Strained US-India relations under pressure over Russia

The Biden administration is walking a tightrope in its relationship with India over New Delhi’s refusal to join the U.S. in its campaign to isolate Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Administration officials this week said they have for months been in a “pitched battle” to convince India, the world’s largest democracy, to join the U.S., European Union and other democratic nations in pushing back against Putin’s authoritarian ambitions. Those efforts have only stepped up since Putin launched an invasion of Ukraine last week.

While the U.S. and India have deepened relations over the past nearly two decades, New Delhi has relied for generations on Moscow’s delivery of military assistance and views Russia as its key ally against China’s attempts at further dominating the region.  

But Russia’s atrocities in Ukraine, and the death of an Indian student this week in the city of Kharkiv, are appearing to turn public opinion in India against Moscow and may move New Delhi closer to Washington. 

Donald Lu, the assistant secretary of State for South Asian affairs, told lawmakers this week that the administration is “working every day to make sure that we are trying to close the gap between where we are and where our Indian partners are.”

He added the U.S. is warning India that China may grow more emboldened if Putin is not kept in check. 

“Part of the answer here is that India understands, what’s happening in Ukraine will affect China’s behavior,” Lu said. 

President Biden has made his frustrations with India known, telling reporters last month, in the first days of Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, that the U.S. and India have not “resolved” alignment on Russia.

But the State Department has sought to tamp down the tensions, reportedly recalling a strongly worded cable to its diplomats that would have directed them to admonish Indian officials and labeled them as being in Russia’s camp for maintaining a neutral stance and repeating calls for “dialogue” in speeches at the United Nations. 

Tanvi Madan, a senior fellow in the foreign policy program at the Brookings Institution, said it’s likely there are differences among administration officials on how to approach India, and that some feel New Delhi is closer to Washington than Moscow. 

Madan said the recalled cable shows that “the administration understands that it is actually counterproductive and unhelpful to do something like this” and that while the crisis over Russia’s invasion “will complicate U.S.-India ties in certain ways … both sides are making efforts to ensure that Russia doesn’t inadvertently serve as a veto on the relationship.” 

Biden on Thursday spoke with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and other members of the Quad — a four-country alliance spearheaded by the U.S. and India on countering China —  to discuss the ongoing conflict and humanitarian crisis in Ukraine. The leaders agreed to meet in Tokyo in the coming months to reaffirm their commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific. 

Former Indian Ambassador to the U.S. Navtej Sarna, who has served as a diplomat in both Moscow and Washington, D.C., told The Hill that this sends a message that both India and the U.S. are working to ensure their relationship is not harmed by their divergence on Russia.

“The India-U.S. Strategic convergence on China should not be allowed to falter. The important aspect is that it is as much in America’s interest to continue to have strong relations with India,” Sarna said. 

India faces itself backed into a corner, trying to balance its U.S. relationship with managing its Russian interests. According to former Indian Ambassador to the U.S. Arun Kumar Singh, a key factor in India’s abstentions on condemning Russia on Ukraine at the United Nations is that it does not want Russia to “openly and definitively” take China’s side and wants it to remain neutral in the China-India crisis. 

Indian and Chinese military forces have been locked in a 20-month standoff at their shared border in the Himalayas since fighting broke out in 2020.  

“The [India-China] border crisis and the implications for Indian defense plays an important role in its decisions,” Singh added. 

But India’s purchase of the Russian S400 missile defense system, with the first weapons deliveries having arrived in December, is forcing the Biden administration to confront requirements under U.S. law to sanction New Delhi over such imports. 

The sanctions would be imposed under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), a 2017 law that, in part, imposes economic costs on countries that import or transact with Russia’s military industry. 

The law provides for a presidential waiver if imposing sanctions are viewed as harming U.S. national security interests, an action that members of Congress from both parties and foreign policy experts believe is likely to be implemented for India.  

Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) said during a Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee hearing that he is “one of those who was very open to the idea that we might want to consider a waiver to India for the CAATSA sanctions,” but raised concern over how New Delhi’s resistance to outright stand with Ukraine is weighing on the Biden administration. 

“India’s the most populous democratic country in the world, you would think this would be a moment where India would stand up in support of the people of Ukraine,” he said. 

Republican senators have also voiced opposition to imposing CAATSA sanctions on India despite disappointment on New Delhi’s position on Russia.  

“I think that would be the wrong thing to do at this stage,” Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), told The Hill when asked if he supported sanctions on India, but said he needed to further study the issue before making a final comment. 

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) told The Hill “it would be more helpful to see India play more of a leading role” against Russia, but blamed the gap between Washington and New Delhi on the Biden administration’s policies.  

“The Biden administration has spent 14 months pushing India away, and that has been harmful to India and harmful to America.” 

But Sarna said India would have taken this stand on Russia regardless of who was in office. 

“I don’t think it’s to do with the Biden administration. I think it has to do with a couple of factors — the historic relationship with Russia, and India’s dependency on Russia. The possibility of a Russia-China axis given India’s geography in Asia, plays an important role in its decision making,” Sarna said.

Sarna added India’s position between Russia and Ukraine has likely caused the CAATSA waiver to hang in the balance. 

“India may have to work harder at getting that waiver. It will depend upon how strong the administration feels about this,” he said.

But both former Indian ambassadors to the U.S. agree India is in an uncomfortable position and a change in stance will depend on what happens on the ground. They say its primary objective is getting its citizens out of the war zone, where there are at least 18,000 Indian students present.

“India is focused on getting the students out of there and for that purpose, you need to be able to talk to both sides. I don’t think it makes sense for India to change its position in terms of voting at the UN, but it will see how the situation evolves,” Singh added.

Tags Chris Van Hollen India India–United States relations Joe Biden Mitt Romney Russia sanctions Ted Cruz Ukraine Vladimir Putin

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