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Lavrov visits India with US relations at a crossroads

Murali Krishnan New Delhi
April 1, 2022

Western countries want New Delhi to condemn Russia's invasion of Ukraine. But India seems to be using the crisis to emphasize it will forge its own path on foreign policy.

India's Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov in New Delhi on April 1, 2022
Indian FM Jaishankar says the pressure on India to join in on Russia sanctions looks like a 'campaign' against IndiaImage: @DrSJaishankar/Twitter/REUTERS

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov arrived India on Friday for high-level talks as Russia's war in Ukraine pushes a more-isolated Moscow to accelerate building partnerships with Asian powers.

Lavrov, who arrived in India after meeting this week with Chinese officials in Beijing, is sitting down with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Foreign Minister S Jaishankar. 

Jaishankar said in opening remarks Friday that the leaders would have detailed discussions about the ongoing "difficult international environment."

"India, as you are aware, has always been in favor of resolving differences and disputes with dialogue and diplomacy," he said.

Since Russia invaded Ukraine, India has walked a diplomatic tightrope by refusing to condemn Russia's actions, while calling for "de-escalation" of the conflict. India also maintains the trade ties it had with Russia before the war.

India and Russia recently floated a plan for India to pay for purchases of discounted Russian oil with rupee-rouble transactions, as Russian banks have been cut off from dollar and euro denominated payment systems. 

The plan, which effectively circumvents Western sanctions, is expected on Lavrov's agenda. Russian bank officials could visit India next week to discuss details, Bloomberg reported. 

More important than oil, however, is defense. India is also heavily dependent on Russia for arms purchases, importing 46% of its arms from Russia between 2017-21, according to Swedish defense think-tank SIRPI. 

Why the West wants India on its side 

However, the US and its allies have been cautious in criticizing India for not joining the West in cutting ties with Russia in response to the Ukraine war.

US commerce secretary Gina Raimondo told the press in Washington earlier this week that it is time for India to "stand on the right side of history, and to stand with the US and dozens of other countries … for freedom, democracy and sovereignty with the Ukrainian people, and not funding and fuelling and aiding President Putin's war."

Why is India reluctant to criticize Russia?

Meera Shankar, India's former ambassador to the US, told DW that India's perspective on Russia is different than the US perspective, and is based on "historical experience and the geopolitical environment."

"While the US would like us to be more aligned with their position on Ukraine, they do understand that there is a historical context to India-Russia ties," Shankar said.

"We have pressed for an immediate ceasefire in Ukraine and emphasized that a way forward can only be found through dialogue and negotiations. We believe that we must avoid pushing Russia into a corner, for efforts to stop the fighting and seek a peaceful resolution to progress," the former diplomat added. 

Lavrov's trip to India also coincides with visits by British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss and deputy US security adviser, and Russia sanctions architect, Daleep Singh. 

An exchange between Jaishankar and his counterpart Truss on Thursday highlighted divergences between New Delhi and the West on sanctions. 

Although Truss said the UK would not lecture the Indians on how to respond to Russia's war, she cast the conflict as a clash between democracies and authoritarianism. 

"The Ukraine crisis highlights the need for like-minded nations to work together," Truss said. 

Jaishankar said that pressure on India to join in on sanctions looked like a "campaign" against India for buying discounted Russian oil. The foreign minister pointed out that Europe before the war purchased vastly more petroleum products from Russia than India. 

India buying cheap Russian oil 

India is the world's third-largest oil importer and consumer, importing 85% of its demand. Most of the oil comes from Iraq and Saudi Arabia. However, with Russian Urals crude selling at a steep discount due to sanctions, Russia is looking for buyers. 

Since the invasion began on February 24, India has purchased at least 13 million barrels of Russian oil. 

What is SWIFT?

Although this only amounts to around three days of average Indian consumption, and Russian imports account for a fraction of India's demand, New Delhi's willingness to continue buying from Russia is being seen as a willingness to go against the grain.

As most Russian banks have been cut off from the international SWIFT payment system, the Indian government taking steps to allow state-run banks to set up a rupee-rouble transaction system to pay for oil is another step away from the West. 

Still, the US has held back from overtly condemning India's oil purchases. US sanctions architect Singh said Thursday in New Delhi that Washington was, "ready to help India diversify its energy resources, much like is the case for defense resources over a period of time."

"There is no prohibition at present on energy imports from Russia … friends don't set red lines," Singh added. 

Are India's strategic ties with the US in doubt?

"Washington has been sending mixed signals about what it thinks about India's continuous unwillingness to condemn Russia and its decision to continue its engagement with Russia," Happymon Jacob, an international relations expert at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, told DW.

US President Joe Biden said last week that India's response to the ongoing conflict in Ukraine had been "somewhat shaky." 

Biden was comparing India to other members of the so-called "Quad," a grouping of the US, Japan, Australia and India, which is seen as presenting a united front against Chinese interests in the Indo-Pacific. 

India did not condemn the Russian invasion as the other Quad members did.  

"For the Quad, I think that if India had stood with the others, it would have infinitely strengthened the partnership," UN University academic Radha Kumar told DW.

However, former Indian diplomat Deepa Wadhwa told DW that India's relationship with Russia will likely not upset the Quad grouping in the long run. 

"The Quad seems on track with a physical summit due in Tokyo in the summer. US commitment also seems unchanged as is evident from the recent budget proposals for the Indo-Pacific which covers all areas of cooperation identified by the Quad partners," Wadhwa told DW.

How have Asia's leaders responded to Ukraine invasion?

Edited by: Wesley Rahn

Murali Krishnan
Murali Krishnan Journalist based in New Delhi, focusing on Indian politics, society and business@mkrish11