by John Dobson
LONDON: If you had picked up a British newspaper on 5 September you would have found two faces staring at you. One was Alexander Petrov, according to his Russian passport, the other Ruslan Boshirov. Both are believed to be false names, as British intelligence has linked them to the GRU, Russia’s secretive military intelligence organisation. Both are believed to have been trained in assassination and espionage.
British police and intelligence services claim to have sufficient evidence to charge Petrov and Boshirov with the attempted murder of the former Russian spy, Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia, using Novichok. Appearing in a comically unbelievable interview on Russian Television this week, Petrov and Boshirov claimed that they were civilians and simply visitors to Salisbury, but did not explain why their visit took them close to Skripal’s house just hours before they were found unconscious. President Vladimir Putin also denied any involvement by Russia, but perhaps forgot an earlier interview when he said darkly that being a traitor was “bad for your health”. It certainly was for the Skripals.
How should the free world respond to a country which acts in such a gung-ho manner, tossing aside well-established conventions? Initially, more than two dozen countries were persuaded by Britain’s compelling evidence and expelled a total of 150 Russian spies working under diplomatic cover. Then America and the EU added to the list of sanctions against Russia on the basis that it had “used chemical weapons in violation of international law”.
Sanctions against Russia have become the weapon of choice by the West, but they are a blunt instrument with complex side-effects for third parties. None more so than India. For example, in August 2017 a reluctant President Donald Trump signed into law the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), as a result of Russia’s “unacceptable behaviour in the use of chemical weapons, the annexation of Crimea and its interference in the 2016 US presidential elections”. In effect, this law makes it extremely difficult for India to contract with both Russia and America for arms purchases, unless America issues a “waiver” from CAATSA.
There’s another effect of US sanctions, which is unique to India. As Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman reminded Washington recently, India has an enduring relationship with Russia going back decades. Historically, India’s trade with Russia has flourished when Russia’s relationships with China have soured. Trade increased six-fold in the 1960s and 70s during Russia/Sino tensions, a great example of the ancient proverb “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”. Nowadays, the aggressive sanctions by the West against Russia are pushing President Putin towards China, a move which is changing the geopolitical dynamics in Asia.
If you don’t believe me, look no further than Vostok 2018, the major military exercise currently taking place on Russia’s eastern border. Unprecedentedly, Beijing is contributing 3,200 soldiers, 900 tanks and 30 jets to Vostok 2018, a move which must have created a severe headache in New Delhi. Russia has also delivered to China its first batch of the impressive S-400 mobile surface-to-air (SAM) system. India has been negotiating with Russia over several years for exactly this system.
So, in the light of both the dramatic geopolitical change in Asia and the possible sanctions against Russia, should contracts be signed for the S-400, rumoured to take place next month during the summit between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Putin?
I believe that there is now a strong argument for India to change direction and build up its arms purchases from the US. The announcement in 2017 that the US would sell India 22 predator Guardian drones, a contract worth $2-3 billion, is a great example. A delighted President Trump declared India to be a “major defence partner”. This year the US announced that the armed version of the drone would be authorised for India, a first for any country outside NATO.
It gets better. On 31 July the Trump administration placed India on the Strategic Trade Authorisation (STA) Tier-1 list, which would allow American companies to export more high-tech equipment under a streamlined licence exception. Currently only 36 countries, mostly NATO, have this designation and India is only the third Asian country, after Japan and South Korea, to achieve it.
New Delhi is keen to purchase the advanced stealth strike fighter aircraft, F-35, from America, but Washington fears that the stealth characteristics of this aircraft would be compromised if India purchases and integrates the S-400 into its air-defence network. This move would also reduce credence in the US’ current operational stealth advantage and would almost certainly result in the refusal of any sales of the F-35 to India.
Following the 2+2 talks last week, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that the US is not seeking to punish India for its Russian arms purchases, hinting that a waiver from CAATSA might be forthcoming. However, it is by no means certain that an unpredictable American President will do so and India might find itself with a dilemma if it contracts for the S-400. Already it is reported that financial sanctions by the US have hit India’s arms trade with Russia hard, with payments for weapons and equipment worth over $2 billion stuck after banks refused to make remittances to Moscow fearing penal action.
There is a simple, but controversial solution to this dilemma, which would require political courage: cancel the S-400 and purchase from America the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) SAM system, the one supplied recently to South Korea. The two systems have different characteristics, but the sophisticated THAAD is particularly effective against long-range missiles.
The purchase of the S-400 could, therefore, be a mistake by India. It should take full advantage of its STA Tier-1 status and cancel the S-400, purchase THAAD and proceed smoothly to the purchase of the F-35. By doing so, India’s defences will be substantially stronger.
John Dobson worked in UK Prime Minister John Major’s Office between 1995 and 1998