US Congress Mulling Ways To ‘Encourage’ India To Scale Back Links With Russia

The war in Ukraine has tested the India-US partnership, which has been among the more notable shifts in global power politics in the 21st century, according to a report which underlines that Congress could consider whether or not to employ means of “encouraging” New Delhi to scale back its links with Moscow.

For members of Congress and US policymakers seeking to encourage India to help isolate Russia diplomatically and economically, and to reduce Moscow’s ability to maintain active hostilities, efforts may need to focus on initiatives that allow India to rely less on Russia but avoid pushing Russia and China closer together, says the report by independent Congressional Research Service (CRS).

The CRS is a bipartisan and independent research wing of the US Congress that periodically prepares reports on issues of interest for lawmakers to take informed decisions.

“Congress may wish to consider whether or not to use its oversight function to ensure the State Department, Department of Defense, and others are pursuing bilateral and regional strategies that offer India a way to maintain its strategic autonomy while also encouraging distance from Russia,” CRS said in its report titled ‘India-Russia Relations and Implications for US Interests’.

To date, the Biden administration officials have acknowledged the motivations behind India’s neutrality on the Ukraine invasion and appear willing to abide ongoing India-Russia ties in the pursuit of what the administration deems to be broader US interests.

As the war in Ukraine grinds on, the Biden administration and Congress may consider whether or not to choose policy approaches meant to alter the present dynamic, it said.

Since 2017, US law (P.L. 115-44) requires the President to impose sanctions on any persons determined to have engaged in “significant transactions” with Russia’s defence or intelligence sectors.

Although the Biden administration has yet to make a determination in India’s case, India’s late 2021 deployment of a new multi-billion-dollar Russian-supplied air defence system (the S-400 Triumf) brought the issue into high relief, it said.

The war in Ukraine has tested the India-US partnership, which has been among the more notable shifts in global major power politics in the 21st century, it said.

Unlike many other leading Western powers, India has not criticised Russia for its invasion of Ukraine and it abstained from the votes at the UN platforms in condemning the Russian aggression.

India faced flak from US lawmakers, both Republicans and Democrats, for choosing to abstain from UN votes to rebuke Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. New Delhi has strong defence ties with Moscow.

In October 2018, India signed a USD 5 billion deal with Russia to buy five units of the S-400 Triumf air defence missile systems to ramp up its air defence, despite a warning from the then-Trump administration that going ahead with the contract may invite US sanctions.

The US has already imposed sanctions on Turkey under the CAATSA for the purchase of a batch of S-400 missile defence systems from Russia.

Despite strong objections from the US and the threat of sanctions from the Biden administration, India has refused to make any changes in its decision and is going ahead with the purchase of the missile defence system.

India pursues an independent foreign policy and its defence acquisitions are guided by its national security interests, the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) said in November last year.

The United States has long encouraged India to further reduce its purchases of Russian military equipment and further diversify its sources of defence wares.

As a “Major Defense Partner” of the US and recent signatory to several enabling bilateral defence pacts, New Delhi is poised to increase its defence engagement with Washington, including through new initiatives reportedly under consideration by the Biden administration, the report said.

Beyond the issue of US-India arms trade and defence relations—which could be further facilitated by changes in US law—Congress could consider other means of encouraging India (and other US partners) to scale back their links with Russia, it said.

According to CRS, three central factors—international strategy/diplomacy, arms trade, and energy trade—undergird India’s current neutral stance on the Ukraine war and leave New Delhi unwilling to antagonise the United States or Russia.

First, China has emerged as the most important perceived threat to Indian interests in South Asia, and China as a key ally of Pakistan, India’s traditional regional rival.

Indian planners are sensitive to signs that Russia and China are growing closer or cooperating in ways that facilitate Chinese aspirations in Asia, which many analysts describe in terms of Beijing’s striving for regional hegemony.

Second, Russia is and has long been India’s primary arms supplier, and India needs a continued flow of Russian-supplied weapons and spare parts if its military forces are to operate effectively.

Finally, India’s growing appetite for energy imports makes Russia an important supplier and investor in this sector, offering oil and coal at prices attractive to a government whose primary goal is development and poverty reduction, the report said.

Imports of edible oils and fertilisers from both Russia and Ukraine also are key to Indian food security and a significant concern for New Delhi, it said.

The CRS said by most accounts, the importance of India in US national security planning has led American officials to accept (or at least tolerate) New Delhi’s neutral posture toward the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

After initially admonishing India for its posture toward Russia, administration officials moderated their rhetoric, and the readouts of the April 2+2 Dialogue in Washington, DC, and the May Quad summit in Tokyo indicated leaders sought to highlight convergent Indo-Pacific strategies and not allow the war in Ukraine to derail a focus on Asia, the report said.

The US and European nations have imposed heavy sanctions on Russia since Moscow sent troops into Ukraine on February 24.

India has raised oil imports from Russia after the Ukraine war despite criticism from the West and continues to engage with Moscow for business.

In May, Russia overtook Saudi Arabia to become India’s second-biggest supplier of oil behind Iraq as refiners snapped up Russian crude available at a deep discount following the war in Ukraine.

Indian refiners bought about 25 million barrels of Russian oil in May.

External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar this week defended India’s import of discounted Russian oil, saying the government had the moral duty to ensure that the people of India got the best deal amidst unreasonably high oil prices.

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