Biden urges Modi not to accelerate Russian oil purchases

US President Joe Biden held one-hour 'candid' meeting with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to ease effects of Ukraine war

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President Joe Biden and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi held a "candid exchange of views" on Ukraine on Monday, with the US leader asking Mr Modi not to accelerate the buying of Russian oil as many nations try to deny Moscow energy income.

Mr Biden told Mr Modi that the US could help India to diversify its sources of energy, according to White House press secretary Jen Psaki.

India receives little of its oil from Russia, but recently made a major purchase as other democracies are trying to isolate Russian President Vladimir Putin and starve Moscow of foreign cash as it wages war in Ukraine.

“The president also made clear that he doesn’t believe it’s in India’s interest to accelerate or increase imports of Russian energy or other commodities,” Ms Psaki said.

The South Asian nation is continuing to buy Russian oil despite Mr Biden’s pressure on world leaders to take a hard line against Moscow.

A senior US official said there was no "concrete ask and concrete answer" on energy imports during the "warm and productive" meeting.

India has bought at least 13 million barrels of Russian crude oil since the country invaded Ukraine on February 24, lured by steep discounts after western sanctions on Russian entities, Reuters reported.

The two leaders also discussed the "destabilising impacts" of Russia’s war against Ukraine, with a particular focus on global food supply, the White House said.

The hour-long online meeting topped two days of "2+2" ministerial talks between Washington and New Delhi.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken hosted Indian Minister of External Affairs Dr S Jaishankar, and Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin met Indian Defence Minister Rajnath Singh at the Pentagon.

“The [Biden-Modi] meeting was warm and productive and they covered lot of ground,” the senior US official said, adding the agenda included the Indo-Pacific partnership, consultations on Russia, and defence and technology ties.

Mr Biden and Mr Modi failed to reach a joint condemnation of the Russian invasion when they last spoke in early March at a meeting of the "Quad" alliance of the US, India, Australia and Japan.

But the senior US official expressed a conciliatory tone when it came to energy sanctions.

“We haven't asked India to do anything in particular … we know that not all countries will be able to do what we've done,” the official said.

Last week, New Delhi abstained when the UN General Assembly voted to suspend Russia from its seat on the 47-member Human Rights Council over allegations of war crimes.

The Biden administration warned that any country actively helping Russia to circumvent international sanctions would suffer "consequences”.

Mr Biden and Mr Modi struck a common tone on the need to deepen the bilateral relationship and humanitarian efforts in Ukraine.

“I not only appeal for peace, but also suggested that there be direct talks between President Putin and the President of Ukraine [Volodymyr Zelenskyy],” Mr Modi said.

Before the video call, Mr Austin hosted Mr Singh at the Pentagon and hinted at expanding co-operation in space and cyber security.

A Space Situational Awareness Memorandum of Understanding was set to be signed later on Monday to protect the satellites of the two countries.

Aparna Pande, director of the Initiative on the Future of India and South Asia at the Hudson Institute, saw Mr Biden's direct involvement in the 2+2 ministerial as significant.

“It's important symbolically that the US president held a meeting with Prime Minister Modi and elevated the ministerial a notch,” Ms Pande told The National.

She said the goal of the Washington meetings would be to reach a formula where the two sides could boost Indo-Pacific co-operation but “agree to disagree” on Russia.

“India is still trying to do what it has always done for the last seven decades plus, which is stay in the middle,” Ms Pande said.

She said the issue of secondary sanctions on Russia would be the hardest to navigate in the Ukraine crisis.

Secondary sanctions are those imposed on a country, person or entity for doing business with a sanctioned entity.

Ms Pande thought New Delhi would probably escape such sanctions, but said they may hit Indian corporations trying to do business with Russia.

Richard Rossow, chairman of US-India Policy Studies at the Centre for Strategic International Studies, regarded the sanctions issue as one that possibly threatened the direction of the bilateral relationship.

“We're walking on very, very thin ice right now, where the United States would like to see India take a different position on the Russian invasion of Ukraine,” Mr Rossow told The National.

The other major issue will be India’s acquisition of the S-400 Russian missile defence system.

While Ms Pande said the S-400 debate is now years old and will be overshadowed by the new sanctions, Mr Rossow said the magnitude of that defence sale makes it even more controversial after recent events.

In 2016, India signed a $5 billion deal with Russia for the S-400 system, a year before The Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act law came into effect, penalising major transactions with Russia.

Now, India is seeking a waiver for avoiding Caatsa sanctions because it bought the system before the law was signed. But divisions linger within the administration and Congress on the matter.

“This is a big wrestling match,” Mr Rossow said, as the two partners try to balance the overarching interests in countering China, boosting technological co-operation and holding the line against Russia.

Updated: April 11, 2022, 9:59 PM
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