India Makes the Most of the Great-Power Bidding War
India’s neutral stance on Ukraine means Washington, Moscow, and Beijing are all courting New Delhi.
Welcome to today’s Morning Brief, where we’re looking at India’s position between the world's great powers, the latest from Ukraine, and more news worth following from around the world.
Welcome to today’s Morning Brief, where we’re looking at India’s position between the world’s great powers, the latest from Ukraine, and more news worth following from around the world.
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Lavrov Visits New Delhi
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov begins a two-day visit to New Delhi today as he seeks to keep India close amid a Western blockade of Russia’s economy. Lavrov’s visit comes the day after he met with his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi in the Chinese city of Tunxi. Today’s trip is just the third outside the country for Lavrov since Russia launched its war in Ukraine.
Lavrov’s visit comes amid a flurry of diplomatic courtship for New Delhi: British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss arrives the same day as Lavrov, while in the last seven days, the country has played host to representatives from Mexico, Germany, and Greece—as well as a surprise visit from China’s Wang.
India’s neutral position on Ukraine has helped undermine the Biden administration’s efforts to unite the world in condemnation of Russia’s invasion, and it means that economic sanctions have largely come from only Western countries and U.S. allies Japan and South Korea. (FP’s Colum Lynch explored why the rest of the world has largely stayed on the sidelines in an in-depth report on Wednesday).
The United States has kept up its persuasion campaign, dispatching Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland to India last week, and following up by sending Deputy National Security Advisor for International Economics Daleep Singh this week. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke with his Indian counterpart Subrahmanyam Jaishankar over the phone on Wednesday.
If the Indian media’s reaction is any indication, there’s little domestic pressure for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government to change its current tack. As Gerry Shih explores in the Washington Post, India’s popular talk shows and magazines have been mostly filled with “fire and fury directed toward the United States, portrayed as the culprit and instigator of yet another international conflagration.”
Michael Kugelman, an Asia expert at the Wilson Center and author of FP’s South Asia Brief, told me that even though it’s not surprising that India has taken this neutral stance, its considerably more of a gamble today considering the increased ties India has forged with Western nations.
And although historical ties with Russia dating back to the Soviet era go a long way in explaining India’s position, Kugelman said more pragmatic concerns are behind its current stance. “It really comes down to the issue of arms,” Kugelman said. “Up to 85 percent of its arms come from Russia, and that’s important not just because of the disproportionate level of dependence, but also the fact that India perceives immediate security threats emanating from both of its rivals, China and Pakistan, and Russian arms are used to help strengthen India’s capacity to deter those threats.”
India also knows that it can continue a neutral position on Russia because it’s such a key part of U.S. strategy on China. “Washington views India as one of its biggest strategic bets in Asia when it comes to countering the China threat,” Kugelman said. “That gives India leverage.”
Still, that leeway when it comes Russia may only go so far. Reports of Indian purchases of discounted Russian oil and gas put it on a collision course with the West and may in the end undermine its own security. “I would argue that anything that India does that does not discourage Russia from winding down this war is very dangerous for India’s own interests, just because the longer the war plays out, the more likely that Russia will get closer to China, and the last thing India wants is for its biggest strategic rival to enjoy more leverage over Russia,” Kugelman said.
China is trying to upend that dynamic by attempting to coax India into an anti-Western fold, with Wang ’s unannounced visit last week highlighting a fresh attempt to pull India away from the West. As C. Raja Mohan wrote in Foreign Policy on Wednesday, that gambit is unlikely to work out, but it won’t prevent India from enjoying the bidding war.
“Far from being in an unenviable bind, New Delhi now looks well placed to leverage its position in the middle for its own benefit in the short and long term,” Mohan writes. “From Russia, India is getting discounted oil, fertilizer, and other commodities as Moscow desperately seeks new buyers. From China, India is looking to extract an easing of the Sino-Indian military confrontation in the Himalayas. With the United States and other Western partners, India is looking to modernize its defense industrial base and reduce its dependence on Russian military supplies.”
What We’re Following Today
Ukraine latest. Ukraine and Russia have offered contrasting views on the progress of peace talks as the war enters its sixth week. Ukraine’s chief negotiator Mykhailo Podolyak said on Wednesday that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky could meet his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin soon. “When is too early to tell, but it is a logistical issue,” Podolyak added. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said talk of any summit was premature, with “a lot of work” still to be done. The talks are expected to resume on Friday.
According to one U.S. official, the slow progress of the war in Ukraine is causing a split between Putin and his military advisors. “We have information that Putin felt misled by the Russian military,” the official said, citing declassified intelligence reports. “Putin didn’t even know his military was using and losing conscripts in Ukraine, showing a clear breakdown in the flow of accurate information to the Russian president.”
Meanwhile, Ukraine’s refugee exodus now accounts for 10 percent of its population, according to U.N. figures, as more than 4.3 million have fled the country.
OPEC+ meets. Oil ministers from OPEC+ nations will meet today to decide on oil production targets for the coming months. The group is expected to eschew calls from the United States to boost production, preferring to continue a steady monthly increase of roughly 400,000 barrels per day. The decision was previewed by energy ministers from the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia on Tuesday, when both men said that politics should not enter the group’s decision-making.
Keep an Eye On
Khan’s last stand. Pakistani lawmakers seeking to oust Prime Minister Imran Khan look to have secured enough votes following the defection of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement-Pakistan to the opposition on Wednesday. The vote is expected on Sunday or Monday. If Khan is removed, an interim prime minister will be chosen by lawmakers to serve until fresh elections in 2023.
Afghanistan aid. An international pledging conference today to raise aid funds for Afghanistan is expected to fall short of its $4.4 billion goal, as United Nations officials warn that recent Taliban policies, such as a recent U-turn on returning secondary-age girls to school, may cool donor support.
Colm Quinn was a staff writer at Foreign Policy between 2020 and 2022. Twitter: @colmfquinn
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