New Arms Deal Between Russia and India Could Pose a Big Problem for the US’s Indo-Pacific Strategy

Many geopolitical commentators tend to overlook some uncomfortable facts. For example, many armchair experts in the US  believe that countries like India will blindly follow it in a Democratic crusade against China. However, this assumption is not guaranteed to play out in real time. An upcoming arms deal between India and Russia — a strategic adversary for the US — demonstrates how India may not be the reliable ally that some policymakers in DC envision it as.

According to a report by Paul McLeary of Politico, India is set to sign off on a controversial arms deal with Russia, worth $5 billion. Such an event could activate sanctions against India, ironically during a time when the US is attempting to woo India to its side in efforts to balance against China.

The deal for five Russian S-400 air defense systems has been a major concern for policymakers in Washington. The Russo-Indian arms deal is expected to go into effect in December.

The White House now has to pull off the sensitive balancing act of catering India while not trying to repel it, thereby pushing it into Russia’s arms. The sanctions in question are featured in the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, or CAATSA, a 2017 law passed by strong majorities that penalizes countries for conducting major arms deals with Russia. Russia is one the biggest arms players on the world stage, as evidenced by its second place ranking in terms of arms exports. 

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So far, the only countries who have been sanctioned by the law are China and Turkey, who have both bought the S-400 system that is expected to be delivered to India. Such a situation could put the US in a strange position with an ostensive ally such as India, who the US desires to use as a coalition partner to contain China, being subject to sanctions.

The Indian government of Narendra Modi appears to be going forward with the arms deal. Sameer Lalwani, senior fellow for Asia Strategy at the Stimson Center, noted that Russia and India have “not backed down for the last three years despite the threats of sanctions” when it comes to their arms deal.

“They planned around it, they made this commitment and reaffirmed it. They’re not blinking on this and so we can play this game of chicken as much as we want, but the consequences will be worse for us,” Lalwani added.

According to figures from The Moscow Times, Russia sold India $14.5 billion in arms from 2018 to 2019. Historically, India buys a large portion of its weapons from France, Israel, Russia, and the US. In recent years, American administrations have made successful attempts to get India to stop buying military equipment from Russia. However, India still heavily relies on Russia for nuclear-powered submarines and warships. 

Ever since the Trump administration, the US has laid down the hammer on allies that have deviated from its mutual defense standards. For example, the Trump administration booted Turkey from the F-35 program in 2020 and slapped on sanctions in accordance with CAATSA following Turkey’s decision to follow through with its acquisition of the S-400 system from Russia. In many ways, this move was a masterful stroke of geopolitical maneuvering that Russia pulled off to exploit contradictions within NATO by playing Turkey off its fellow members.

CAATSA became law in 2017 after Russia annexed Crimea. It’s used as a tool to keep other countries from purchasing Russian equipment while also putting the clamps down on Russia’s arms industry.

Currently, India constitutes an enormous market for arms exports, making up 9.5% of global arms imports. Only Saudi Arabia beats it in terms of arms exports according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

In 2023, India is expected to receive two new frigates from Russia. On top of that, Russia will start to lease its third nuclear-powered submarine from Moscow.

Part of the US’s  “Pivot to Asia”, the Obama administration designated India as a key defense partner in 2016. Long-term, this move represents a step towards building a balancing coalition against China. In the meantime, the US is attempting to wean the Indian government from using Russian arms. Russia and China have tightened their relations in the past two decades, which has prompted the US to undermine this emerging axis.

Overall, the US needs to avoid getting entangled in foreign conflicts that do not correspond with its interests. Our biggest threats come from south of our border thanks to porous border controls and a lack of attention given to Latin America, where migrants use a number of countries in the region as a launch pad.

As for India, historically speaking, the country tends to be non-aligned in its foreign policy focus. To be sure, it doesn’t like the idea of China trying to get into border disputes with it, nor is it keen on wanting to have China dominate the Indian Ocean or cut the country off key choke points like the Strait of Malacca. Nevertheless, India tends to have a realist foreign policy that is not as fanatic about carrying out regime change or other starry-eyed global democratic crusades against China. So you’ll definitely not see India joining a coalition to defend Taiwan, rescue the Uyghurs, or stand up for Hong Kongers.

The border dispute of 2020 with China, shows that India is more than capable of lowering the temperature with its rival. Plus, with the rise of Russia as a mediatory force in Eurasia, peace can be promoted in the region without the US having to play geopolitical games that destabilize the region. India is a nuclear power in its own right and does not need to be used as a pawn in the US’s misguided machinations against China.

Let’s hope US armchair international relations experts get this. America does not need to get dragged into another conflict — especially a great power conflict that could potentially have nuclear implications— in a far-off land. 


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