US, Australia criticise India over Russia talks as Lavrov visits Delhi

India is the world's largest buyer of Russian weapons, and has also sought to buy cheap oil as fuel prices surge. PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (BLOOMBERG) - The US and Australia criticised India for considering a Russian proposal that would undermine sanctions imposed by America and its allies, showing a deepening rift between the emerging security partners as Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov travelled to Delhi for talks.

"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," Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo told reporters in Washington on Wednesday (March 30).

She called reports of the arrangement "deeply disappointing", while adding that she had not seen details.

Mr Dan Tehan, Australia's trade minister who also spoke at the briefing, said it was important for democracies to work together "to keep the rules-based approach that we've had since the Second World War".

The comments reflect growing unease with India among fellow members of the Quad, a group of democracies seeking to counter China's assertiveness in the Asia-Pacific region that also includes the US, Australia and Japan.

India is the world's largest buyer of Russian weapons, and has also sought to buy cheap oil as fuel prices surge.

While India has supported calls for a ceasefire and a diplomatic solution, it abstained at the United Nations on votes for draft resolutions condemning Russia's invasion that were ultimately vetoed by Moscow.

Bloomberg reported on Wednesday that India is weighing a plan to make rupee-rouble-denominated payments using an alternative to Swift after the US and European Union cut off seven Russian banks from using the Belgium-based cross-border payment system operator.

The Russian plan involves rupee-rouble-denominated payments using the country's messaging system, SPFS, and central bank officials from Moscow are likely to visit next week to discuss the details. No final decision has been taken.

India's middle-ground position on the war has led to a raft of diplomacy in the past few weeks, with China's foreign minister visiting for the first time since 2019 and now Mr Lavrov seeking to shore up support.

At the same time, the US and its allies are also stepping up engagement in a bid to influence Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government.

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida visited Delhi earlier this month, and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison also held a video summit with Mr Modi.

On Wednesday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken held a call with his Indian counterpart Subrahmanyam Jaishankar to discuss "the worsening humanitarian situation in Ukraine", among other issues.

During Mr Lavrov's trip, India is also hosting US Deputy National Security Adviser for International Economics Daleep Singh and British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss.

Ms Truss' office said she "will point to the importance of all countries reducing strategic dependency on Russia at this time of heightened global insecurity".

Neither side has released detailed information on Mr Lavrov’s schedule in India. 

India has pushed back against US concerns by noting that it needs Russian arms to counter China, particularly after border clashes in 2020, and alternatives are too expensive.

The strategic relationship between India and Russia dates back to the Cold War and remains robust, even as Mr Modi has shifted the country more towards the US orbit in recent years.

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