Why allow US to dictate terms on purchases with Russia?

by MK Bhadrakumar

It has been reported that the Ministry of External Affairs is “lobbying hard” with the Trump administration to ensure Delhi does not “get caught in the crossfire” of the United States’ sanctions against Russia. The Indian diplomats are reportedly pleading with the Americans to grant India “exemption” from the US sanctions regime that also targets third countries doing business with Russia’s defence industry. According to “top Indian sources”, the government’s three-fold argument is that firstly, India’s dependence on Russian weaponry has been shrinking, as the statistics of the past decade testify. Secondly, Delhi pleads that if the US imposes punitive sanctions against India to stifle arms procurement from Russia, it would affect the existing reserves of the Indian armed forces and the overall defence preparedness. Thirdly, Delhi has assured Washington that its Russian arms purchases will not hurt the business interests of American vendors.

This is, indeed, laughable — an uncommon nonsense that leaps out of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. But, on a serious note, some profound issues are involved. Why should our government get into such nerve-wracking trapeze acts begs an explanation. As a former British colony for two centuries, we have a collective memory. The centenary of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre that is drawing close must be jogging that memory. Simply put, does our democratically elected government owe such laboured explanation, bordering on apology, to a foreign power regarding its sovereign decisions taken in national interests to meet the requirements and needs of the country’s defence?

It is in awkward moments like this that the lingering “unipolar predicament” of India’s foreign policy elite surfaces. Perhaps, our vulnerable bureaucrats have reason to be fixated on the unipolar predicament, but surely, that is not the case with our political leadership weaned on nationalist ideology. Yet, India must be one of a clutch of countries that suffers from such inferiority complex. Even the US’ close allies are strengthening strategic autonomy. Turkey has placed an order to procure the S-400 missile defence system from Russia and Moscow has begun producing it. Indonesia placed a firm order in February for 11 Su-35 multirole fighter jets from Russia. In March, Moscow signed a deal to provide Egypt with air defence missile systems, although according to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, it amounts to “changing the status quo” in regional military balance and challenges the Camp David treaty, which is lauded as the high noon of America’s Middle East policy. Turkey is a major NATO power; Indonesia and Egypt are Washington’s traditionally close partners — yet, they are being contemporaneous with the emergent multipolar world order.

Equally, an astonishing surge of strategic autonomy was on display last week in Washington when Emmanuel Macron, president of France (which is “not only a friend but America’s oldest ally”, as President Trump put it), tore into what is commonly known as “Trumpism”, during an address at the US Congress while on a state visit. And as he was leaving for Paris on the return journey, Macron said harshly that the US flip-flopping on international agreements on global issues “can work in the short term but it’s very insane in the medium to long term”. Macron plans to visit Russia next month to discuss a settlement in Syria. Moscow commentators are speculating that he might be undertaking some shuttle diplomacy as a mediator between Washington and Moscow. Yet, ironically, the latest bout of US sanctions against Russia is attributed to Russian policies towards Syria! And therein hangs a bizarre tale. Washington speaks in multiple voices, often contradictory.

From a long-term perspective, countries such as Turkey are increasingly wary about US policy shifts. They estimate rightly that putting all the eggs in the American basket would be a risky idea for any country that pursues independent foreign policy. India too should exercise caution to avoid heavy dependence on American arms supplies. The tendency to impose sanctions historically constituted a key tool in the US’ foreign policy armoury to pressure countries to fall in line. Currently, there is a bipartisan move afoot in the US Senate aimed at blocking the Lockheed Martin’s high-tech, radar-evading F-35 joint strike fighter to Turkey on the specious ground that President Recep Erdogan has embarked on “a path of reckless governance and disregard for the rule of law.” However, one of the pioneering senators, James Lankford (Republican) has openly admitted: “Turkey’s strategic decisions regrettably fall more and more out of line with, and at times in contrast to, US interests. These factors make the transfer of sensitive F-35 technology and cutting-edge capabilities to Erdogan’s regime increasingly risky.” Indeed, the plain truth is that the move comes at a time of policy divergence between Turkey and the US over American backing for Kurdish fighters in north Syria, whom Ankara regards as “terrorists” aiming at the creation of an independent Kurdistan state in the region.

Quite obviously, any US interference in the India-Russia defence cooperation, if allowed to happen, will inevitably lead to more American demands. The next target will be the India-Russia collaboration in the energy sector where too the US is an aspiring competitor. Therefore, the time to draw a red line in the India-US “defining partnership” is the present moment. Above all, the South Block should use brainpower to discern the range of American motivations to sanction Russia’s arms industry. There are strong commercial interests involved; arms exports are highly lucrative. Russia, which exported $15 billion worth arms last year, threatens to erode the US’ traditional dominance in the field. Russian arms sales to the US’ captive markets such as Middle East and Latin America have spiked to record-high level. American vendors are hard-pressed to match not only Russia’s highly competitive pricing but also Moscow’s willingness to share advanced military technology. For example, the US refused to give the advanced Patriot missile system to Turkey, whereupon Ankara has proceeded to procure the superior S-400 missile defence system from Moscow, which is also willing to transfer military technology.

India must preserve its strategic autonomy in the vital sectors of its national economy and security. The suggestion that India might get sucked into the US’ sanctions against Russia is actually “psywar”. The US simply cannot afford to sanction India. India’s burgeoning arms bazaar is today the biggest in the world and the American vendors know very well that a gravy train is running. We are not a “non-NATO ally” seeking American weapons as gifts. We pay the asking price and are terrific paymasters. Importantly, we should know that self-respect and free will are a country’s strategic assets.