Russia woos India amid Ukraine crisis

Its Foreign Minister says 'special' partnership with India is one of Moscow's key priorities

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said ties with India are one of the key priorities of Russia and that the country appreciated New Delhi's neutral stand on Ukraine even as India faced increasing pressure from the West to condemn Moscow and help strengthen the sanctions regime.

Mr Lavrov held talks with Indian External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar yesterday, a day after he arrived from China.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has had regular exchanges with Russian President Vladimir Putin, also met Mr Lavrov.

India and China are the only major nations that have not condemned Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

"We have been developing a special privileged strategic partnership with New Delhi and this is one of the key priorities of the Russian foreign policy," said Mr Lavrov in his opening remarks at the talks.

He added that Russia appreciated India for taking "this (Ukraine) situation in the entirety of it and not just one-sided way".

At a press conference later, the minister said Russia is willing to supply any goods to India and that both sides could strengthen a rupee-rouble mechanism to trade.

New Delhi has bought about 13 million barrels of discounted oil from Russia since February.

A press release from the Indian side said that Dr Jaishankar "emphasised the importance of cessation of violence and ending hostilities" in Ukraine. While he noted the "difficult international environment", he added that "our bilateral relations have continued to grow in many areas".

New Delhi's neutral position on the war has seen it becoming a hub for diplomatic activity. Other high-profile visitors have included Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, apart from top diplomats from the United States and Britain.

India has refused to side with the West. It has abstained from resolutions condemning Russia at the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). At the same time, it has also abstained from resolutions brought by Moscow and called for an end to violence in Ukraine.

The US has been putting pressure on New Delhi over Ukraine, with US President Joe Biden calling India "shaky" on Russia. He has also framed the crisis as a fight between democracy and autocracy.

The US is keen for India to follow Western sanctions to ramp up the pressure on Russia. However, analysts said that India would stick to its neutral position.

"There is a new world order emerging where the West - Europe and the US - is getting more united. Lavrov's visit has to be seen in that context, to explain what their position is, the next steps and how India is important in this new world where Russia is being isolated," said Jindal Global University adjunct professor Anuradha M. Chenoy.

She noted that if Russia were to continue offering discounted oil, India would grab the opportunity as it is an "energy-starved country".

Russia is also India's largest weapons supplier, with some 60 per cent of its weapons of Russian vintage.

India has drawn closer to the US due to converging concerns over the rise of China. Russia, in turn, has drawn closer to China.

However, the crisis in Ukraine has highlighted that in spite of growing proximity, India would not automatically follow the US on global issues.

Dr Jaishankar, during an event with British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, defended the decision to buy Russian oil. "It is interesting because we have seen for some time what looks almost like a campaign on this issue," he said, highlighting how reports suggest that Europe has bought "15 per cent more oil and gas from Russia than it did the month before".

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 02, 2022, with the headline Russia woos India amid Ukraine crisis. Subscribe