The United States cannot guarantee that it will provide India with a waiver from sanctions if it purchases major weapons from Russia like the S-400 missile system, a top Pentagon official has said.
The statement on August 29 by Randall Schriver, the Pentagon's top Asia official, comes after Congress passed legislation this month allowing the Pentagon to waive penalties against countries that purchase arms from Russian defense companies that were placed under U.S. sanctions this year, if those countries are developing a defense relationship with Washington and are transitioning away from relying on Russian arms.
India was frequently cited as an example of a country that would benefit from the legislation, and media reports in India and the broader South Asia region have suggested that India would get a waiver.
Schriver said there was an "impression that we are going to completely protect the India relationship, insulate India from any fallout from the [sanctions] no matter what they do."
"I would say that is a bit misleading," Schriver told an audience at the Carnegie Endowment For International Peace in Washington. "We would still have very significant concerns if India pursued major new platforms and systems [from Russia]."
"I can't sit here and tell you that they would be exempt, that we would use that waiver. That will be the decision of the president if he is faced with a major new platform and capability that India has acquired from Russia," he said.
The Indian embassy in Washington did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis in urging Congress to give the president authority to waive sanctions on Russia's military and intelligence sectors was a strong proponent of granting India waivers.
But Schriver said the Pentagon is concerned about India's planned purchase of Russian S-400 surface-to-air missile systems. Russia has said it expects to sign a deal with India later this year on the sale.
Schriver said such a transaction would be particularly "troubling" for a lot of reasons.
"Our strong preference...is [for India] to seek alternatives and see if we could be a partner to India in addressing those defense needs," he said.
The United States has in recent years pushed to forge closer diplomatic and military ties with India, a fellow democracy that it sees as key to countering China's growing regional ambitions.
India has increasingly turned to the United States for arms purchases, but it is still reliant on Russian hardware and expertise to maintain its existing arsenal of weapons purchased from Russia in the past.
Senior U.S. officials are expected to go to India next week for high-level talks, agreed upon by U.S. President Donald Trump and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi last year.
Schriver said one focus of the talks will be expanding the scope and complexity of joint U.S.-Indian military exercises.