s dealings were carried on his own initiative’ (DG, IISS, press statement dated may 2, 2007).
The dossier reflects well on Pakistan’s efforts to tighten its nuclear security and safety controls _ The dossier mentions ‘Many of Pakistan’s internal reforms since 2001, and then following Khan’s confession and confinement to house arrest in 2004, have been transparent and appear to have worked well. A robust command-and-control system is now in place to protect Pakistan’s nuclear assets from diversion, theft and accidental misuse. A.Q. Khan and his known cohorts are out of business’.
The dossier also notes that ‘A new defence policy was adopted in March 2004. This policy reportedly intended to “further strengthen institutionalization of control of strategic assets”, and “turn all policies and decisions from an invisible secrecy into solid documentary form following the recent proliferation scandal” (p. 36).
The dossier realises dangerous implications of the 123 agreement (revised version on anvil) for Pakistan. Extract: ‘Fears that the India-US nuclear cooperation agreement will free up Indian domestic uranium for additional weapons purposes gives Pakistan an additional motivation to continue to produce weapons-grade fissile material of its own. Pakistan has resisted any nonproliferation regimes that it believes would give a ‘perpetual edge’ to India. This is one reason Pakistan has been the country most resistant to negotiating a fissile material cut-off treaty’.
Aside from its Pakistan-bashing title, the dossier observes ‘Pakistan was not the only country to evade nuclear export controls to further a covert nuclear weapons programme (page 7). ‘Almost all of the countries that have pursued nuclear weapons programmes obtained at least some of the necessary technologies, tools and materials from suppliers in other countries. Even the United States (which detonated the first nuclear weapon in 1945) utilised refugees and other European scientists for the Manhattan Project and the subsequent development of its nascent nuclear arsenal. The Soviet Union (which first tested an atomic bomb in 1949) acquired its technological foundations through espionage. The United Kingdom (1952) received a technological boost through its involvement in the Manhattan Project. France (1960) discovered the secret solvent for plutonium reprocessing by combing through open-source US literature. China (1964) received extensive technical assistance from the USSR’.
From the dossier, one gets to know that Asher Karni, an Israeli businessman, and Alfred Hempel, an ex Nazi who died in 1989, are co-fathers of India’s ‘indigenous’ bombs. Hempel, a German nuclear entrepreneur, helped India overcome difficulties of heavy-water shortage by organising illicit delivery of a consignment of over 250 tonnes of heavy water to India’s Madras-I reactor, via China, Norway and the USSR. The duo also arranged transfer to India of sensitive nuclear components.
Concluding remarks
One unmistakable conclusion from the dossier is that Pakistan’s motivation to go nuclear was well founded. In view of restrictions on nuclear exports, Pakistan did what other countries did to make its bomb.
Yet, Pakistan should prepare for a long period of nuclear bashing. 
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While it is true that the security pact between Australia, the United Kingdom, and the Unites States (AUKUS) does not directly interfere with the purpose and the geographical sphere of influence of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO); now has it caused major disagreements among European NATO members, it does have the potential to push unwanted changes at European and global level in terms of issues of security and potential alliances.
For Europe the consequences may not be immediate. However, it cannot be ignored that 2 of the most militarily important NATO members, the US, and the UK, have decided to join this pact. France is, so far, the country that has been affected the most when Australia ditched the 38.6-billion-euro agreement to build 12 diesel-fuelled submarines to procure American-built nuclear propelled ones instead. The US is alienating France, forgetting that it is one of the US oldest allies, and one of the most militarily capable NATO members in the European continent. France is also an important actor in the Indo-Pacific region, the area of influence of AUKUS, as there are approximately 1.6 million French citizens living in that region.
AUKUS starts with a serious diplomatic failure: not including France in the deal. Although it is not too late to rectify, as the promised equipment to the Australians will take almost a decade or more to build, there are little prospects the US would consider adding France, and there are also little incentives for the French to join 3 countries that have stabbed it on its back.
This pact could also worsen the already fractured relationship between the US and Europe, the UK and Europe. Prospects for cooperation now seem dim after this agreement. This is a double-edged sword. It benefits China as it is sowing discord among powers; and it is also an incentive for France, and possibly the European Union (EU) as a whole. Although there are robust agreements in place between the UK and France, such as the Lancaster House Treaties, the way both countries proceed in the pursue of their foreign policy individually and at continental level, will determine how hard or soft the blow is for both the EU and NATO. The fracture can open the door for the idea for greater European autonomy. Germany is preoccupied with its general election, allowing France to make use of this to take a more protagonistic role to advance further EU independence.
AUKUS militarily speaking does not pose any real threat to China or the region. It does, however, signals a very strategic game among all actors involved. The pact has positively impacted the UK, who after Brexit, has seen this agreement as a small victory over Europe. The United Kingdom has finally set itself free from the subjugating practiced of the EU. AUKUS has also come to strengthen the Global Britain policy it pursued since its exit from the EU and its reclaiming its place in international affairs. Secondly, for the UK, the support given by the Biden administration also means the US has decided to side with the UK and not with Europe when it comes to China’s rise.
A more overlooked downsize of this pact is the danger of nuclear proliferation. Although it is unlikely that Australia will start developing the idea of nuclear weapons any time soon. So far, the rule is that any country with nuclear powered submarines are also holders of nuclear weapons. Allowing Australia, a non-nuclear state, to own such submarines is a serious loophole that would leave the door open for countries such as Iran to buy nuclear-powered equipment from China or Russia; or other countries with a history of nuclear weapons development such as India, Pakistan or North Korea to decide to build such equipment.
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