In a carefully worded statement to Hindustan Times, the US state department did not directly say if the purchase of the weapon system by India was sanctionable

The United States has said it has discussed with India a newly enacted American law that could potentially determine the purchase of the S-400 air defence missile system from Russia as sanctionable activity.

In a carefully worded statement to Hindustan Times, the US state department did not directly say if the purchase of the weapon system by India was sanctionable.

Refusing to confirm or deny discussions with the US on this issue, an Indian official in New Delhi said, “India’s relations with third countries (such as Russia) were not a part of discussions with the US and our defence requirements were determined by us only, independent of pressures and outside influence.”

India and Russia finalised an inter-governmental agreement on the S-400 Triumf air defence systems in October 2016 and are currently in advanced negotiations for at least five systems worth an estimated $4.5 billion. The negotiations have been stuck because of differences over the price, Indian officials said.

Reports have suggested India and Russia will try to sort out these differences during defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman’s upcoming visit to Moscow. Vladimir Drozhzhov, deputy head of Russia’s federal service for military-technical cooperation, told reporters on Thursday Moscow hopes to ink the deal with New Delhi in 2018.

But the deal could set India and the US on a “collision course”, Cara Abercrombie, a US defence department official with expertise on military ties with India and who is currently with Carnegie, wrote in an op-ed in Axios, an online news publication, this week.

It could leave India open to sanctions under the Countering American Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), which mandates the US administration to punish entities engaging “in a significant transaction with...the defense or intelligence sectors” of Russia.

The legislation was signed into law by President Donald Trump in August 2017 and went into effect in January. It seeks to punish Russia for “malign” activities in Ukraine and Syria and meddling in the 2016 US polls.

Abercrombie suggested a waiver from US Congress to allow India to go ahead with the deal in view of its security needs.

A US state department spokesperson said on Friday in response to a question on whether the S-400 deal could run into CAATSA trouble, “We have discussed CAATSA with the government of India, and the US intends to work with our partners to help them identify and avoid engaging in potentially sanctionable activity.”

The spokesperson added: “We are engaging with a range of countries to avert future defence acquisitions, and the secretary of state will take appropriate action when and if we determine sanctionable activity has occurred.”

At stake is also India’s long-standing defence relationship with Russia, something the Americans acknowledge as they try and wean India away from its ally of several decades.

“Approximately 60% of India’s defence inventory is Russian-made,” Abercrombie wrote in the op-ed, adding this was “a legacy of India’s Cold War-era relationship with the Soviet Union”.

She added, “Forcing India to abruptly cut off Russian supplies would create unacceptable risk to India’s self-defence. If forced to choose between a robust, well-equipped military and US goodwill, India would likely choose the former.”

After Russia and Turkey signed an $2.5-billion agreement last December for four batteries of S-400s, US officials threatened Ankara with sanctions under CAATSA. Turkey angrily brushed aside these threats.

Each S-400 surface-to-air missile system includes a radar and targeting equipment, multiple missile launchers and a command and control centre, and can detect and bring down drones, stealth aircraft, and ballistic and cruise missiles within a range of 400 km and up to 30 km.

The system can operate under conditions of intense enemy fire and electronic countermeasures. Its missiles can hit aerial targets at ranges up to 250 km and intercept ballistic missiles across a 60-km radius.

China was the first overseas customer for the S-400 and Russia recently began supplying the six systems ordered in 2014. Saudi Arabia is also in talks for the system but negotiations have been held up by differences over transfer of technology.