Highlights

  • India, US hold 2+2 talks, Ukraine looming large
  • India's abstentions at UN under global scrutiny
  • Can India and US narrow differences on Ukraine?

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Decoded | US-India 2+2 dialogue: With divergence on Russia, where are US-India ties headed?

The US-India 2+2 talks come at a crucial time, amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine, a crisis which has forced India to assess its position in the global order. Will Russia's proximity to China hurt India-US ties?

India-US 2+2 dialogue: The high-profile 2+2 dialogue between India and the US was held under watchful eyes in Washington this week. External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar and Defence Minister Rajnath Singh met their counterparts, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defence Llyod Austin. Prime Minister Narendra Modi also held a virtual meeting with US President Joe Biden.

Also watch | Watch: India's strong response on Russian oil import

The conversation between the world's two largest democracies comes at a crucial time, amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine, a crisis which has forced India to assess its position in the global order. India's position on Ukraine raised many eyebrows around the world, for its abstentions at the United Nations. The move is being seen as a balancing act of maintaining friends and partners on both sides. Experts have also cited India's defence relationship with Russia, but it’s not that simple.

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There are historic ties that bind New Delhi and Moscow, with strong defence cooperation between the two nations. According to a report by Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), Russia's share of arms import to India fell from 69% in 2012-17 to 46% in 2017-21, but even then, 70% of India's military still handles Russian equipment. Russia has been a big contributor to India's defence, from the Brahmos to the Sukhoi, the INS Chakra to the S-400s. It's a relationship that goes back decades, to the 1960s, which makes it a difficult one to end.

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In the 1960s, Russia first sold India Il-14s, Soviet twin-engine commercial and military personnel and cargo transport aircraft, followed by Mi-14 helicopters, and An-12 transport aircraft.

Then, the MiG-21 deal was inked between India and Russia to offset the attack aircraft that Pakistan purchased from the United States.

In 1997, Russia and India signed a 10-year agreement for military-technical cooperation which included production of weapons, armaments and military tech.

In 1998, a joint venture between the DRDO and Russia gave India the Brahmos, a supersonic cruise missile that can be launched from submarines, aircraft, ships or land.

In 2012, the two countries signed a deal for the production of new Sukhoi aircraft, in addition to the 230 Sukhois already contracted from Russia. In October 2018, Russia and India signed a $5.43 billion contract for the supply of five units of the S-400, surface to air missile system.

Apart from these, India has purchased or leased several military hardware from Russia, including the Akula-II nuclear submarine, the INS Vikramaditya, the INS Chakra, the T-70 and T-90 tanks.

As the foreign and defence ministers of the two nations met in Washington, work seemed cut out for them.
The Russia-Ukraine war may not be India's war, but New Delhi was careful in its approach. There's no doubt that Moscow draws confidence from India buying Russian oil and natural gas at discounted rates, however, India has to be realistic about the extent to which Russia would go to protect its interests.

At the India-US 2+2 ministerial dialogue, US Secretary of State Antony J Blinken urged allies including India not to buy additional Russian oil. "We're encouraging countries not to purchase additional energy supplies from Russia. Every country is differently situated, has different needs, requirements, but we're looking to allies and partners not to increase their purchases of Russian energy," said Blinken, addressing a joint press meet after the talks.

India was quick to hit back. External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar said, "If you are looking at energy purchases from Russia, I would suggest that your attention should be focused on Europe, which probably - we do buy some energy which is necessary for our energy security, but I suspect looking at the figures, probably our total purchases for the month would be less than what Europe does in an afternoon."

Also watch | Russia-Ukraine war: How India's abstention from UN vote may affect ties with US

But there are bigger players ‘fuelling’ Putin’s war machine. Media reports say, in the early days of the invasion on Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin reached out to China for help with military & economic aid. This exposed Russia's vulnerability as a super-power.

Faced with harsher sanctions from the West, and the Ruble dangerously volatile, Russia’s dependence on Chinese markets, capital, goods, and services, is expected to only surge further. Not just that, a Carnegie Moscow Center report highlighted that China’s share in Russia’s trade turnover had increased from 10.5% ($88.8 billion) in 2013 to 15.7% ($108.3 billion) in 2019.

So, the possibility that Moscow will side with India in our rivalry with China, is highly unlikely. New Delhi, therefore has to show value as a partner elsewhere, to continue to draw Western support, both economic and military, to keep China at bay.

If China participates in the Russia-Ukraine war to bail out Putin, the US and other Nato countries are likely to retaliate. A weakened China is stronger India given the current equation of the two Asian giants. Keeping the West in good stead therefore, is prudent for India.

The Biden administration has been pressurising world leaders to take a hard line on Moscow, and it wants India's backing for many reasons, geo-political & economic. The world’s second-largest democracy is a good buffer against Beijing’s expanding influence, and industrial leaders hope India can become a new hub of global production to supplement or replace China.

Washington also sees this a good opportunity for India-US defence ties to surge. Sanctions on Russia could offer the US an opportunity to make India its exclusive arms client. Defence Minister Rajnath Singh clarified on the US providing affordable defence systems to India. "Price affordability will benefit only when we require, or can't produce...We will buy it from outside when it's required," said Singh.

However, there is also a body of opinion in India, that the US ends up meddling in India's internal affairs, on human rights and erosion of civil liberties; something that India doesn't take kindly. In the press briefing, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, US Secretary of State, said, "We share a commitment to our democratic values, such as protecting human rights. We regularly engage with our Indian partners on these shared values, and to that end we’re monitoring some recent concerning developments in India, including a rise in human rights abuses by some government, police, and prison officials."

So deepening ties with the United States, is now a tight rope walk for India. While there are differences between the two countries on Ukraine, the real challenge is perhaps, is converting these differences into an opportunity.

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