For months now, US congressional leaders have been pressing President Donald Trump to impose biting sanctions on Russia for its meddling in Ukraine, Syria, the 2016 US elections and, most recently, the UK. In frustration, legislators have sought to act unilaterally where they can. Their efforts now threaten critical US allies and partners—India chief among them.

Like its predecessor, the Trump administration has wisely sought to make India a central pillar in its overall Asia strategy. The rising power, in a rare feat, enjoys bipartisan support in Washington; an overwhelming majority of US foreign policy players would like to see an acceleration of US-India ties, given the two countries’ convergence of interests and values. Neither country wants any one nation to dominate Asia’s future and democratic India constitutes a bulwark against the region’s rising tide of authoritarianism.

That comfortable consensus, however, could now run afoul of politicking in Washington. Visiting Moscow last week, India’s defence minister agreed to expedite the purchase of the sophisticated, long-range S-400 air defence system from Russia. The deal had originally been signed in October 2016 but has been held up mainly by quibbles over price.

The Indian arms purchase could violate a law Trump reluctantly signed in August 2017 that targets Russia for its interference in the 2016 US presidential elections and other destabilizing behaviour. The Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act requires punishing any country engaging in “significant transactions" with Russia’s defence and intelligence sectors.

The India-Russia deal is a byproduct of a defence relationship that dates back to the beginning of the Cold War. Despite leading a movement of countries “non-aligned" with either Washington or Moscow, India tilted toward the Soviets, while its archrival Pakistan sought an alliance with the US. About 60% of India’s defence equipment still comes from Russia.

As the estrangement of that era has steadily melted away and India’s economy has surged, the US has risen to become India’s second-largest defence supplier. In fact, US-India defence ties enjoy the strongest momentum in the overall relationship today. India is a critical partner in helping manage China’s rise, fighting terrorism in South Asia and providing maritime security in the Indian Ocean.

Yet, there’s some catching up to do. India lives in a dangerous neighbourhood with nuclear-armed China and Pakistan, rivals with whom it has fought wars and has active border disputes. State-of-the-art military equipment is a must-have for the world’s largest arms importer, especially when its most formidable strategic competitor, China, was Russia’s first overseas customer for the S-400 system.

India wants to be the second, largely to strengthen its borders against attack. The essentially defensive S-400 is meant to provide India reassurance even as its armed forces face acute combat aircraft shortages and procurement delays.

Any public threat—let alone imposition — of sanctions will severely damage the growing US-India strategic partnership. The merest suggestion of Western interference in sovereign decisions has long been considered an affront in India —a neuralgia that can be traced not only to the country’s searing colonial experience, but to past US penalties imposed for nuclear tests conducted in 1974 and 1998.

Those restrictions, and extant export controls on defence equipment, raise questions in India about America’s reliability as a security provider. The array of active threats India faces can make any withholding of aid and equipment seem like a life-and-death decision.

While understandably frustrated by Trump’s lack of enthusiasm for implementing Russia sanctions, Congress was ill-advised to pass an extraterritorial measure putting countries such as India in the cross-hairs without explicitly providing for carve-outs. It would undermine significant American interests if secondary US sanctions, of all things, pushed India deeper into Russia’s arms.

Before it’s too late, the US and India should quietly work together to find other arrangements to address the latter’s defence requirements. If that’s not feasible — India has reportedly turned down the older Patriot missile defence system, for example — Congress should provide India a sanctions waiver. Allowing for exceptions based on an overall assessment of national security is hardly unusual under US sanctions and trade law.

Better yet, US legislators should consider offering a blanket waiver to all allies or partners that could foreseeably be caught up in the Russia sanctions — from India to Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Vietnam. Too much is at stake to allow one-off defence transactions and well-intended US legislation to damage budding relationships with promising security partners. Bloomberg View

Close