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Why India can buy Russian oil and be friends with the US (Analysis)

(CNN) — What a difference a few weeks make. Just last month, India was being criticized by the West for its relationship with Russia.

The South Asian country not only refused to condemn Moscow’s brutal assault on Ukraine, but its cut-price Russian oil purchases, critics said, ran counter to sanctions meant to cripple the Kremlin’s finances.

And the White House made its displeasure clear, calling New Delhi “somewhat unstable” and speaking of its “disappointment.”

Then suddenly the tone of the West changed. When Biden met with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi this month, it was all diplomatic pats and catchphrases about “a deep connection between our peoples” and “shared values.” On Friday, British leader Boris Johnson flew to Delhi to discuss trade ties and pose for costumed photos, all while glossing over “differences” with Russia.

However, India’s position on Ukraine remains largely the same. It continues to buy cheap Russian oil – in fact, it has bought almost as much in the first few months of 2022 as in the whole of 2021, according to Reuters – and remains silent on the invasion of Moscow. On April 7, he abstained in a UN vote to suspend Russia from the Human Rights Council.

According to analysts, India has just given the West a master class in international diplomacy.

Given that India is vital to US efforts to counter the rise of China – which the US sees as an even greater threat to world peace than Russia – the West had to bite its tongue.

Or as Harsh V. Pant, a professor of international relations at King’s College London, put it, the United States realized it had to treat India as a “new partner to be courted.”

Why is India vital to America?

Both New Delhi and Washington are increasingly concerned about China’s growing military might, its aggressive territorial claims on land and sea, and its growing economic influence over its smaller neighbors.

Under President Xi Jinping, China’s military – the People’s Liberation Army – has grown to boast the world’s largest navy, technologically advanced stealth fighter jets and a growing arsenal of nuclear weapons.

Indian Defense Minister Rajnath Singh, Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin at a press conference in Washington on April 11.

Part of Washington’s plan to counter this situation is to include India – along with the United States, Japan and Australia – in the increasingly active security grouping known as the Quad, said Pant, who is also head of the Strategic Studies of the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi.

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Meanwhile, India has its own concerns with China. The two countries have engaged in a military standoff along their common border with the Himalayas that has claimed dozens of lives in the past two years. And, in an irony that will not have gone unnoticed by Washington, India relies heavily on Russian weapons to equip its army, even in the Himalayas.

Shared concerns about Chinese aggression were made clear after the Biden-Modi meeting, when US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin warned that China was trying to “reshape the region and the international system” and said the US and India had “identified new opportunities to expand the operational reach of our militaries.”

It was a sign that – regardless of their differences over Ukraine – the two countries had a deep “understanding of each other’s positions,” said Manoj Kewalramani, China studies fellow at India’s Takshashila Institution.

China or Russia: what is the US diplomatic priority? 1:44

Voices on China, silence on India

These concerns help explain why Washington continues to criticize China’s silence on Russia’s actions in Ukraine, even as it remains silent on India’s.

On the surface, at least, India and China appear to have similar positions on the Ukraine war. Both have positioned themselves as neutral bystanders rather than outright opponents, both have called for peace, and both have refused to condemn the invasion outright.

And both have strategic relations with Russia that they do not want to jeopardize.

Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian leader Vladimir Putin declared in February that their relationship “has no limits”, while according to some estimates, India receives more than 50% of its military equipment from Russia.

Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian leader Vladimir Putin review a military honor guard outside the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on June 8, 2018.

Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian leader Vladimir Putin review a military honor guard outside the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on June 8, 2018.

But these similarities are only skin deep. In fact, there are “huge differences,” according to Kewalramani.

China has criticized Western sanctions and repeatedly blamed the United States and NATO for the conflict, echoing Russia’s view that NATO precipitated the crisis by expanding eastward, Kewalramani said. Its state media outlets have also amplified Russian arguments and disinformation.

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On the other hand, India has steered clear of criticism of NATO and appears willing to play down its differences with the United States. There have also been subtle changes in India’s position as the war has progressed.

Modi has spoken with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky while Chinese leaders have not, said Li Mingjiang, associate professor of international relations at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. India has also been harsher in its criticism of alleged Russian war crimes, Li said.

This month, India’s ambassador to the United Nations called the killings of civilians in Bucha “deeply concerning”, condemning them and calling for an open investigation.

Chinese Ambassador Zhang Jun, for his part, said the deaths were “deeply worrying” but refrained from assigning blame and urged “all parties” to “avoid baseless accusations.”

Significantly, following the Biden-Modi talks, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken highlighted India’s condemnation of the “killing of civilians in Ukraine” and its provision of “humanitarian aid to the Ukrainian people “.

a complicated relationship

The US may also recognize that India’s relationship with Russia has historically followed a very different course than the West. Blinken noted that India’s ties with Russia had been “developing over decades, at a time when the United States could not be a partner with India.”

That seemed to be a reference to the Cold War between the US and the USSR, during which India was officially non-aligned. However, India began to lean towards the USSR in the 1970s, when the United States began providing military and financial aid to its neighbor Pakistan.

Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the Hyderabad House in New Delhi on December 6, 2021.

Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the Hyderabad House in New Delhi on December 6, 2021.

It was then that Russia began providing weapons to India, and India remains heavily dependent on Russia for military equipment to this day.

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In 2018, India signed a $5 billion arms deal with Russia for an air defense missile system, despite the deal potentially putting it in the crosshairs of the Countering Adversaries Act. from the United States through Washington Sanctions, a federal law passed in 2017 that imposed new sanctions on Iran, Russia and North Korea.

India’s dependence on Russian weapons limits its ability to denounce Moscow’s actions in Ukraine. When Putin visited Delhi last December, Modi went so far as to call Putin “dear friend.”

Odyssey of students from India to cross the border of Ukraine 0:54

“Courted From All Sides”

All of this has led to a position where India is being “courted by all sides,” Pant said.

Moscow still agrees and is still willing to sell India oil at a discount. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov even met his counterpart in Delhi this month and praised India for not considering the Ukraine war “unilaterally”.

And on the other side is the West, whose ties have grown ever closer since Modi’s election in 2014. Annual trade between India and the United States exceeds $110 billion, compared to India’s trade with Russia, amounting to about US$ 8,000 million. In recent years, India has also become a major customer for US military equipment.

Still, Biden’s meeting with Modi remained a tinge of uneasiness. The US president urged his Indian counterpart not to increase his country’s use of Russian oil, instead offering to help him acquire oil from elsewhere. India, which imports 80% of its oil needs, gets no more than 3% from Russia.

So it seems that India has achieved an impressive balancing act.

“Actually, India comes out of this crisis very much stronger,” Pant said. “And that’s quite a feat actually.”

CNN’s Manveena Suri and Hannah Ritchie contributed to this analysis.

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