Biden presses a wary India on Russia as Ukraine crisis deepens

The world’s two biggest democracies are having trouble getting on the same page over the world’s hottest war.

In a full-court press, President Biden lobbied Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in a video call Monday not to boost New Delhi’s purchases of Russian oil in the face of a U.S.-led push to punish the Kremlin for its 6-week-old invasion of Ukraine. Separately, U.S. and Indian foreign and defense ministers met behind closed doors in Washington to discuss the crisis — after barely mentioning Ukraine in their public remarks to reporters.

The Biden-Modi conversation was just the latest sign that India, which has a history of defense and economic ties with Russia dating back to its very first days of independence, is an outlier among U.S. allies and democratic governments on the Ukraine crisis. Mr. Modi, whose political base at home has a strong pro-Russia and anti-U.S. strain, called the war “very worrying,” but White House officials said he made no commitment to cut back India’s recent purchases of discounted Russian oil.

Mr. Modi told Mr. Biden that he hopes talks between Ukraine and Russia will lead to peace and called for an inquiry into atrocities outside of Kyiv. Mr. Biden tried to make the case that offering Russian President Vladimir Putin an economic lifeline was not helping the situation.

“The president made clear that he doesn’t believe it’s in India’s interest to accelerate or increase imports of Russian energy or other commodities,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters after the call.

Mr. Modi said he has spoken on the phone multiple times with Mr. Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy since the invasion began in late February.

“I not only appealed for peace but also suggested there be direct talks between President Putin and the president of Ukraine …,” he said in the virtual meeting with Mr. Biden. “Recently, the news about the killing of innocent civilians in the [city of Bucha] was very worrying.

We instantly condemned the killing and have called for an independent inquiry. We hope that the ongoing discussions between Russia and Ukraine will lead to peace.”

India’s stance on Ukraine poses a dilemma for Mr. Biden because Washington has been assiduously cultivating New Delhi as part of an alliance of East Asian democracies to contain China. India is perhaps the key player in the Indo-Pacific security “Quad” with the U.S., Japan and Australia. Mr. Modi and Mr. Biden are set to meet in person at a summit of Quad leaders next month in Tokyo.

India’s formally neutral stance on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has frustrated global partners and boosted the Kremlin’s case that much of the world does not share the U.S. and NATO view of the clash in Eastern Europe. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, on a recent visit to New Delhi, praised India for judging “the situation in its entirety, not just in a one-sided way.”

India abstained from a recent U.S.-sponsored measure to suspend Russia from the 47-member Human Rights Council. It also continues to buy Russian oil at a discounted price despite a global push to cut off Moscow from such proceeds, though some European countries also have maintained purchases.

A senior U.S. administration official described the call between Mr. Biden and Mr. Modi as “warm and productive” but “very candid.”

The official was careful not to condemn India’s purchases of Russian oil, noting they make up a tiny percentage of India’s energy imports and not every country is in an ideal position to cut off supply from Russia. The official acknowledged that it was a topic of discussion.

“Other countries have to make their own choices,” the official said.

The official said Mr. Biden talked about how India could diversity its energy supply and noted that India should take into account that its Asian rival China has also resisted Western sanctions on the Russian economy and has moved closer to Mr. Putin as the Ukraine invasion has unfolded.

Accentuating the positive

In public, Mr. Biden struck a positive tone during the public portion of the meeting by saying the countries have a deep connection and welcomed India’s humanitarian support for Ukraine.

“The United States and India are going to continue our close consultation on how to manage the destabilizing effects of this Russian war,” Mr. Biden said.

Mr. Modi, likewise, hailed the U.S. and India as the largest and oldest democracies.

“We are natural partners and the progress that has taken place in our relations, the new momentum that has been created, would have been hard to even imagine a few decades ago,” Mr. Modi said.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with their Indian counterparts in the fourth annual “2+2” series of discussions on a range of issues. As with the Biden-Modi conversation, the public remarks largely danced around the divisions over Russia and Ukraine.

In welcoming Indian Defense Minister Rajnath Singh at the Pentagon, Mr. Austin suggested that both China and Russia are looking to undermine the security of their neighbors and to alter the status quo by force.

“Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the humanitarian devastation that it has created are blatant attempts to undermine the international order that is grounded in the rules and the principles that we share,” Mr. Austin said. “Now more than ever, democracies must stand together to defend the values that we all share.”

Mr. Singh brought a more generic public message without mentioning Ukraine. He told reporters at the Pentagon that he hoped the meetings would take the U.S.-India strategic partnership to the next level.

“This meeting and our 2+2 dialogue are indeed important landmarks in our bilateral relationship,” he said. “I hope this engagement will prove to be beneficial to strengthen our bilateral relationship.”

The Times of India, in its coverage of the summit, said Monday’s call represented “a diplomatic version of irresistible force meeting immovable object,” with Mr. Biden failing to persuade Mr. Modi to follow the “U.S.-NATO line on Russia.”

China’s nationalistic press has picked up on the tensions between the U.S. and India over Ukraine. The state-controlled Global Times wrote gleefully in an editorial that Monday’s talks with Indian leaders put Washington in “an awkward position.”

“Everyone can see that no matter how much the U.S. emphasizes its strategic partnership with India, no matter how euphemistic it sounds, it cannot cover up the big divergence between the two countries on the Russia-Ukraine conflict, nor will it change the fact that U.S. pressure on India to condemn Russia is the theme of their meeting,” the editorial said.

Still, some analysts say that while India would prefer not to pick sides in the diplomatic tug of war, the Modi government will face mounting pressure to break with Russia should the Ukraine conflict drag on.

“India will likely only collaborate with Russia for as long as this does not invite the prospect of U.S. sanctions,” Sergey Sukhankin, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Jamestown Foundation and an adviser at Gulf State Analytics, said in an analysis for the Eurasia Daily Monitor.

“If New Delhi is forced to choose sides, it is highly unlikely that it will openly side in Moscow’s favor. Not only are Russian-Indian economic ties  — $8.1 billion in trade turnover during April 2020-March 2021 — negligible compared to bilateral trade relations with the US — $146 billion in 2019 — … but also New Delhi sees that Moscow prioritizes its relations with Beijing.”

Jeff Mordock and David R. Sands contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.

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