India faces pressure over close ties with Moscow

AP-Alex Brandon
Daleep Singh, Deputy National Security Advisor for International Economics, speaks with reporters in the James Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House, Thursday, Feb. 24, 2022, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

India is coming under pressure from the U.S. and Western countries to take a tougher position with Russia, a country with which it has long had strong ties.

Top diplomats from the U.S., Russia, and Europe have traveled to India this week for separate meetings with officials in New Delhi, underlining the efforts by Moscow and Washington to get India more on its side in the international battle over Russia’s invasion and bombardment of Ukraine.

Deputy National Security Advisor for International Economics Daleep Singh, a key architect of the Biden administration’s sanctions against Russia, traveled to meet with officials from India’s government this week.

While there, he criticized New Delhi’s imports of Russian oil and its reliance on military hardware from Moscow.

In a briefing with reporters on Thursday, Singh said the U.S. does not want to see “a rapid acceleration” of Russian energy imports to India, something that could help Moscow at a time when the U.S. and countries in Europe are either banning or seeking to lower such imports.

“The conversation I’ve had here is that we stand ready to help India diversify its energy resources, much like is the case for defense resources over a period of time,” Singh said at the briefing, according to the Hindustan Times. 

The Biden administration and lawmakers from both sides of the aisle have grown increasingly frustrated that India has been on the sidelines of the pressure campaign against Moscow.

India has abstained from all United Nations votes condemning Russia and has made no moves to impose sanctions against the Kremlin.

Despite the fact that relations between the United States and India have improved in recent years, including during the Trump administration, experts on the matter said India is likely to want to maintain its partnership with Russia — which goes back to the Cold War.

“There’s a lot of momentum in U.S.-India relations, and I think Russia now, unfortunately, brings to bear one of the real sore points in the relationship, that India wants to maintain it at all costs,” said Derek Grossman, senior defense analyst with the RAND Corporation.

Donald Lu, the top State Department official focused on U.S. relations with India, told lawmakers earlier this month that officials have been in a “pitched battle” to convince New Delhi to more bluntly condemn Russia, and are weighing whether to impose congressionally mandated sanctions over New Delhi’s earlier purchase of a Russian missile defense system, the S-400. 

Sen. Todd Young (R-Ind.), the ranking member with oversight of U.S. foreign relations in South Asia, told The Hill in a statement he opposed sanctioning India, but urged New Delhi to separate itself from Moscow.

“India remains a critical partner in the Quad Security Dialogue as they work with the U.S. to combat China in Asia, and around the globe,” Young said. “I hope this will be the moment that India realizes the liability that its longstanding defense relationship with Russia means for their security in the future.”

Grossman also raised doubt that the administration would impose sanctions on India.

“One democracy sanctioning another democracy is not really a good look,” he said. 

India views itself as being in a strong position to maintain its policy of nonalignment, said Donald Camp, who served nearly two-decades as a senior foreign service officer in East and South Asia and focuses on U.S. and India policy with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.  

“My impression is that India is not averse to standing alone if necessary,” he said. 

“India is a very proud nation and conscious of its independence and has always talked about – they use the phrase ‘strategic autonomy.’ In other words, they’re not going to be talked out of a position if they think it’s in their national interest.” 

Former Indian foreign secretary and ex-ambassador to China and the U.S. Nirupama Rao tweeted on Saturday that “our relations with the West matter significantly to us but pressure that we see as unreasonable can’t work.”

But India’s position on Russia has become a much bigger gamble diplomatically given Russia’s aggression.

“If this conflict continues to escalate, and sanctions intensify, it becomes increasingly awkward for India to walk this fine line,” senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute Sadanand Dhume said. 

The U.S. is of course not the only country trying to put the squeeze on India.

Singh’s trip overlapped with a visit by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.

Also passing through New Delhi this week were British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, and a senior security and foreign policy advisor to Germany’s Chancellor, Jens Plötner.

Lavrov, who arrived in New Delhi on Thursday for a two-day summit with Indian officials, is tasked with ensuring Russian oil imports to India that subvert international sanctions by trading in rubles and rupees. 

The importance of the relationship is critical to Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is insisting to Russians that they are not isolated.

“It makes it much easier for Putin to argue that the invasion that he’s launched in Ukraine has not led to international isolation,” Dhume said.

Tags China India Russia Ukraine

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