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With US or Russia? India-US strategic partnership hit by Delhi’s abstentions in UN over Ukraine

Quad leaders are scheduled to meet virtually Thursday evening after India once again abstained from voting to punish Russia, this time in the UN General Assembly.

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New Delhi: India is in a tight spot with the US, with the countries’ strategic partnership now being questioned in some global capitals after New Delhi was seen as taking Russia’s side in its war against Ukraine.

As India abstained yet again Wednesday at the crucial vote of the UN General Assembly (UNGA) that sought to punish Russia and deplored its aggression against Ukraine in a resolution, the partnership between New Delhi and Washington DC has come under the spotlight.

India’s position has rattled both the Democrats as well as the Republicans in the US. The Joe Biden administration is engaged with India for a joint condemnation of Russia’s “special military operations” in Ukraine.

A rushed Quad leaders’ meeting has been called Thursday as the war in Ukraine completes a week. The Quad leaders — Prime Minister Narendra Modi, US President Biden, Australian PM Scott Morrison and Japanese PM Fumio Kishida — will be meeting virtually late Thursday.

The matter has unnerved the Biden administration so much that the US State Department is reported to have said in one of its cables to US diplomats that it should inform India that its position in the UN over the Ukraine war issue is being seen as New Delhi being in “Russia’s camp”.

According to a report by Axios, the State Department has “recalled” the cable, which also mentioned the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which has also taken a similar stance like India.

The Axios report also said that “the cable was blasted to US embassies in the nearly 50 countries represented at the United Nations Human Rights Council on Monday, but recalled Tuesday afternoon”.

“The language in question was never intended for clearance and the cable was released in error, which is why it was recalled,” the report quoted a State Department spokesperson as saying.

The cable is believed to have instructed the American diplomats to tell their Indian and Emirati counterparts that “continuing to call for dialogue, as you have been doing in the Security Council, is not a stance of neutrality, it places you in Russia’s camp, the aggressor in this conflict”.

On 25 February, India had abstained on a similar resolution placed in the UN Security Council, which was ultimately vetoed by Russia. 

It had also abstained Sunday, when the UNSC voted to convene an emergency special session of the General Assembly over the Ukraine crisis.

Also read: India’s delicate balancing act between Russia and the US

US pushes India for a ‘collective response’ in condemning Russia

As the US chalks out a stringent and long-term plan to “isolate Russia”, the Biden administration has remained engaged with India for a joint condemnation of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “special military operation” in Ukraine.

Donald Lu, Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia, was questioned by both Democrats as well as Republicans by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on India-US relations, and said: “Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, of course, is foremost on our minds, and the Department continues to engage India closely to underscore the importance of a collective response condemning Russia’s invasion.” 

This came after India abstained from voting as the UNGA adopted a key resolution — Aggression against Ukraine — that was co-sponsored by 96 UN Member States and received 141 votes in favour and 34 abstentions, while five nations voted against it.

Responding to another question on India’s stance at the UN, Lu said, “Over the course of months now, but culminating in this past week, we can already see an evolution in some of India’s public positions. I had several conversations with Indian officials in the past 24 hours.”

At the Senate hearing, Lu also said, “India is the world’s second largest importer of defence technology. Over the last 22 years, US defence sales to India have grown to over $20 billion, and India is considering purchasing six additional P-8I maritime surveillance aircraft for $2.1 billion.” 

“Since 2011, India has reduced its arms imports from Russia by 53 per cent and increased its defense purchases from the United States and other partners, as well as increasing its own domestic production capability,” he added.

The question about CAATSA

Lu was also repeatedly questioned on President Biden’s likely stand over India’s purchase of the S-400 Triumf missile defence systems from Russia, which comes under the purview of Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA).

“My view is that it’s going to be very hard for anyone to buy major weapon systems from Moscow in the coming months and years, given sweeping financial sanctions that the administration, with the support of Congress, has levelled… I would guess that India is one of those countries worried about that,” Lu added.

Moscow, meanwhile, has maintained that the slew of “unprecedented sanctions” being imposed on Russia will not impact the deliveries of the missile system to New Delhi. 

(Edited by Saikat Niyogi) 

Also read: Not 1st time India abstained in vote against Russia. It’s about Delhi’s own security interests


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