Thursday, May 26, 2022

Opinion | Inside the Biden administration’s effort to pull India away from Russia

On the face of things, India appears quite unhelpful in the West’s drive to condemn, isolate and punish Putin and Russia. When India abstained from votes condemning Russia at the United Nations, a senior White House official called the moves “unsatisfactory” but “unsurprising.” India has not joined the United States and Europe in sanctioning Russia and has avoided condemning the invasion. Right-wing media there has been churning out anti-American and anti-Western propaganda about the war, which would probably not be allowed if Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi had a strong objection to it. The same goes for the large #IStandWithPutin campaign on Indian social media.

After talking with Modi in early March, President Biden himself described India’s handling of the crisis as “somewhat shaky.” Lawmakers in both parties in Congress have been wagging their fingers sternly at New Delhi over the past few weeks.

But behind the scenes something much more interesting is going on. The two administrations are working together on how to mitigate the short- and medium-term economic, energy and humanitarian consequences of Russia’s attack on Ukraine. Meanwhile, the Biden administration is making a pitch to New Delhi that, over the long term, India’s long-standing friendship with Moscow is more trouble than it is worth.

“India is going to make its own choices. India values ​​its strategic autonomy. India is evaluating the situation. But this war is altering the geopolitical landscape,” a senior administration official told me. “When you look at how things are shifting in the region, New Delhi has to be evaluating right now who it wants to work with.”

On Wednesday, deputy national security adviser Dalip Singh, the administration’s point person on Russia sanctions, arrived in New Delhi for two days of talks with top Indian officials. Although India isn’t sanctioning Russia itself, it also doesn’t want to get caught up in US sanctions.

Singh is also there to coordinate on the economic part of the crisis. India is not so dependent on Russia for energy, but the disruption in agricultural goods such as Ukrainian wheat and sunflower oil could have huge economic ripple effects. Washington and New Delhi have a shared interest in finding ways to stabilize regional food and energy supplies and markets.

Despite the public sniping, in private, the two administrations have been coordinating closely since the crisis broke out. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar know each other very well and are in regular direct contact. President Biden spoke directly with Modi during a March 3 call among leaders of the “Quad,” a diplomatic grouping of the United States, Australia, India and Japan. Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin are welcoming their Indian counterparts for meetings in Washington in early April.

On the defense side, the Biden team is working especially hard to entice India away from its reliance on Russian military hardware. Victoria Nuland, the undersecretary of state for political affairs, traveled to New Delhi last week and told officials there that the ever-strengthening Russia-China axis was not good for India and that the United States can help with defense supplies if India wants to cut free.

India has already been weaning itself off Russian military imports, which fell to 46 percent of India’s total defense imports over the past five years, down from 69 percent in the previous five-year period. Now that the Kremlin’s defense industry will have to spend years rebuilding the Russian military, India could find itself at the end of the line for new equipment.

Experts caution that if India’s strategic direction does change because of the Ukraine war, it will happen very slowly. Although India is more likely aligned with the United States on China, fundamental differences regarding Russia are to persist. But over time, it is very possible India will realize that Russia is simply not a reliable partner.

“The best way for the United States to approach this moment is not to force India to make a choice, but to enable India to make choices that are in the US interest as well,” said Tanvi Madan, director of the India Project at the Brookings Institution. “For them, strategic autonomy means independence of action.”

In the end, democracies do have a fundamental shared interest in stopping autocracies from expanding. India, as the world’s largest democracy, ultimately belongs within that fold. But whether the leaders in Washington and New Delhi can overcome history and politics to realize that vision remains to be seen.

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