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US makes India a catspaw with CAATSA sanctions legislation

US makes India a catspaw with CAATSA sanctions legislationThe malign shadow of US sanctions hangs over the informal summit between PM Narendra Modi and Russia’s President Vladimir Putin in Sochi on Monday, with New Delhi becoming a cat’s paw not only in the scrap between Washington and Moscow, but also in the turf war between the White House and Congress.

Although India has asserted that it will not allow any third country to dictate its ties with Russia, the so-called Caatsa (Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act) legislation has become Washington’s poison-tipped arrow threatening New Delhi’s long-cherished and long-nourished defence ties with Moscow which Washington is trying to whittle down.

While assuring New Delhi that it will do its best to avert the Congress-mandated sanctions against countries that have cozy ties with Russia, the Trump administration, pleading that its hands are tied by tough waiver conditions, is also using it to wean countries such as India away from the Russian arms industry to sell more American weapons.

In India’s case, the immediate efforts are aimed at nixing New Delhi’s plans to buy five S-400 Triumf air defence systems for around $4.5 billion from Russia, a prospective deal that is expected to be part of the India-Russia defence cooperation talks that will also take into account the Caatsa wrinkle and how to get around it.

On the weekend before his departure to Sochi, Modi tweeted that he is “confident the talks with President Putin will further strengthen the Special and Privileged Strategic Partnership between India and Russia”, indicating his determination to get around the roadblock set up by Washington, with which too New Delhi has an increasingly close defence ties. The US wants an even closer relationship.

While some US officials have expressed understanding of New Delhi’s dilemma, considering that some of India’s legacy weapons system are of Soviet and Russian origin and it needs to maintain defence ties with Moscow to keep them operational, others have cautioned that Caatsa is Congressionally-mandated and the administration’s hands may be tied in terms of waivers if India goes in for new purchases.

“Caatsa is a feature and we need to take it seriously. The (Trump) administration is always bound by US law. This is a US law. I’m hoping that not just India, but all of the partners that we engage with will understand that we will have to evaluate any potential large defence purchase from Russia seriously because that'’ what the law demands of us,” Tina Kaidanow, principal deputy assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs, said at a press meet on Saturday.

Kaidanow is travelling to India next week for talks on defence trade and peacekeeping, which are among two key areas of the rapidly growing US-India partnership as envisioned in the administration’s Indo-Pacific strategy.

Referring to the conversation that the US is having with India and other countries on Caatsa, Kaidanow said the US wants this to be a positive discussion. “The intent is not to sanction our partners. The intent is to emphasise how important it is that Russia’s malign behaviour all over the world is countered and by virtue of purchasing large-scale Russian system, what you’re doing is enabling that kind of behaviour. That’s the intent of the legislation.”

She also underscored the “positive incentives” to buy American products which are “good” and address relevant security needs besides making their forces interoperable in certain instances. “Think about what you’re doing when you purchase Russian product. It has a distinctly negative byproduct and that is you are creating an environment in which they are better able to do some of the things that we know are problematic,” she added.

Section 231 of Caatsa mandates secondary sanctions on those who conduct significant transactions with the Russian defence and intelligence sectors. US and Indian officials at the cabinet and secretariat level have been in contact over the matter, and Trump administration officials have assured New Delhi the sanctions are aimed at Russia, not India. But at the same time, Washington is attempting to take advantage of the situation to sell more American arms.

Following up on the visit to Washington of foreign secretary Vijay Gokhale and defence secretary G Mohan Kumar in April, US secretary of state Mike Pompeo and national security advisor John Bolton have also had phone conversations with their Indian counterparts on the subject. The outcome though is still uncertain.

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