The US presidential waiver on weapons deal with sanctions-hit Russia is intended to "wean" countries like India off the Russian equipment, the White House has said as New Delhi inked a USD 5 billion deal to purchase S-400 Triumf air defence system from Moscow.
The mega deal was sealed in New Delhi on Friday during the visit of Russian President Vladimir Putin for the annual summit with Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
In a guarded reaction, the US said Friday its intent to slap sanctions against Russia was not aimed at imposing damage to the military capabilities of its "allies or partners," shortly after India concluded the deal for purchase of S-400 missile defence system from Russia.
The S-400 missile defence system would give India's defence a cutting-edge security against any missile attack by its enemies.
"The (CAATSA presidential) waiver is narrow, intended to wean countries off Russian equipment and allow for things such as spare parts for previously-purchased equipment," a White House National Security Council Spokesperson told PTI hours after the conclusion of the S-400 contract.
The deal was concluded during the visit of Russian President Vladimir Putin for the annual summit with Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
President of US-India Strategic and Partnership Forum Mukesh Aghi said: "India lives in a very turbulent and nuclear-powered region. S-400 provides that assurance and is compatible with its current platform. Friends understand that these discussions with Russia started several years ago hence I do not believe US will impose sanction on India".
But for the presidential waiver, Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act or CAATSA sanctions kicks in in the event of a major purchase like S-400 missile defence system. Ahead of the deal, the US had urged India not to purchase S-400. It reiterated Friday.
"The Administration has indicated that a focus area for the implementation of CAATSA Section 231 is new or qualitative upgrades in capability including the S-400 air and missile defense system," the White House NSC Spokesperson said.
Last month, the US had imposed sanctions on China for the purchase of S-400 from Russia.
"Our recent action to sanction a Chinese government entity for an S-400 delivery underscores the seriousness of our resolve on this issue. The waiver authority is not country-specific. There are strict criteria for considering a waiver," said the spokesperson.
The State Department, which is tasked with reviewing the deal and initiated the process of sanctions or waiver under CAATSAA, and then recommend to the president, did not respond to the question on the time frame and the process.
However, an industry source said the law is ambiguous about "when a waiver is necessary so this can be avoided for years".
The National Defense Authorization ACT (NDDA) 2019 gives president the power to waive of the CAATSA sanctions if it is national security interest.
It also lists out several other options for presidential waiver, prominent among which is the purchase country India in this case is taking or will take steps to reduce its inventory of major defense equipment and advanced conventional weapons produced by the defense sector of the Russian Federation as a share of its total inventory of major defense equipment and advanced conventional weapons over a specified period.
In fact, over the last more than a decade, India the top arms purchaser of the world, has gradually reduced its dependence on Russian arms. It now stands at about 60 per cent, which is much lower than it was a decade ago. The US has been a major beneficiary of this move.
As part of its diversification plan, India has increased its purchase of arms from the US from about zero to more than USD 18 billion. India is in the process of purchasing arms and equipment worth billions of dollars from the US in the coming years including armed and unarmed drones and fighter jets.
A presidential waiver can also be given if a country like India in this case is cooperating with the US government on other security matters critical to the US strategic interests. Experts believe that is exactly the case and one of the main reasons for US designating India as a 'Major Defence Partner'.
"I don't like to make predictions in today's Washington but sanctioning India, and surrendering the Indian defence market to Russia, would have exactly the opposite of the intended effect of CAATSA. No American interest group benefits from sanctioning India," Benjamin Schwartz from US India Business Council said.
He has previously served as the director for India in the US office of the secretary of defence.
Aparna Pande, from the Hudson Institute think-tank, said "I believe what is more likely is that even though India will sign the S-400 deal, it will delay payment, etc so that the sanctions don't come into effect.
"This way India maintains its strategic autonomy and historical ties with Russia and yet ensures its strategic relationship with the US is not impacted either," Pande said.
According to Rick Rossow, from the Center for Strategic and International Studiesthink tank: "Congress widened the waiver criteria with India in mind, and the fact we had a robust '2+2 Dialogue' in Delhi a month back shows that the administration believes in the momentum".
The Russian Embassy in the US tweeted that that the delivery of S-400 will begin in October 2020.