Biden Urges Modi Not to Increase India’s Reliance on Russian Oil and Gas

WASHINGTON – President Biden on Monday urged India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi not to increase his country’s dependence on Russian oil and gas, officials said, as part of a global effort by the United States to maintain economic pressure on Russia to his invasion of the Ukraine.

Biden also emphasized growing defense cooperation with India in a virtual meeting with Modi, a line that has been increasingly stressed by US officials in hopes of convincing New Delhi to drop the fence on Russia’s invasion.

At the meeting between the two leaders, Mr. Biden offered to help Mr. Modi acquire oil and other energy from other sources. The United States and its allies have been working for months to deprive President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia of the financial resources generated by the sale of oil and gas around the world.

But Biden stopped short of pressuring India to stop buying Russian oil, which accounts for about 1 percent of its imports. And US officials said the president did not ask India to condemn Russia for the brutal military campaign against its neighbor, a step India has been unwilling to take since the beginning of the invasion.

“The president has made it clear that he does not think it is in India’s interest to speed up or increase imports of Russian energy and other commodities,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters after the leaders’ meeting. , which lasted about an hour.

On Monday, Modi again refused to mention Russia by name, even as he condemned apparent human rights abuses in Bucha, which the United States and others have said are evidence of war crimes.

“The news about the killings of innocent civilians in the city of Bucha was very worrying,” Modi said in public remarks at the start of his meeting with Biden. He did not attribute the killings to Russia, but said “we instantly condemn the killings and call for an independent investigation.”

India has long depended on Russia for military equipment, a major factor in the deep historical ties between the two countries. And so, despite global condemnations of Russian aggression in Ukraine, Mr. Modi’s administration has sought to remain neutral, refraining from criticizing Russia, while calling for negotiations and engaging Ukraine with humanitarian assistance.

While US officials have understood the complexity of India’s balancing act, viewing New Delhi as an important ally against an assertive China, they have at times expressed frustration that India’s stance offers Putin some coverage. Some US officials have warned of the consequences if India expands trade with Russia, especially any increase in oil purchases, as the West tries to tighten sanctions.

India is emblematic of the challenge facing Biden and other Western allies as they seek to expand the coalition of nations willing to punish Putin for his actions. The president has said global unity behind economic sanctions is the key to forcing the Russian leader to abandon what Biden calls his “war of choice” in Ukraine.

But while the United States has been successful in rallying more than 50 nations, including much of Europe, behind that strategy, India and other countries around the world have held back. India abstained when the United Nations voted to condemn the invasion in March and again when the UN expelled Russia from the UN Human Rights Council.

That came as no surprise to Biden administration officials, according to longtime observers of India’s relations with other countries. Tanvi Madan, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said Monday’s meeting underlined the careful US approach to relations with India over the past decades.

“They understand that forcing India to make a decision is probably not effective and could even be counterproductive,” he said. “So I think I’ve seen them talk about letting India make decisions rather than forcing India to make decisions. And that’s why they don’t talk publicly about it like choosing camps.”

That frustrates some inside and outside the administration, who believe that India, the world’s largest democracy, and other countries should be more assertive in upholding the principles of national borders.

And India’s determination to remain neutral in a conflict that is rocking Europe and much of the rest of the world is likely to anger the group known as the Quad (the United States, Australia, Japan and India) whose other nations have staunchly condemned Russia for his invasion of the Ukraine.

Derek Grossman, a senior defense analyst at the RAND Corporation, said the issue highlights the differences between the four nations, even as the group professes to unite around a common set of values.

“The Quad is really about maintaining a rules-based order, and a sovereign country, in Russia, invading and destroying another sovereign country, in Ukraine, is completely contrary to a rules-based order,” he said. “So that’s going to make future Quad meetings, and we’ll look at them later this year, a little bit awkward and a little bit cold.”

But both Grossman and Madan praised Biden and his administration for trying to go easy on India. Ms. Madan said that the United States had little to gain by trying to exert too much pressure on countries that have their own internal realities.

“You want to try to attract as many people to your seats,” he said, “but also recognize that there will be a group of countries that may not necessarily be like-minded to you.”

“The next best thing is to try to continue your efforts to bring them into alignment with you,” he added, “but if not, keep them unaligned.”

As part of that effort, Biden on Monday echoed sentiments that other US officials have expressed in recent weeks in an attempt to reassure India that its supply of military equipment will not dry up if it takes a tougher stance against Russia.

“We share an important, strong and growing defense partnership,” the president said in his opening remarks, before the defense and foreign ministers of both countries sat down for a lengthy dialogue. “The United States and India will continue our close consultations on how to manage the destabilizing effects of this Russian war.”

India’s defense purchases from the United States have risen over the last decade to around $20 billion. But analysts have said it would take time to expand ties to the point where India’s reliance on Russian military equipment would diminish. That would require overcoming deep-seated vacillation in the US-India relationship that dates back decades.

In his remarks, Mr. Modi continued India’s delicate line on Ukraine, expressing concern about the suffering caused by the war but refraining from calling Russia an aggressor.

“Our talks today take place at a time when the situation in Ukraine is very worrying,” Modi said. “During this whole process I spoke several times with the presidents of both Ukraine and Russia. I not only appealed for peace, but also suggested direct talks between President Putin and the President of Ukraine.”

Michael D. Shear reported from Washington, and Mojib Masal from Kathmandu, Nepal.

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