Why India won’t join the U.S. in isolating Putin – Grid News

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Why India won’t join the U.S. in isolating Putin

The American account of what happened when President Joe Biden met India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the sidelines of an international summit on Tuesday said that the U.S. leader “condemned Russia’s unjustifiable war against Ukraine.” There was no mention of India’s leader doing the same — a telling omission that reflects the difference between how conflict is viewed from Washington and how it is seen from New Delhi, and several other capitals beyond the West.

Ever since Russia invaded Ukraine, the U.S. has led efforts to line up the world against the Kremlin. But beyond Europe, the results have been mixed; Russia maintains ties with several major powers, China and India in particular, and in this and other cases countries are calibrating the costs and benefits of joining the West’s condemnation of Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin. Those calculations, apparent again as Biden met Modi in Tokyo, help explain why Putin is hardly the global pariah that the U.S. and its European allies might wish him to be.

India is of particular importance because of its size and power, but also because India has grown increasingly close to Washington in recent decades. Yet while New Delhi has called for an end to the conflict, it has also refused to join the efforts to isolate Putin or even to condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine. In the early days of the war, a senior Indian diplomat told Grid that the country sees the war through the prism of “important interests of our own that we have to factor in to all our decisions.”

Those interests are diverse — from energy to defense, where India’s reliance on Russian military hardware runs deep. And an unprovoked Russian war on its neighbor — terrible as it may be — has not trumped these core concerns.

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“I understand that at this moment, this would probably occupy you to the exclusion of almost everything else,” India’s foreign minister, S. Jaishankar, said in response to a question from one of his European counterparts at a recent foreign policy gathering in New Delhi, “but there is also a world out there.”

Energy matters

The economic imperatives are the most straightforward to understand — and were clear in a significant policy move last week, when India moved to cut domestic fuel taxes. The measure came in the face of rising inflation, a problem for several countries around the world, as the Ukraine conflict drives up global prices for food and fuel.

Enter Russia, which has been offering India discounted fuel shipments since the start of the war. While the U.S. has ended its purchases of Russian oil, and the European Union is at least considering doing the same, India has already bought more oil from Russia since the war began than it did in all of 2021. In the past, India imported around $1 billion in Russian oil per year, a figure that will almost certainly be higher for 2022.

Compared with the nations of Europe, India is in fact less reliant on Russian oil; Moscow accounts for only 2 to 3 percent of India’s oil imports, while the figure for Europe is roughly 25 percent. (When it comes to natural gas, Europe’s dependence is even greater.) But rising prices have made discounted supplies that much more attractive as India attempts to keep a check on domestic inflation.

“The way New Delhi has depicted these imports is strictly economic, at a moment of rising global inflation,” Michael Kugelman, the deputy director of the Asia program at the Wilson Center in Washington, told Grid. “Yes, the West would prefer that India not import any oil from Russia,” he added, “but it doesn’t see that as much of a problem because India is more reliant on oil from the Middle East, and increasingly the United States.”

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The food supply

A related story has been playing out in another area affected by the war in Ukraine: food. Here, the question is less about India’s needs and more about what it can do to help limit the global impact of the Ukraine conflict, which has driven up food prices. As Grid has reported, Ukraine and Russia are central to the world’s food supply. Wheat is among the staples affected by the war — and India is a major wheat producer.

Traditionally, India’s role in global exports has been limited; with the world’s second-largest population (1.4 billion), India’s output services mostly domestic needs. But many had hoped that it would help with the global shortfall created by the war. Instead, the impact of a recent heat wave on its harvest has led India to do the opposite — and temporarily curtail its minimal exports of wheat. Again, the government says it’s just trying to keep a check on rising inflation. And while the U.S. and other countries have called on the country to reconsider its policy, New Delhi’s position has found sympathy abroad.

“We don’t want any export restrictions, but India is currently experiencing the worst drought in a long time,” Germany’s Development Minister Svenja Schulze said last week. “That India is concerned about having enough food for its own population … I think that is very understandable.”

