Is India’s position on Russia affecting its relationship with the U.S.?

Is India’s position on Russia affecting its relationship with the U.S.?

While India has explained its stand on the war and its ties with Russia, the U.S. remains ‘disappointed’ 

Last week, India’s strategic partner, the U.S., warned of consequences for any country, including India, which conducts local currency transactions through Russia’s central bank or constructs a payment mechanism that subverts or circumvents the U.S.’s sanctions against Russia. India’s consistent neutral position on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, informed by its choices, has antagonised many countries, including the U.S. Will the relationship between the U.S. and India come under strain? In a conversation moderated by Suhasini HaidarLisa Curtis and Syed Akbaruddin weigh in on India’s non-aligned position on the war. Edited excerpts:

External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar has said India is on the side of peace in the Ukraine conflict, indicating that India is taking a neutral position. Is that how it is being perceived?

Lisa Curtis: There is a slight difference between the view of the American public, which is one of frustration, confusion and lack of appreciation for India’s position, and the view of the Joe Biden administration. As somebody who has followed the U.S.-India relationship for 25 years, I’ve been disappointed by India’s lack of condemnation of Russia, and its seeming lack of appreciation for the U.S.’s deep security interests in Europe and the horrific war that Russia has waged on Ukraine. That said, the Biden administration has taken the long view of India and places high value on the strategic partnership with India. New Delhi is playing a central role in the U.S.’s Indo-Pacific strategy and its approach to China. Where you see a lot of frustration coming from U.S. Congressional members, you see a much more patient approach from the Biden administration. But I wonder how long the administration’s forbearance can last, unless we see some kind of shift in India’s position, which perhaps we’re starting to see, with the recent reports of civilian casualties. This is a welcome change. But how far India will adjust its position, we don’t know.

Syed Akbaruddin: I would term India’s position as evolving. If you look at where we began and where we are today, we’ve traversed a fairly long path. If you look at the first couple of statements that India made, there was not even a reference to international law, or to violation of territorial integrity and sovereignty. For any observer of Indian foreign policy, it is clear that India’s position is evolving: it is now repeatedly criticising the transgression of international law and violation of territorial integrity and sovereignty. There is regret for the outbreak of hostilities. All these statements, without naming [Russia], are clearly aimed at indicating unhappiness towards what Russia has done. Not only does the latest statement [on Bucha] condemn civilian killings, but for the first time in recent memory, India has supported an independent inquiry.

When it comes to conflict, there are many instances where India remained quiet and stayed neutral, including the one in Hungary in 1956, or in the Czech Republic (which was then Czechoslovakia) and in Afghanistan in 1979. Perhaps you can call it hedging. Perhaps you can call it playing safe. But there is a trajectory and history to this approach.

Lisa Curtis: It is not just Western countries that have condemned Russia’s actions; over 140 nations voted to condemn Russia’s actions in the United Nations General Assembly. India is isolated in its position of abstaining from condemning Russia’s actions in any way. While India may consider its position to be neutral, I think the rest of the world, or at least most of the rest of the world, sees India as being supportive of Russia.

The U.S. has carved out waivers for Europe on energy purchases given the continent’s dependence on Russia, but not for India’s defence dependency. Isn’t there a double standard here?

Lisa Curtis: The U.S. understands that India still relies on Russian military equipment for 60-70% of its military needs. The U.S. also understands that India is under threat from China. Only two years ago, India faced a major crisis with 20 Indian soldiers being killed on the border, the first time it faced a loss of lives on the India-China border in many decades. If the India-China border issue heats up again, obviously India is going to rely on its military supplies from Russia. The U.S. understands that.

If India were to take advantage of discounted Russian oil, if it were to substantially increase its oil imports from Russia, I think that would be difficult for U.S. officials to understand. What would not be understood is if India takes advantage of the situation and props up the Russian economy at a time when the rest of the world is trying to isolate Russia. If India is seen as trying to skirt those sanctions, there would be a lot of frustration with India.

