NEW DELHI — Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin hinted during a visit to New Delhi on Saturday that India’s planned purchase of an advanced Russian missile system could trigger U.S. sanctions, but left room for New Delhi to back away from the deal.
“We certainly urge all our allies and partners to move away from Russian equipment … and really avoid any kind of acquisitions that would trigger sanctions on our behalf,” Austin said in response to a question from a reporter about India’s plan to acquire the S-400.
However, he stressed that Russia has not yet delivered the equipment to New Delhi. While Austin did discuss the system with his Indian counterpart, Minister of Defense Rajnath Singh, the two did not discuss potential sanctions, he said.
“We are aware of the fact that they have expressed interest in acquiring the system,” Austin acknowledged. But “they have not acquired an S-400 system yet, so there would be no reason for sanctions to be on the table.”
The United States has in recent years sought to pull India from Russia’s and China’s orbit with high-profile visits and increasing arms sales and military cooperation. But India’s planned purchase of the S-400 could prove a flashpoint, particularly after Congress imposed sanctions on Turkey for acquiring the same system.
U.S. officials have said the S-400 cannot co-exist with U.S. equipment, as it can be used to collect intelligence on U.S. systems. They are particularly concerned about Russia using the S-400 to learn about the F-35 fighter jet’s advanced capabilities.
Austin came under increased pressure to raise the issue with Indian officials this week after Sen. Bob Menendez, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, urged the Pentagon chief to make clear the Biden administration’s opposition to the S-400 deal.
“If India chooses to go forward with its purchase of the S-400, that act will clearly constitute a significant, and therefore sanctionable, transaction with the Russian defense sector under Section 231 of CAATSA,” Menendez wrote in a recent letter to Austin, referring to the law called Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act.
“It will also limit India’s ability to work with the US on development and procurement of sensitive military technology,” Menendez continued. “I expect you to make all of these challenges clear in conversations with your Indian counterparts.”
However, the law does leave room for the secretary of State to waive sanctions for any individual country that purchases Russian equipment.
Austin noted that the United States does work with countries that operate Russian equipment “from time to time.”
During the media briefing, Austin also addressed questions on Afghanistan, noting that President Joe Biden had not yet made a decision about the timing of any potential drawdown even as a May 1 deadline to withdraw all U.S. troops from the country looms.
As the clock ticks down, Austin stressed that the Pentagon is keeping all its options on the table.
“There’s probably nobody who understands the physics associated with removing troops and equipment out of a place better than me,” Austin said, referring to his time overseeing the Iraq drawdown. “Whatever decision the president makes, you can trust it will be fully supported.”
As Biden weighs a decision, the Pentagon has presented options ranging from leaving by May 1 as planned to staying indefinitely at current troop levels, according to two defense officials familiar with the discussions.
Leaving by May 1 would be difficult but doable, one of the officials said. The U.S. currently has just under 3,500 troops on the ground, about 1,000 more than previously disclosed, the person said. This includes Special Operations personnel that were put “off the books,” a common practice.