Buying weapons: advantage, Russia

New Delhi’s situation is more complicated when it comes to defense. On the one hand, in recent decades, the country has moved closer to the U.S. and its allies in the security sphere. Greater cooperation led to Washington recognizing India in 2016 as a “major defense partner.” Back in 2008, defense trade between the two countries was close to zero; by 2020, the U.S. had authorized more than $20 billion in weapons sales to India.

Yet close ties with Russia that stretch back several decades — to the Soviet period, long before Washington and New Delhi started to move closer — mean that even today, India depends on Moscow for some 60 percent of its military hardware.

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A U.S. congressional report in 2021, produced just months before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, laid out the issue in stark terms: “Many analysts in India and beyond conclude that the Indian military cannot operate effectively without Russian-supplied equipment and will continue to rely on Russian weapons systems in the near and middle term.” The reliance extends to the servicing and maintenance of Russian-origin hardware in India’s arsenal. And while India has been buying more widely in recent years, as well as trying to do more to manufacture what it needs domestically, the transition is a slow one; in the near term, Russia will remain a critical player in helping India maintain its defense.

Geopolitics

U.S. efforts to break India’s links with Russia have also suffered from geopolitical issues far from Ukraine. The fallout from the Biden administration’s botched exit from Afghanistan, where the Taliban returned to power last year, is a case in point. New Delhi was a supporter of the previous U.S.-backed government in Afghanistan, and has long accused its arch regional foe Pakistan of aiding and abetting the Taliban. The American withdrawal and deterioration of the situation in Afghanistan added to India’s security challenges.

Indian officials have also pointed to Kabul as an example of the inconsistency of Western policy; the Taliban turns back the clock inside the country, erasing hard-won rights and freedoms amid a worsening humanitarian catastrophe, even as Washington presents Ukraine as “a new battle for freedom.”

“You spoke about Ukraine,” India’s Jaishankar said recently in response to a question about India’s stance from Norway’s foreign minister. “I remember what happened less than a year ago in Afghanistan, where an entire civil society was thrown under the bus by the world.”

“We, in Asia, face our own sets of challenges,” he added. “It looks different from different parts of the world.”


Could India’s position on the war ultimately hurt its relationship with the U.S., or with the West in general? For years, Washington has sought to cultivate India as a counterweight to China. And for now, the U.S. continues to engage with New Delhi, despite its positions on Ukraine. As Grid has reported, India has seen a string of high-profile visits by Western politicians in recent months, even after hosting Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in the wake of the Ukraine invasion. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson visited India in April, and this week’s in-person meeting with Biden was preceded by a virtual summit between Modi and the U.S. president last month.

Indeed, at the meeting in Tokyo on Tuesday, even as India stuck to its position on the Ukraine war, Biden was clear about how he viewed the United States’ relationship with New Delhi: “I’m committed to making the U.S.-India partnership among the closest we have on earth.”

“The U.S. and other Western countries have essentially agreed to disagree with India,” Kugelman told Grid. “And the U.S. is really taking a long-term approach when it comes to India, making the argument that Russia is not going to be a useful defense partner moving forward. That as the U.S. and the West take action, Russia will too cash-strapped and isolated to provide India with what it needs.”

Which also explains the reasoning behind India’s calculation: that unless the conflict with Russia escalates, the West will continue to be forgiving of its position.

That point is echoed by Ashley Tellis, a longtime watcher of Indo-U.S. relations in Washington and senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Tellis wrote recently: “Indian policymakers … have judged that, because Washington seeks New Delhi’s cooperation in coping with the threat posed by China in the Indo-Pacific, the United States will be far more forgiving about India’s public neutrality toward Russia even if it happens to occasionally chide New Delhi about the same.”

Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.

  • Nikhil Kumar
    Nikhil Kumar

    Deputy Global Editor

    Nikhil Kumar is the deputy global editor at Grid, reporting on global affairs.

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