A spate of visits by Russian and Western diplomats is unlikely to change India’s neutral stance on the war in Ukraine, experts say, especially as the war has the support of a public bombarded by media reports blaming the US for the conflict.
While US and British officials in New Delhi this week pressured India to condemn Russia’s actions in Ukraine, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov praised the government for not taking a “one-sided view”.
“We appreciate that India is looking at this situation with all facts,” Lavrov said on Friday after a meeting with his counterpart Subrahmanyam Jaishankar in the Indian capital.
Lavrod also said that India and Russia would use a rupee-ruble mechanism so they could continue trading in oil and other commodities despite Western sanctions on US dollar transactions with Moscow.
“We will be ready to supply India with whatever goods India wants to buy,” he said.
A day earlier, a US official said that while Washington is not opposed to India buying Russian oil, which is being heavily discounted after the US, Britain and other countries imposed embargoes, it did not want to see a “rapid acceleration” of such imports .
“There are consequences for countries that actively seek to circumvent or top up these sanctions,” official Deputy National Security Advisor Daleep Singh told reporters in New Delhi.
British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, also in New Delhi on Thursday, said Britain would not dictate to India, the world’s largest democracy, but stressed the need for “like-minded nations to work together”.
Jaishankar, sitting next to Truss at a political forum in New Delhi, argued that the European Union is still buying Russian oil and that with prices rising it is “natural” for countries to seek the best deals possible.
Since the February 24 invasion, India has bought at least 13 million barrels of Russian oil, almost as much as it bought in all of 2021, according to Reuters.
“India will buy this because it needs this oil for India’s progress,” said Arun Sahgal, senior fellow on strategic and regional security at the Delhi Policy Group, an independent think tank.
In a country where every gas price hike sparks protests, Russia’s cheaper oil is met with relief and, in return, greater public support for Moscow.
“Russia has been India’s oldest ally for so long and has been cornered by the western world,” Renuka Jain, a Delhi-based accountant, said via a messaging app.
She called the oil purchases a “brilliant decision.”
“The US is more concerned about what will happen if the oil is bought in another currency and the dollar loses its luster,” she said.
Though India has grown closer to the US in recent years, it has long relied on Russia for defense equipment, fighter jets and assistance at international forums in clashes with neighbors like China, Pakistan and Bangladesh.
“We were only saved by the Russians — be it the Kashmir issue, the war in Bangladesh, national security issues, industrial issues, economic issues — while the United States was on the other side of the camp,” said Phunchok Stobdan, a Foreign policy expert and former Indian ambassador to Kyrgyzstan, told NBC News over the phone from the northern Indian city of Leh.
This pro-Russian sentiment is reflected in the streets, on Twitter and on television sets across the country. While much of the world is demonstrating in support of Ukraine and against Russian President Vladimir Putin, right-wing groups in India are marching with banners bearing slogans such as “Long live Indo-Russian friendship.”
“The sad part of the whole story is that they watch Netflix and Apple TV at night and the next day they curse the United States,” Sahgal said.
India’s mainstream media, which caters to a right-wing Hindu majority, has accused the US of hypocrisy in the Ukraine conflict and said the West played a major role in instigating it by supporting the eastward expansion of NATO, the US-led led military alliance, supported during the Cold War against the Soviet Union.
“I don’t believe in the concept of Americans pleading innocent because Americans are the ones who have a deep history of using the worst chemical weapons against the most innocent people,” top news anchor Arnab Goswami said in a March 11 monologue. March, citing the US atomic bombing of Hiroshima at the end of World War II among other examples.
Another star newsreader, Rahul Shivshankar, has hosted debates with titles such as “Is the war planned or provoked?” He said India has the right to take different positions from the West, calling its neutral stance on Ukraine “reasonable”.
Like China, India has called for a peaceful solution to the conflict but has abstained from voting on UN resolutions criticizing Russia’s actions. That gives confidence to smaller countries in Asia and elsewhere, which are also trying to balance their relations with world powers, Stobdan said.
“Putin will not stop his work just because India votes against or for Russia. He’ll do whatever he wants,” he said. “India doesn’t matter. But what India is doing is making a difference on the international landscape.”