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Home / Politics / News /  India’s neutrality on Ukraine rooted in deep ties to Russia, lingering mistrust of US

A deputy U.S. national security adviser recently came to New Delhi to press India to take a more forceful stance against Russia over the Ukraine war. His meeting with the Indian foreign secretary was cordial, stressing the strong ties between Washington and New Delhi.

But Indian officials said they later felt blindsided when in public comments Daleep Singh warned of “consequences" for countries that helped circumvent sanctions. “Such words are never used in diplomacy," said one Indian official who was privy to the discussions. “It came as a surprise."

A day later, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov struck a very different tone after a meeting with his Indian counterpart, offering to sell India whatever it wanted to buy.

A succession of U.S. officials who have traveled to New Delhi to persuade India to join Washington in its effort to isolate Moscow have struggled to convince the country to come off the sidelines. India has stayed neutral in the conflict, abstaining from United Nations votes to condemn Russia’s action and declining to join sanctions. India’s position is partly borne of necessity: Russia is its largest arms supplier. But it is also the result of lingering mistrust of Washington and an abiding confidence in Moscow’s reliability that has been built over decades, Indian officials and analysts said.

During the Cold War, India adopted an official policy of nonalignment, but in reality forged an alliance with Russia, with the bonds growing closer as the U.S. backed rival countries such as Pakistan and imposed a slew of sanctions on New Delhi. Although ties with Washington have warmed over the years and Indian officials see a future in which the country is more closely aligned with the West, they say there remains a strong undercurrent of anti-American sentiment among Indian policy makers that is only reinforced when they are chastised publicly.

U.S. officials played down the comments from Mr. Singh, the U.S. deputy national security adviser for international economics, saying they weren’t directed specifically at India and weren’t intended to be a warning.

Still, Indian officials say remarks like those make them leery of turning their backs on Moscow, which has proven, time and again, to be a reliable partner. After a clash at the country’s disputed border with China killed 20 Indian and four Chinese troops in 2020, India’s defense minister visited Moscow twice within three months, partly to secure more arms and ammunition to bolster border defenses, according to an official with direct knowledge of the matter. In response, Russia supplied more missiles, tank parts and other weapons.

“Many people have the belief that Russian friendship has served India’s interests when a crisis has erupted," said Syed Akbaruddin, former Indian permanent representative to the United Nations and dean of the Kautilya School of Public Policy in Hyderabad.

For the West, India is one of the last remaining holdouts among the world’s major powers to remain neutral in the Ukraine war. The country’s purchases of oil and other goods could diminish the impact of sanctions designed to cripple the Russian economy. But perhaps more important, the Biden administration sees its relationship with India as one that will determine the future of security in Asia. “This is the one relationship we have to get right," said a State Department official.

India has spent billions of dollars on weapons from Russia, which has been its top arms supplier for decades. Despite efforts to diversify its sourcing, nearly 50% of its imported arms still came from Russia from 2016 to 2020.

In March, India struck a deal with Russia to purchase crude oil at a discount of at least 20% to global benchmark prices. Since the Ukraine war began, Indian refineries have purchased about 16 million barrels of Russian crude oil, with deliveries starting in May. That is close to the total amount imported from Russia in all of 2021, according to an Indian official.

The White House has stressed that cutting off Russian oil imports is a decision for India to make on its own. In a virtual meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi earlier this month, President Biden said he didn’t believe it was in India’s interest to increase imports of Russian oil and reiterated that the U.S. was willing to help India diversify its energy sources.

U.S. officials say they have made progress with India in talks that have continued since the start of the war, pointing to Mr. Modi’s recent comments condemning the killing of people in Bucha, Ukraine. Some U.S. officials have, nonetheless, expressed frustration at times over India’s reluctance to more forcefully condemn Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“I think that, to date, there are certainly areas where we have been disappointed by both China and India’s decisions in the context of the invasion in terms of their reaction overall," said Brian Deese, the director of the White House National Economic Council. “Our message to the Indian government is that the costs and consequences for them of moving into a more explicit strategic alignment with Russia will be significant and long-term."

