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Ukraine sanctions stress test US–India relations

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US President Joe Biden holds virtual talks via videoconference with India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi, as US Secretary of State Antony Blinken participates, in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building's South Court Auditorium at the White House in Washington, United States, 11 April 2022 (REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque)

In Brief

The world seems polarised between those opposing or supporting the Russian military campaign in Ukraine. Yet India has carefully avoided taking sides by maintaining a neutral position on the issue — the only major democracy to do so. The debate over whether India actually supports or opposes the Russian military campaign has picked up since New Delhi abstained from voting on a UN resolution calling the Ukraine–Russia conflict a humanitarian crisis.


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India’s stance on the issue is particularly nettlesome for the United States which, along with Europe, has sought to punish Russia for its actions by imposing severe sanctions. India has refused to budge from its position despite significant courting and pressure from the West, evident from recent visits to New Delhi by US Deputy National Security Adviser Daleep Singh, UK Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, and Jens Ploetner, foreign and security policy advisor to the German chancellor.

With India holding position, Ukraine is likely to emerge as a significant point of disagreement between Washington and New Delhi, who have deepened their bilateral and multilateral security cooperation over the last decade.

The Biden administration appears to have reluctantly accepted India’s position, understanding that India has a different kind of relationship with Russia. But as the Russian military is accused of committing war crimes in Ukraine, Washington has piled pressure on New Delhi to fall in line. It attempted to align the Quad grouping with US objectives by holding a leaders’ call on 3 March 2022. Yet the joint readout of the call was notable for not directly mentioning Russia, highlighting the differences between India and the rest of the Quad.

New Delhi’s position on the Ukraine issue stems from its limited options. Despite India’s decades-long diversification of its defence supplies, it is still dependent on Russia. Any Indian criticism of Russian actions in Ukraine would likely unsettle the bilateral relationship and complicate India’s defence preparedness. As the prolonged border stand-off with China in the Himalayas passes two years next month, India does not want to further complicate its security calculus. The security and safe return of Indian students studying in Russian and Ukrainian universities also influenced New Delhi’s diplomatic stance.

While these are compelling reasons for India’s ‘neutral’ stance on the Ukraine issue, the United States would like India to take a more explicit position. Washington may have a lever to force India’s hand — New Delhi’s purchase of the Russian S-400 air defence system. After years of negotiations, India concluded a US$5.43 billion agreement with Russia to purchase five such systems in 2018. The United States has repeatedly hinted that the S-400 deal may be subject to CAATSA (Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act) sanctions penalising firms and individuals dealing with designated Russian defence companies.

India has never supported unilateral sanctions imposed outside the UN system. It was on the receiving end of US sanctions and other restrictive measures after its nuclear weapons tests in 1974 and 1998. Now it is concerned about the impact of secondary sanctions through CAATSA. This is not the first time that sanctions have emerged as a discordant note in the US–India relationship. The two sides differed over India’s involvement in developing the Chabahar port project in Iran, although India eventually secured a sanction exemption.

Before the Ukraine conflict, some US lawmakers had urged the Biden administration to waive sanctions against India for the purchase of the S-400 system. Now two factors complicate India’s chances of escaping sanctions given Russia has invaded Ukraine.

First, the Biden administration is tightening its noose around the Russian economy, with defence, technology and financial sector sanctions causing a severe break in US–Russia relations. This unreconcilable position dims the possibility of India receiving a sanctions waiver, a reality conveyed by US Deputy National Security Adviser Singh during his India visit. If Washington ends up imposing sanctions on India, it will be a significant setback for relations and India’s military modernisation. It may also strengthen sections of the Indian strategic community who are eternally sceptical of US intentions.

Second, India’s purchase of Russian oil at discounted rates in recent weeks — a move aggressively defended by External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar at the recent India–US 2+2 ministerial dialogue in Washington — may further harden US perceptions. Although the Biden administration clarified that the purchase was not a technical violation of US sanctions and that India’s oil imports from Russia are much smaller compared to imports from the US, it is unlikely to look kindly upon New Delhi for undermining its efforts to isolate Russia.

The recent disagreement between Washington and New Delhi shows that the Ukraine conflict is not just a test of US leadership but also a stress test for India–US relations. While the differences between the two sides are not yet irredeemable, the give and take required to resolve those differences will have implications for the Indo-Pacific and international security.

Sameer Patil is Senior Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, India.

Uday Patil is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Geopolitics and International Relations at the Manipal Academy of Higher Education, India.

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