NO PUSHOVER: Russia can hit back if the US interferes with the Triumf contract.. India should stand ground against the US on its arms deal with Russia

by MK Bhadrakumar

THE last we had heard of the conversation between New Delhi and Washington relating to India’s purchase of the S-400 Triumf long-range anti-aircraft missile system from Russia was in mid-April, thanks to an interview by then Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman with the French news agency AFP. Sitharaman underscored that the government has been ‘heard and understood’ by the Trump administration over the $5 billion contract signed with Moscow last October, defying US warnings of sanctions on countries buying Russian military equipment.

Sitharaman said Washington had taken on board that India, bordering both Pakistan and China, needed arms from Russia, and others, to remain a ‘strong partner’. In her words, ‘In the case of S-400 we have explained ourselves well.... That has been heard and understood. They have appreciated the point of view put forward.’ Asked if she was confident that India would avoid sanctions, she said: ‘Yes, I hope so.’ 

Suffice to say, it comes as a surprise that the US State Department is raking up the issue all over again. An unnamed State Department official warned on Thursday that Delhi should not assume it would get a waiver from sanctions if it went ahead with its purchase of the S-400 Triumf missile shield from Russia, and furthermore, the purchase could also hamper the future of Indo-US defence relationship. Interestingly, the official drew a parallel with the US-Turkey rift over the same issue and warned that ‘the same concerns will apply should India proceed with an S-400 purchase’. 

The Americans know from experience that such unattributed remarks loaded with innuendos will suffice to raise dust on Raisina Hill. The remarks appear on the eve of an extended visit to India by Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs R Clarke Cooper on June 3. A State Department press note on May 29 said Cooper ‘will hold talks on defence cooperation and peacekeeping, two key areas of the rapidly growing US-India partnership as envisioned in the administration’s Indo-Pacific strategy…. Talks will focus on supporting India's role as a Major Defence Partner, expanding our security cooperation, and furthering opportunities for American industry.’ 

Early birds catch worms. To be sure, the Trump administration is engaging the new government within days of its assumption of office. Cooper's main agenda is to finalise more arms sales to India. Topping the list will be Lockheed Martin's F-21 fighter aircraft (also known as Super F-16), which the American vendor claims as ‘specifically configured for the Indian Air Force’ and provides ‘unmatched Make in India opportunities’. The company says, ‘Lockheed Martin and TATA would produce the F-21 in India, for India.’ No doubt, the US is pushing hard to get the longstanding proposal cleared under the stewardship of the new External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar, who also happens to be an ex-employee of TATA. 

The point is, Washington keeps the sword of Damocles hanging, as it were, on India’s head by holding out a veiled threat to sanction it over the S-400 Triumf deal with Russia unless American arms manufacturers are ‘compensated’ elsewhere with matching lucrative business. This is where the Turkish analogy becomes relevant. In somewhat comparable circumstances, the US is desperately keen to retain Turkey as a buyer for its newly developed F-35 stealth fighter aircraft. Turkey is set to buy 100 F-35As over the entirety of the programme. (The F-35 stealth fighter currently costs between $94 million and $122 million per piece, with sustainment cost projections much bigger, given the whopping production costs that are expected to exceed $1.5 trillion over its 55-year lifespan.) 

The US tried its level best — cajoling, baiting, flattering and threatening in turn — to force Turkey to give up its $2.5 billion deal with Russia for the S-400 Triumf. But Turkey refused to blink. Washington threatened that the F-35 deal might not go through. Which was, of course, baloney. But once the Turks dug in, Washington understood that there was no option but to find a way to move forward on the hugely lucrative sale of F-35 stealth fighters. The Turks have been proven right that the Americans were only bluffing by blandishing the threat of sanctions. 

Quite obviously, with India too, the US is resorting to ‘psywar’. Turks are veterans in the art of deal-making. (It is good that Delhi hosted a Turkish foreign ministry team recently.) The Turks drive hard bargain, which they regard as their prerogative and privilege. India too must have a similar approach in its transactional relationship with the US. 

Washington cannot sanction India because it will be like killing the goose that lays the golden egg. This is brinkmanship. The Russians also have the means to hit back if the US interferes with their Triumf contract with India. Coincidence or not, against the backdrop of the Cooper visit, Moscow has gently let it be known that there could always be another buyer for the S-400 Triumf — Iran. The message to Washington is unmistakeable — ‘Back off’. This should instil greater self-confidence into the Indian mind to negotiate optimally. 

But then, the government must also know what it wants from the US. Or else, we get short-changed. The government must prioritise the modernisation of the Indian armed forces as the leitmotif — rather than what the Lockheed-TATA joint venture desires. The IAF should know the long-term utility of F-16 (aka F-21), an archaic jet whose production has been phased out in the US.