New Delhi: Visiting US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has raised the issue of India’s planned procurement of the S-400 Triumf air defence system from Russia, and stressed that allies and partners should avoid “any kind of acquisitions that will trigger sanctions”.
The Modi government has, however, firmly explained that the country’s armed forces have a diversified portfolio, ThePrint has learnt.
It has also told Washington that the process to acquire the Russian system began much before the US introduced the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), which attracts sanctions against countries involved in trade with Moscow.
Sources in the know said Austin did raise the issue of the S-400, which will be India’s air defence umbrella and the main pillar of the Indian Air Force’s defence grid, during his delegation-level talks with Defence Minister Rajnath Singh.
Briefing accompanying American journalists and a very select group of Indian media of which ThePrint was part of, Austin clarified that the question of CAATSA or sanctions against India is not on the table as India has not taken delivery of the system.
He, however, did not elaborate on what will happen when India takes delivery of the system later this year.
The United States had in January this year imposed sanctions on Turkey for purchase of S-400 surface-to-air missile system from Russia only once it took the delivery of the first regiment.
The then State Secretary Michael Pompeo had said sanctions on Turkey demonstrates the US will fully implement CAATSA and that the country will not tolerate significant transactions with Russia’s defence sector.
“Despite our warnings, Turkey moved ahead with its purchase and testing of the S-400 system from Russia,” Pompeo had said. “Today’s sanctions on Turkey’s SSB demonstrates the US will fully implement CAATSA. We will not tolerate significant transactions with Russia’s defense sector.”
Allies, partners should move away from Russian system
Asked about India’s planned purchase of the Russian system, Austin said the US works with countries from time to time that have Russian equipment bought over the years.
“And we certainly urge all our allies and partners to move away from Russian equipment and really avoid any kind of acquisitions that will trigger sanctions on our behalf,” he said.
Saying that the issue of S-400 was raised, Austin said, “There has been no delivery of an S-400 system and the issue of sanctions is not being discussed. But we did address the issue of the S-400 with the Ministry of Defence,” he said.
Asked specifically if sanctions against India under CAATSA was on the table, Austin played safe adding that since India has still got an S-400 system, there is no reason for sanctions to be on table.
“We are aware of the fact they (India) have expressed an interest in acquiring the S-400 system but that system has not been delivered,” he said.
India has diversified portfolio
Sources said that New Delhi told the Americans that the Indian armed forces have a diversified portfolio and has been using Russian systems for years.
India’s consistent stand has been that the process for acquisition of the system began prior to CAATSA being introduced in 2017 by the Trump administration.
It was in 2016 that India and Russia had signed an agreement on the ‘Triumf’ interceptor-based missile system, which can destroy incoming hostile aircraft, missiles and even drones at ranges of up to 400 km. S-400 is known as Russia’s most advanced long-range surface-to-air missile defence system.
ThePrint had in 2019 visited the S-400 factory in Russia and reported that the delivery of the system was to begin by end of 2020. However, payment got delayed post this and hence the delivery schedule was extended.
Former Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman had earlier said that CAATSA was an American law and not an UN law.
Even though the contract for the system was signed in October 2018, the payment took time because both countries had to find a way around the US sanctions against Russia.
(This report has been updated to reflect that Lloyd Austin is the US Secretary of Defense and not the US Secretary of State. The error is regretted.)
(Edited by Arun Prashanth)