India ‘shaky’ on Ukraine war: Joe Biden

Updated on Mar 23, 2022 12:31 AM IST

Speaking to chief executive officers at a business roundtable on Monday, Biden focused on the response across both governments and the private sector against Russia’s actions, saying the reaction had taken Russian President Vladimir Putin by surprise.

US President Joe Biden.(Bloomberg)
US President Joe Biden.(Bloomberg)
ByPrashant Jha and Rezaul H Laskar, Washington/new Delhi

In a rare expression of differences between the United States (US) and India at the highest level, President Joe Biden has said the world has mounted a “united front” across Europe and the Pacific, through NATO and the Quad, on the Russian aggression against Ukraine – with the “possible exception of India”.

Speaking to chief executive officers at a business roundtable on Monday, Biden focused on the response across both governments and the private sector against Russia’s actions, saying the reaction had taken Russian President Vladimir Putin by surprise.

“NATO has never been stronger or more united in its entire history than it is today, in large part because of Vladimir Putin...We presented a united front throughout NATO and in the Pacific,” he said.

“The Quad is – with the possible exception of India being somewhat shaky on some of this. But Japan has been extremely strong, so has Australia, in terms of dealing with Putin’s aggression.”

Biden noted Putin “wasn’t anticipating the extent or the strength of our unity”, and said: “And the more his back is against the wall, the greater the severity of the tactics he may employ.”

Hours after Biden made the remarks, the US undersecretary for political affairs, Victoria Nuland, who was in New Delhi for foreign office consultations with foreign secretary Harsh Shringla, said it was important for democracies to stand together at a time when “autocracies like Russia [and] China are showing what a level are showing what a level of threat they can be to peace and security”.

The US, Nuland told NDTV news channel, is particularly concerned “about Russia and China working together more intensively” with regard to the conflict in Ukraine. “Democracies now really need to stand together and evolve their position vis-a-vis Russia because of the choices Putin has made,” she added.

Nuland characterised the Russian invasion as “vicious and violent and inhumane” and noted that Ukrainian hospitals, orphanages and schools had been bombed.

While acknowledging India’s dependence on Russian-origin military hardware from an era when the “US was not prepared to have that kind of relationship”, Nuland said the US and European countries are willing to be “strong defence and security partners” for India. She said she had discussed “opportunities for India to get what it needs, including Soviet-era equipment potentially not from Russia itself”.

Biden’s comments came in the wake of other partners in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue or Quad stepping up their engagement with India on the Ukraine issue. During their recent bilateral summits with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison discussed the Ukraine crisis.

A Japanese spokesperson said Kishida had sought greater cooperation from Modi to ask Putin to end the hostilities. Morrison said steps must be taken to ensure that the aggression in Europe is not repeated in the Indo-Pacific.

This is the second time Biden has commented on India’s position. When Russia launched its invasion on February 24, Biden was asked whether India’s position was in sync with that of the US, and he replied that Washington was “in consultations” with New Delhi. “We haven’t resolved that completely,” he said at the time.

Those remarks were apparently a reference to consultations between the two sides on a resolution on the Ukraine issue at the UN Security Council.

Almost a month later, Biden’s latest comments signified that the differences haven’t been resolved. In this period, the US has imposed the most extreme set of economic sanctions on a major power in history by effectively cutting off Russia from the global financial system, led a diplomatic offensive against Russia across all multilateral platforms, and stepped up its security and humanitarian assistance to Ukraine.

In the same period, India has avoided censuring Russia in public by name, abstained from all Ukraine-related votes at UN platforms that condemned Russian aggression, and continued its economic engagement with Russia, including massive purchases of oil offered at discounted rates.

But India has emphasised the importance of the UN charter, international law and respect for territorial integrity and sovereignty of states — which have been read as indirect criticism of Russia’s actions. India has also emphasised the need for dialogue and diplomacy, with Modi, in his phone conversations with Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, calling for an end to violence and direct talks between the two countries.

While US officials have noted the shift in India’s position, the absence of outright opposition has rankled different constituencies in Washington.

In a recent interview, Ashley J Tellis, the Tata chair of strategic studies at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said, “Within the executive branch, there is an intellectual understanding of India’s predicament but that does not diminish the emotional disenchantment because of the belief that the partnership with India is not simply about interests. It is about values…The feeling is that the Russian invasion is such a flagrant violation of the rules-based order, which India itself cherishes, that India should have done a little more.” Tellis added this is coupled with anxieties in the US Congress and disappointment in civil society.

These differences have not diminished engagement, with the US and India in dialogue about the situation in Ukraine. Soon after the invasion, secretary of state Antony Blinken spoke to external affairs minister S Jaishankar. Assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asia Donald Lu met Indian diplomats in Washington. The Indian ambassador to the US, Taranjit Singh Sandhu, has met a range of US lawmakers, both Democrats and Republicans.

Modi participated in a virtual Quad meeting with Biden, where all members of the grouping agreed to step up humanitarian aid to Ukraine. The Ukraine crisis figured in the foreign office consultations with Nuland and both sides reiterated their commitment to the bilateral relationship and their shared vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific.

A person familiar with India-US engagement on the Ukraine issue said Biden’s comments must be seen in the larger backdrop of US strategy and messaging. “The striking thing is not the fact that there are differences. Both sides know that. The striking thing is the fact that US continues to adopt a fairly measured public stance on India’s position. Compare it with how critical it has been of others on this issue. Biden’s team recognises that the India-US partnership is deep and multifaceted, and that must not be jeopardised. And while we may not be on the same page entirely, the partnership is resilient.”

Former ambassador Vivek Katju defended the position taken by India. “A commitment to democracy is fine but all countries have to take critical decisions in such situations after a careful evaluation of their priorities in the light of their national interests. Of all countries, the US should know this well in the light of its own support for some out and out dictatorships, including in India’s western neighbourhood,” he said.

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