India’s skepticism of the U.S. grows more entrenched when American officials lecture India on Ukraine, Indian officials said.

“The Indian people have always sort of felt respected by the Russians and supported by the Russians," said Ashley J. Tellis, an expert on Asian geopolitics at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “Whereas hectoring comes naturally to us" Americans.

Many current and former Indian officials can still rattle off moments in history where they felt that the U.S. wronged India: During the 1960s, President Lyndon B. Johnson personally reviewed monthly food aid shipments to India after Prime Minister Indira Gandhi criticized the American involvement in Vietnam. Then in 1971, the U.S. backed Pakistan in a war with India sparked by the Bangladeshi fight for independence. And in 1998, when the U.S. imposed sanctions on India for undertaking nuclear tests.

Recently, India’s foreign minister, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, has repeatedly brought up Afghanistan as an illustration of Western double-standards: The U.S. departure from Afghanistan was a huge blow to regional security for India, which views the Taliban as a proxy force for Pakistan and, by extension, China. And yet Europe didn’t react to the fall of Afghanistan with the same outrage as to Ukraine, he said.

“What we saw in Afghanistan had a very, very strong impact certainly in India," he said during a panel discussion in late March with the British foreign minister. “It probably didn’t have the same impact in Europe. People didn’t relate to the coming of the Taliban in the same way."

Mr. Jaishankar sat on the panel just a few hours after the news briefing from Mr. Singh, the U.S. deputy national security adviser, in New Delhi. Indian officials said Mr. Jaishankar chose to respond by pointing out that Europe purchased 15% more Russian oil and gas in March compared with the month before. Only about 1% of India’s oil imports come from Russia, he added. The Biden administration has echoed that point in recent weeks to minimize tensions between the two sides.

U.S. officials said the intent of dispatching Mr. Singh, an architect of the administration’s sanctions against Russia, to New Delhi was part of an effort to help allies understand the scope of the penalties imposed by the U.S. and European partners. “We don’t want anyone to be caught off guard," one administration official said. “We want to talk about compliance with them."

Biden administration officials have been trying to convince their Indian counterparts that the U.S. will be a more reliable arms supplier in its cross-border confrontation with China. U.S. officials have argued that the Ukraine war shows that Russian military equipment is unreliable and that it will soon be in short supply because Russia will have to replenish its own stockpiles after using it on the battlefield in Ukraine. Western sanctions will prevent Russia from getting components for its advanced weapons systems, they say.

India has been diversifying its arms imports, buying more from France, Israel and the U.S. and boosting its domestic manufacturing of weapons and ammunition. During a visit to India on Friday, U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson promised to expedite arms exports to India and share expertise to help the country build its own equipment.

New Delhi is considering offers by the U.S. to supply more hardware and weapons, one Indian official said, but hasn’t moved forward because of the high costs and reluctance of American companies to transfer technology. The discussions include potentially tapping into excess U.S. defense equipment and other financing plans to make purchasing U.S. arms more affordable to India, the State Department official said.

Top Biden officials also said they have yet to make a decision on whether India would be penalized over its purchase of a Russian missile-defense system, which would trigger automatic sanctions under a 2017 U.S. law, or if the administration would issue India a waiver.

In India’s military, there are still grumblings against working too closely with the West. Moscow stepped in with defense equipment after the U.S. enforced a series of sanctions against India in the decades between 1965 and 2005.

D. S. Hooda, a retired lieutenant general who led India’s northern command, said that a lot of India’s military equipment could start running out of spare parts within months if Russia turns off the spigot, including tanks, long-range rockets, aircraft and air-defense systems. Russia has also supplied military equipment to India that other countries are unwilling to provide, such as leasing out a nuclear-powered attack submarine. “No other countries practically are going to provide that," he said.

Earlier this month, Secretary of State Antony Blinken acknowledged the complicated history between the U.S. and India and Russia, when he and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin met their Indian counterparts.

“India’s relationship with Russia developed over decades, at a time when the United States was not able to be a partner to India," said Mr. Blinken. “Times have changed. Today we are able and willing to be a partner of choice with India."

 

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