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Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov (right) and his Indian counterpart Subrahmanyam Jaishankar at a news conference following their talks in Moscow on Tuesday. Photo: Reuters

India praises ‘strong and steady’ relationship with Russia as foreign ministers meet in Moscow

  • Foreign ministers Subrahmanyam Jaishankar and Sergey Lavrov discuss continued sales of oil and the possibility of joint arms production
  • While remaining neutral on the invasion of Ukraine, New Delhi maintains open communications with both Moscow and Kyiv and can be a mediator, analysts say
Ukraine war

India’s foreign minister hailed New Delhi’s “strong and steady” relationship with Moscow on Tuesday, during his first visit there since Russia invaded Ukraine in February.

Subrahmanyam Jaishankar also declared India’s intention to continue to buy Russian oil, again disregarding the US appeal to allies and partners to isolate Russia from the global markets.

Jaishankar at the press conference on Tuesday in Moscow. Photo: AFP

“We have seen that India-Russia relationship has worked to our advantage so if it works to my advantage, I would like to keep that going”, he said about Russian oil imports.

India is Russia’s second-largest customer for oil, after China. In October, Russian supplies accounted for 21 per cent of India’s oil imports, compared with roughly 1 per cent before the Ukraine war. After most of the Western world sanctioned its oil, Russia has offered deep discounts.

Jaishankar said that as the world’s third-largest consumer of oil and gas, and as a country where per capita income was not high, India had to look after its own interests.

India minister: Ukraine war in ‘no one’s interests’, coy on Moscow’s annexation

Jaishankar made the remarks after meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. According to Russia’s Tass news agency, Lavrov said they also discussed “in detail the state and prospects of military-technical cooperation, including joint production of modern arms”.

India has maintained friendly ties with Russia dating back to the Cold War era, at least partly because its relations with its neighbour China remain tense due to their border disputes in the Himalayas. Russia is also India’s leading supplier of arms and munitions.

In a statement announcing Jaishankar’s trip on Monday, the Russian foreign ministry said that the India-Russian ties stood for an “active formation” of a “more just” and “polycentric world order”.

Even as Jaishankar was meeting with Lavrov, though, the US was reminding India about its stance on Ukraine. On Monday in Washington, US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman met with her Indian counterpart Vinay Kwatra to underscore “the US commitment to the people of Ukraine in the face of Russia’s illegal war”.

US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman reminded her Indian counterpart on Monday of the US stance on “Russia’s illegal war”. Photo: EPA-EFE

The US State Department said that Sherman and Kwatra also discussed ways to improve regional and multilateral coordination, including through the Quad, the strategic security dialogue that involves the US, India, Australia and Japan.

The meetings came ahead of US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen’s trip to India on Friday to develop “stronger supply chains through friend-shoring”, according to the department, and advancing the two nations’ economic relationship through the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework – a 13-nation alliance seen as the centrepiece of an American strategy to counter China’s economic influence in the region.

Yellen is also expected to discuss a plan to cap the prices of Russian oil.

India is open to playing whatever role possible to bring economic and global stability
Akriti Vasudeva, Stimson Centre

India has not publicly condemned Russia for invading Ukraine and has abstained from voting on United Nations resolutions concerning the war, though it has called for peace talks.

In July, India used its relationship with Russia to broker a deal to allow Ukranian grain to pass through selected Black Sea ports after months of a Russian blockade. Countries like France and Mexico have supported India as a mediator in the Ukraine conflict.

In September, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi told Russian President Vladimir Putin during the Shanghai Cooperation Organization meeting in Uzbekistan that “today’s era is not an era of war”.

PM Modi tells President Putin now is ‘not a time for war’

Jaishankar has also claimed that India, after being asked to intervene, convinced Putin not to bomb the Zaporizhzhia nuclear facility in Ukraine. At a conference last month in New Zealand, Jaishankar vowed to do “whatever we can” to “facilitate at least the ability for the participants in the conflict to sit down and talk”.

On Tuesday, he reiterated India’s stance of “returning to dialogue”.

After first criticising India’s decision not to join the international sanctions against Russia, Washington has acknowledged the fine line that India walks, remaining heavily dependent on Moscow for defence and energy needs. The US showed a willingness to help India diversify its arms options when Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin met with Jaishankar at the Pentagon in September.

Akriti Vasudeva, a fellow in the South Asia Programme at the Stimson Centre in Washington, noted that Modi was among the few leaders who still have channels of communication open with both Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

She said that Jaishankar’s remarks on Tuesday indicated that “India is open to playing whatever role possible to bring economic and global stability, especially since Delhi has repeatedly raised concerns about fuel and food insecurity”.

But Monica Verma of South Asian University in New Delhi sees it as the West’s “opportunism” and “the best example of irony in realpolitik”.

Since the West had “burnt all the bridges with Putin”, Verma said, it was now looking to use India as “a mediator to suit its self-interest” after criticising Delhi for its neutral stand.

“Should it buy into Western designs and offer to mediate peace? Well, India has been fantastically chasing its own interest in the conflict so far,” she added.