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Russia’s Lavrov visits India amid US criticism, flurry of Western diplomacy over New Delhi’s Ukraine stance

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Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov last week. Photo: Handout via Reuters

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s two-day visit to New Delhi was due to begin Thursday amid an all-out attempt by international diplomats to exert pressure on India over its stance towards Moscow’s actions in Ukraine.

A statement by Britain’s High Commission in India said British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss would press New Delhi for tougher action on Russia in her meeting with External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar.

US deputy national security adviser for international economics Daleep Singh, who arrived in New Delhi on Wednesday, was also holding talks with his counterparts there, as was the Dutch National Security Adviser.

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Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi (R) and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in eastern China’s Anhui Province on Wednesday. Photo: Xinhua

In Washington, US Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo said that while she had not seen details of Lavrov’s trip, the arrangement was “deeply disappointing”.

“Now is the time to stand on the right side of history, and to stand with the United States and dozens of other countries, standing up for freedom, democracy and sovereignty with the Ukrainian people, and not funding and fuelling and aiding President Putin’s war,” she said on Wednesday.

Her comments came amid reports that New Delhi was considering a proposal from Russia to use an alternative to the Swift financial messaging that heavily-sanctioned Moscow is banned from. It will allow for rupee-rouble-denominated payments so India can continue buying Russian oil and arms.

Bloomberg, quoting unnamed people with knowledge of the matter, said Russia was offering steep discounts on the direct sale of oil as international pressure forced its usual customers to stay away from purchases.

Read Also: How India intends to help Russia evade sanctions

While current US sanctions on Moscow do not prevent other countries from buying Russian oil, a senior US administration official said that a significant increase in Russian oil imports by India could expose New Delhi to a “great risk”. The official said Washington is planning to step up enforcement of sanctions.

“We are telling everybody, everywhere around the world to ensure you are compliant with sanctions … this is the message to everyone,” the official said.

Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began on February 24, India has taken advantage of heavy discounts to purchase at least 13 million barrels of Russian oil compared with nearly 16 million barrels in all of 2021.

Singh told reporters on Thursday the US was ready to help India diversify its energy and defence supplies.

“We stand ready to help India diversify its energy resources, much like is the case for defence resources over a period of time. But there is no prohibition at present on energy imports from Russia,” he said.

“What we would not like to see is a rapid acceleration of India’s imports from Russia as it relates to energy or any other exports that are currently being prohibited by us or by other aspects of the international sanctions regime.”

He also said the US would not like to see its allies helping resurrect the rouble, which nosedived immediately after the war began but has recovered in recent days.

Against this backdrop, analysts said Lavrov’s visit would give both sides a chance to reassure each other – that India would not waver from its position of neutrality towards Moscow, and that Moscow would continue to prioritise ties with New Delhi even as it boosts its relationship with Beijing.

“Lavrov wants to know where India stands in this evolving situation,” said Nandan Unnikrishnan, a Russian expert at the Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation think tank.

Students hold placards during a demonstration in Bangalore, India urging Putin to end the war on Ukraine. Photo: AFP

Lavrov will also have “to assure the Indians that the closeness in Russia-China relations will not be at Delhi’s cost”, he added.

The reaction to Lavrov’s visit, that comes after the Russian foreign minister visited China for Afghanistan-focused talks, reveals growing unhappiness towards India especially from its fellow members in the Quad security alliance aimed at countering Chinese influence in the Indo-Pacific.

Australia and Japan have, like the US, criticised Russia for invading Ukraine. But India, the fourth Quad member, has tried to remain neutral, refusing to explicitly condemn Moscow’s actions or support multiple UN resolutions on the war.

Syed Akbaruddin, who served as India’s Permanent Representative at the UN from 2016 to 2020, said India’s abstentions at the UN should not be seen as a “pro-Russia” move. India, he stressed, was “unlike China” which recently supported a Russia-sponsored resolution while India abstained.

Last week, the UN Security Council defeated a Russian resolution that acknowledged Ukraine’s growing humanitarian needs but did not mention the Russian invasion that caused the escalating crisis. China was the only country supporting the resolution, arguing that humanitarian issues should trump “political differences”.

Akbaruddin said India’s abstention was meant to show its dissatisfaction on a resolution. “We have a very high bar for supporting a resolution,” he said, referring to India’s reluctance to support resolutions aimed at scoring political points and perpetuating a crisis rather than making serious attempts to mitigate and resolve it.

Lavrov will hold meetings with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and External Affairs Minister Jaishankar on Friday, and the issue of US sanctions is likely to come up.

B. Venkatesh Varma, who served as India’s ambassador to Moscow from 2018 to 2021, said Lavrov’s visit was “necessary and timely”.

Claudia Chia, a research analyst at the Institute of South Asian Studies at the National University of Singapore (NUS), agreed Lavrov’s talks with India would include alternative trade operations and payment mechanisms with India.

“Given that Moscow has been barred from accessing the international dollar and euro markets, it is vital for Lavrov to reach out to the few remaining trade partners left,” Chia said.

Daniel Markey, senior South Asia adviser at the United States Institute of Peace said that during Lavrov’s visit, Russia will “have plenty to offer India”, such as more discounted oil and promises of new weapon systems, likely at reduced prices.

Indian leader Narendra Modi and his Japanese counterpart Fumio Kishida in New Delhi on March 19. The two nations, with the US and Australia, are members of the Quad alliance. Photo: AP

“If India can ride out the pressure from the West, and Russia manages to survive further catastrophe in Ukraine, these offers may be too good for New Delhi to refuse,” Markey said.

But India was well aware that it ran risks in deepening its partnership with Russia.

“For this reason, I anticipate continued Indian hedging as a means to seize opportunities with Moscow without paying too high a cost with the US or other partners,” Markey said.

Chia of NUS said even though India is in a good position to benefit from this heightened attention, it is still “walking on a diplomatic tightrope” as the strategic convergence of China and Russia has severely constrained its strategic choices.

India cannot afford to damage ties with Moscow as a neutral Russia is needed to manage China-India competition, Chia said, adding that doing so and its lack of public criticism of Russian actions “may also drive a wedge between Delhi and its Indo-Pacific partners”.

“Even if the US offered to sell arms to India, it would be difficult to change the Russia-India equation in the short term. More dilemmas and difficult questions will confront Indian policymakers as the Ukraine crisis unfolds,” Chia added.

Singh, the US official, said the growing Russia-China bonhomie had consequences for India.

“Russia is going to be the junior partner in this relationship with China. And the more leverage that China gains over Russia, the less favourable that is for India,” he said.

He said Russia cannot be expected to come to India’s rescue in case of any future border escalations between India and China.

Additional reporting by Reuters and Bloomberg