The diplomatic courting of New Delhi these past two weeks has been intense. India was one of only a handful of countries — and the only democracy — to abstain from a U.S.-sponsored resolution in the United Nations Security Council condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Now, it is under intense pressure to shift its stance.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has spoken to United Kingdom Prime Minister Boris Johnson, held a virtual summit with his Australian counterpart, Scott Morrison, and had an in-person meeting with Japan’s leader Fumio Kishida. Others to pass through the capital include the foreign ministers of Austria, Greece, Mexico, and Oman, and US Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland. China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited on March 25, generating serious scrutiny given the two nations’ fraught relations, while UK Foreign Secretary Liz Truss is also due in town this week.
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Now Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is set to arrive on March 31, and his presence brings with it an awkward dilemma. Already accused of being on the wrong side of history on Ukraine, many will question whether New Delhi should be rolling out the welcome mat for Lavrov while the conflict, which has seen the Ukrainian city of Mariupol levelled and thousands of civilian deaths and injuries, grinds toward its sixth week.
The optics of Minister for External Affairs Subrahmanyam Jaishankar meeting with Lavrov will no doubt be jarring for those who’ve watched the weeks of bloodshed and the brave, determined fight Ukrainians are waging to save their country.
But here’s the thing: Sitting with a strategic partner — even one who’s regarded as an outcast on the global stage — is exactly what India’s top diplomat should be doing. Conflicts don’t end until people start talking — really talking, not just posturing to buy time to take more territory or inflict further harm. That doesn’t mean there aren’t risks. Washington and its NATO allies will need to be convinced that Jaishankar is pushing for a ceasefire and a durable peace deal, even as they debate among themselves whether it is helpful to talk to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Still, the weight of opinions attempting to compel India to switch its stance in the UN and abandon its plan to continue purchasing Russian oil must be overwhelming. United States President Joe Biden described India’s position on Russia as “somewhat shaky”. At a US Senate committee hearing on March 2, Donald Lu, assistant secretary of state at the Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs, said he hoped that “part of what happens with the extreme criticism that Russia has faced, is that India will find it’s now time to further distance itself.”
But India is constrained, both by its historic reliance on Russian weapons and its long diplomatic ties with Moscow, and by the tensions along its contested Himalayan border with China following deadly clashes in the summer of 2020. Wang’s visit did little to lower the temperature between New Delhi and Beijing.
Russia and China are attempting to sway India in one direction — toward a more forceful statement in support of Moscow’s actions. Its other partners are trying to encourage it in the other — an outright condemnation, a vote with the West in the UN and some considerable distancing from Moscow. For now, however, New Delhi is holding its nerve. Even its warming relations with the US, which have led to a strengthened defence and security partnership and an increasingly proactive role in the regional Quad grouping, have not swayed India’s hand.
It’s worth noting that India is not the only country continuing to buy Russian fuel. Europe continues to purchase significant quantities of liquefied natural gas and will do so well in to the future, despite a recent US-EU agreement to boost shipments of LNG to help the continent reduce its reliance on Moscow.
This duplicity is not lost on India. In a parliamentary session on March 25, one politician described the West’s “double game” of turning a blind eye to Europe’s imports while criticising India’s. Jaishankar replied: “I share the honourable member’s observation on this matter.”
A former foreign secretary and ex-ambassador to China and the US, Nirupama Rao, went further. Noting she was opposed to Moscow’s actions, Rao tweeted she was “growing extremely disillusioned with the assumed righteousness of the Western response and echoes of post-9/11 rhetoric about ‘either you’re with us or not.’ Our relations with the West matter significantly to us, but pressure that we see as unreasonable can’t work.”
Let’s see how New Delhi weathers this diplomatic storm, and whether an open line of communication with Moscow really will help bring this conflict to an end before more blood is spilled.
Ruth Pollard is a columnist and editor with Bloomberg Opinion. Views are personal, and do not represent the stand of this publication.