Syed Akbaruddin: What the U.S. calls “sanctions” are, in reality, in diplomatic terminology, “unilateral coercive economic measures”. These have sanctity in U.S. laws. They also have sanctity in European Union laws. But from a perspective of international law, they do not have any legal backing. These are measures promulgated by the U.S. and the EU after consultations, after carving out what exceptions they would like, because these adversely affect their economy. So, you don’t have measures against uranium imported by the U.S., against oil imported by Europe, or gas imported by Europe because it’s understandable — these would give their economy a shock. In comparison, what has been the level of coordination and consultation with India for its economic needs? Let’s not forget, India is still a developing country with huge economic needs. We are still just on the verge of coming out of the COVID-19-related economic shock. Petrol prices have now increased by leaps and bounds. Food prices are increasing. For a developing country to absorb these shocks is a much more difficult task than for well-to-do European economies. Yet, carve-outs have been provided for them, not us. These discussions should take place quietly and these issues worked out behind the scenes rather than people coming to India and saying there will be “consequences”. It’s not a very comfortable feeling when your strategic partner comes and makes these statements in public. Frankly, the amount of oil that India imports from the Russian Federation is very small. This can easily be worked out because it has been worked out in previous cases with Venezuela, with Iran, where the consumption in India was larger. It requires a little bit more of nimble diplomacy to try and address these things. And these are addressable issues.

Lisa Curtis: I’d like to ask a question: if the U.S. had done nothing when Russia invaded Ukraine, if it had not imposed sanctions and let Russia get away with just taking over a country just because it has more military might…. What do you think that would have done to China’s calculation and its ability to do something aggressive with Taiwan or create another border crisis with India? If nobody stands up for the territorial sovereignty of other countries, you’re simply going to have a world where might is right.

Syed Akbaruddin: I don’t think it is India’s case that what Russia has done is right. What is India’s case is what we term as collateral damage to other countries like India. And all we are asking is for the U.S. to be mindful of that. Because when countries do these things unilaterally, it does impact other countries, and as strategic partners, we have a right to request them to be more understanding of our needs than they have been.

So, is India’s position on Russia and on the Ukraine war impacting India-U.S. ties? What do you expect from the ‘2+2’ Ministerial meeting in Washington next week?

Lisa Curtis: It is an opportunity for the two countries to further discuss their differences over Russia and elaborate on the bilateral agenda in terms of the progress that has been made on new initiatives. Though behind closed doors, they’ll have an opportunity to have deep discussions about Russia. It is well timed, and the tenor of those talks will be a good indicator of the overall direction of the strategic partnership and will tell us whether the strains of the sharply divergent views over Russia are going to have a long-term impact on the partnership.

One point in India’s own interest: Russia, which is going to face these crushing sanctions, will not be a dependable partner for India. This is a fact that Indian officials will have to start absorbing. February 24 [when Russia invaded Ukraine] changed everything. It led to a tectonic shift in geopolitical developments. And I think India has been slow to realise this. If there is just some hint that India recognises the changed situation with regard to Russia, that would be helpful for the U.S.-India bilateral relationship.

Syed Akbaruddin: India’s relations with the U.S. are expansive and cover a large number of issues. And the trajectory is pretty clear. It’s only the pace at which India has to move which is in question. But as we all know, these changes [diversifying defence purchases] take time. Also, technology that is available from one partner may not be available from the other partner. But it is clear that the trajectory that we’ve seen for several years will continue. You can see it in terms of our orientation, in areas such as where Indian students go to study; who India’s main sources of investment are; where technology is coming from. The 2+2 meeting is a good opportunity to work on other aspects of this relationship while exchanging views quietly, as strategic partners should, in areas where they may not see eye to eye.

What about the U.S.’s future focus? Will the war in Europe take the focus away from the Indo-Pacific and the Quad?

Syed Akbaruddin: I see the Quad as a partnership in non-traditional areas of security, and this current situation has demonstrated to us how security is not only on the battlefield, but in a vast array of non-traditional areas that we need to start looking at. Quad was a forerunner on mobility, climate change, health, technology and maritime security, but it has a much larger expanse. If we see the noises that some are making [China], that Quad is an “Asian NATO”, obviously it is causing concern in sections about where the Quad is heading. I think the Quad members are clear about how they need to focus on non-traditional areas of cooperation, which have a security dimension, and strengthen that security. In many ways, the situation in Europe makes us all understand the need for greater cooperation in these areas, should there be a situation where all of us are challenged in the Indo-Pacific as well.

Comment | Time for India to redefine its relationship with Russia

Lisa Curtis: I think the focus on economic and technology cooperation, vaccines, infrastructure, space… all of those working groups that have been established will continue. I think the question will be: if India continues to rely on Russian military equipment for most of its needs, if it prioritises relations with Russia, which is increasingly becoming almost a pariah state, that could impact the strategic cooperation of the four nations in the future. And it could impinge on cooperation on maritime security, maritime domain awareness, intelligence sharing within the Quad.

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