The purpose of CAATSA is 'to provide congressional review and to counter aggression by the Governments of Iran, the Russian Federation, and North Korea, and for other purposes'

A week after India began receiving supplies of the Triumf S-400 missile defence system from Russia there seems to be no clarity over whether the United States will sanction New Delhi.

The Joe Biden administration, saying it has not made a determination yet on any potential Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) waiver to India, pointed out that the law does not have a country-specific waiver provision attached to it and bilateral conversations regarding the subject will continue.

But what is CAATSA? And what are the potential consequences of the same if the United States does not give a waiver to India? Let's briefly examine this:

What Is CAATSA? What Does It Do?

The purpose of CAATSA is "to provide congressional review and to counter aggression by the Governments of Iran, the Russian Federation, and North Korea, and for other purposes."

It was signed into law by on 2 August, 2017, by then president Donald Trump.

Trump at the time, called the bill "seriously flawed" and said it "encroaches on the executive branch’s authority to negotiate”.

The timing of the bill being passed and signed into law is instructive: The US was essentially targeting Russia for its actions in Ukraine and Syria, as well as its alleged interference in the 2016 presidential election (which Trump won).

CAATSA thus essentially lets the US government punish any country that engages in transactions with Russian defence and intelligence sectors.

Has The US Imposed CAATSA On Other Countries?

It has.

The US imposed sanctions on Turkey under the CAATSA for the purchase of a batch of S-400 missile defence systems from Russia. That led to apprehensions that Washington may impose similar punitive measures on India. As per The Hindu, the US invoked secondary CAATSA sanctions on a Chinese military department and its head for the purchase of 10 SU-35 Russian combat aircraft in 2017 and S-400 equipment in 2018.

Why Is India Under Threat of Sanctions?

In October 2018, India signed a $5 billion deal with Russia to buy five units of the S-400 air defence missile systems, despite a warning from the then Trump administration that going ahead with the contract may invite US sanctions.

Russia has been one of India's key major suppliers of arms and ammunition.

As for what consequences India could face, let’s look at what happened to Turkey.

As per The Hindu, the US expelled Turkey from its F-35 fighter jet programme following Turkey’s receipt of the first shipments of the S-400 in July 2019, over American concerns that the system might compromise its F-35 jets. Turkish pilots are no longer allowed to train on the F-35 and the NDAA for fiscal year 2020 prohibited the sale of these jets to Turkey, as per the report.

But Will India Actually Face Consequences?

Maybe. But it won’t be an easy decision for Biden either way.

For one thing, India-US relations have been on the upswing for the past two decades, especially in the area of defence where trade has surpassed the $20 billion mark and is only likely to further increase. And while Russia remains a threat in the eyes of many in the United States, the Biden has a far bigger fish to fry: China.

For which the Biden administration needs India to remain on side. New Delhi, is after all, an ally of the US in its important QUAD grouping, which among other things aims at containing China.

Biden, whose approval rate has recently been tanking, also has to contend with domestic pressures. The beleaguered president is facing calls from top Republican and Democratic lawmakers not to impose CAATSA sanctions on India. Last month, US Senators and India Caucus Co-Chairs Mark Warner and John Cornyn sent a letter to President Biden encouraging him to waive CAATSA sanctions against India for buying military arms from Russia.

“While India has taken significant steps to reduce its purchases of Russian military equipment, it has a long history of purchasing arms from the Soviet Union, and later Russia. In 2018, India formally agreed to purchase Russian S-400 Triumf air-defence systems after having signed an initial agreement with Russia two years prior,” they said.

“We are concerned that the upcoming transfer of these systems will trigger sanctions under the Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), which was enacted to hold Russia accountable for its malign behaviour,” they wrote.

“As such, we strongly encourage you to grant a CAATSA waiver to India for its planned purchase of the S-400 Triumf surface-to-air missile system. In cases where granting a waiver would advance the national security interests of the U., this waiver authority, as written into the law by Congress, allows the President additional discretion in applying sanctions,” the two senators wrote.

So What Next?

State department Ned Price on Tuesday, asserting that the US values its “strategic partnership” with India, said, “ “We would need to refer you to the Indian government for any comments on potential deliveries of the S-400 system. But we have been clear when it comes to the system, not only in the Indian context but more broadly as well, that we've urged all of our allies, all of our partners to forego transactions with Russia that may risk triggering sanctions under so-called CAATSA, the Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act. We have not made a determination on a potential waiver with respect to Indian arms transactions with Russia.”

“CAATSA, however, does not have a blanket or country-specific waiver provision attached to it. We also know that our defence relationship with India has expanded and deepened significantly in recent years. It's deep and commensurate with the broad and deep relationship that we have with India and its status as a major defence partner,” he said.

“We expect this strong momentum in our defence relationship to continue. We certainly value our strategic partnership with India. As you know, we had an opportunity to travel to India not all that long ago. In August, I believe it was, we've met with Foreign Minister Jaishankar many times. We have discussed this concern directly, including with the highest levels in the Indian government,” Price said in response to a question.

“It not for us to speak to any systems that the Indian government may or may not have received. It is for us to speak to the laws that are on the books and the requirements under those laws. Obviously, members of Congress are deeply interested in this as well. So, it's a conversation that has been ongoing with our Indian partners,” Price said.

“It's a conversation that takes place in the context of a defence relationship that is meaningful to us, that is important both for the United States and India, including in the context of a free and open Indo-Pacific. And so, I suspect those conversations will continue,” he said.

Price said that the 2+2 talks would be held soon in Washington DC.

“We've committed to the 2+2, again, because we have a significant relationship with India, including its status as a major defence partner. But I can assure you that there will be an opportunity for a 2+2 before long,” he said.

In Short?

The suspense continues.