US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is set to join Secretary of State Antony Blinken at 2+2 talks with India. Photo: AFP / Mandel Ngan

On the eve of an already overdue fourth round of the India-US 2+2 dialogue, which will see Foreign Minister Subramanyam Jaishankar and Defense Minister Rajnath Singh sitting down with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin in Washington early next week, the US establishment has gone whole hog in its rhetoric of nudging India to toe the American line on the Ukraine crisis. 

Therefore, in the wake of this “pitched battle” to persuade India to join US in its pushback on Russia, this revival of their 2+2 dialogue – last held in October 2020 – may not mean much for either synergizing their bilateral cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region or providing an impetus for their overall Comprehensive Global Strategic Partnership.

India has, meanwhile, tried to adjust its semantics from showing concern, to regret, to deploring, to then calling for respect for UN Charter, for international law and for national sovereignty and territorial integrality. This is the closest New Delhi would get to placating US President Joe Biden’s administration, but to little avail.

Given the changing ground realities and revelations about the alleged massacre in the Ukrainian city of Bucha, however, this Wednesday saw Jaishankar in the national Parliament and India’s permanent representative to the UN, Ambassador T S Trimurti, on Tuesday at the Security Council moving a step further as they “unequivocally condemned” Moscow and called for an “independent probe” into these “deeply disturbing” media reports.

Whether this will make any difference at the 2+2 dialogue remains uncertain.

America disappointed

It all began with India’s repeated abstentions from UN resolutions on the Ukraine crisis leading to White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki calling out India’s “pro-Moscow” neutrality and how it had placed it on “wrong side of history.” This, among others, was followed by deputy national security adviser Daleep Singh warning his interlocutors in New Delhi of “consequences,” which was endorsed later by several other American officials. 

On Tuesday, Biden’s top economic adviser, Brian Deese, joined this list by clubbing New Delhi with Beijing together and remarking how the US is “disappointed by both China’s and India’s decisions” and how the consequences of their “more explicit strategic alignment” with Moscow will be both “significant and long-term.”

By comparison, Biden had been much gentler, calling India’s approach to the Ukraine crisis “somewhat shaky” in terms of supporting US actions. Likewise, US Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland found in her recent interactions in New Delhi some “evolution in thinking” and “evolution in position” and displayed US appreciation that India’s time-tested ties with Russia were “not something India can cut off immediately.” 

Indeed, in the middle of the Ukraine crisis, the US does not even have an ambassador posted in New Delhi. Biden’s nominee Eric Garcetti is yet to receive enough votes in the US Senate for his confirmation and is likely to be replaced by another, more acceptable nominee.  

Some media commentators in India have called all this American doublespeak, edging on preaching and patronizing. American experts, on the other hand, believe that while Russia has always been an irritant in Indo-US ties, with the Ukraine crisis New Delhi and Washington now have moved into altogether uncharted territory.

Bone of contention

Way beyond India’s abstentions on UN resolutions on Ukraine, India buying deeply discounted Russia oil has become the new Achilles heel not just for bilateral Indo-US ties but for the credibility of the Biden presidency. India had earlier complied with American dictates to stop importing oil from Iran and Venezuela, emboldening the Americans to try their luck a third time, hoping for India to fall in line once again.  

But the target country this time is Russia, which has been the most enduring defense and strategic partner for New Delhi. The nearest possible comparisons could be the 1950s Soviet invasions of Czechoslovakia and Hungary. India was then neither as closely aligned to the US nor as visible.

India this time was also restricted by the fact of having more than 22,500 of its citizens stuck in the middle of the Ukraine crisis. This surely necessitated India staying in close coordination with both Moscow and Kiev.

Of course, given India’s enduring defense partnership with the Soviet Union and now Russia, it could not be expected to condemn Moscow’s line, though it abstained from Moscow’s proposal discussed in the UN Security Council. But what has especially upset India’s American interlocutors is how India has begun sourcing oil and other commodities from Russia by using their rupee-ruble swap, which could open new fault lines.

This not only threatens to undermine an already discredited American sanctions strategy but in the long run could inspire others to reduce their dependence on the US dollar as the preferred global currency.

As well, the quantum jump in India’s oil imports from Russia make it a more than glaring success for President Vladimir Putin. India buying more than 13 million barrels of Russian crude oil in March – compared with a total of 16 million barrels for the whole of last year – could strengthen Moscow’s will power, as well as staying power.

This will weaken the sanctions regime, which relies on conventional financial mechanisms where weightage in voting rights for decision-making ensure major leeway for American global leadership.

The reality check

While the potential of India’s buying Russian oil and their rupee-ruble swap may never herald tectonic changes in global geopolitics, their present transactions have already touched a sensitive nerve in the Biden presidency. India’s defiance in buying Russian oil can be compared to the detonation of its first nuclear device in May 1974, where India had challenged the US-led “discriminatory” non-proliferation regime.

But reactions of US officials perhaps also betray their frustration at failing to make Moscow comply. While it is true that Australia, Britain, Canada and the US have banned purchase of Russian oil, none of them are major buyers in any case.

The reality is that China is the largest buyer of Russian oil, procuring almost half of Russia’s total exports of that commodity. Clearly, the Biden presidency has no wherewithal to make Beijing change its mind as it further expands its import of Russian oil.

What is especially disheartening for the Biden presidency is that the next nine largest buyers of Russian oil are Germany, the Netherlands, the US, Poland, South Korea, Belgium, Turkey, France and the UK. Other than the US and UK, all of these countries have continued to buy Russian oil, while Germany and Hungary have openly opposed any hasty reductions, fearing that could push their economies into recession. 

So while the US finds it difficult to persuade its own alliance partners to stop passing on petrodollars to finance Russia’s military operations, it finds it convenient to try to browbeat New Delhi. This defies logic, as although India is world’s third-largest importer of oil, as Petroleum and Natural Gas Minister Hardeep Puri informed Parliament this week, its oil imports from Russia constitute less than 1% of the total, whereas the United States accounts for more than 7%. 

In fact it is interesting to note the recent BBC report that 55% of India’s oil imports come from the US and its close allies Iraq, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. This therefore has little to do with New Delhi’s oil imports. The Biden presidency seems completely geared to deprive Russia of all its defense and economic partnerships, such that India’s close connections with Moscow make it a collateral of American agenda-setting.

Follow Swaran Singh on Twitter @SwaranSinghJNU.

Swaran Singh

Dr Swaran Singh is professor of diplomacy and disarmament at the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi; president of Association of Asia Scholars (asiascholars.in); adjunct senior fellow at The Charhar Institute, Beijing; senior fellow, Institute for National Security Studies Sri Lanka, Colombo; and visiting professor, Research Institute for Indian Ocean Economies, Kunming (China).