Russian Foreign Minister's High Profile Visit Puts India Under Pressure

Shamil Zhumatov | AFP | Getty Images
  • Like Beijing, New Delhi has abstained in UN votes condemning the Russian invasion but is now coming under increasing pressure from western nations to revise its studied neutrality 
  • British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss and US deputy National Security Advisor Daleep Singh, one of the the chief architects of sanctions against Russia, were in the Indian capital hours before Lavrov 
  • India has been buying discounted Russian oil but imports are unlikely to increase substantially

As the war in Ukraine rages on, a visit by Russia's top diplomat is putting India under pressure.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is in New Delhi to persuade India to hold on to its neutral line on the Ukraine war and bypass international sanctions to buy more of its crude oil through a rupee-ruble payment mechanism.

On Friday, he met his counterpart Subrahmanyam Jaishankar and expressed "appreciation" for India's neutral stand on Ukraine. "India is taking this situation in the entirety of facts and not just in a one-sided way," Lavrov said. He may also meet Prime Minister Narendra Modi during his visit.

But in high diplomatic drama, the Russian minister's visit came just after the visit by British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, which was billed by British press as a push against Russia. U.S. deputy National Security Advisor Daleep Singh — one of the chief architects of sanctions against Russia — was also in town on a similar mission.

There is good personal chemistry between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Modi, who is one of only four foreign leaders to have been awarded Russia's top decoration, the Order of St. Andrew.

In its 2021 National Security Strategy, Russia described relations with New Delhi as a "special and privileged strategic partnership," and discussed them in the same paragraph as Russo-Chinese ties.

A day earlier, Lavrov was in China to met China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi and reinforce ties.

"China-Russia relations have withstood the new test of the changing international situation, maintained the correct direction of progress and shown tenacious development momentum," Wang said after their meeting, in a sign that China is continuing to stand by its "no limits" partnership with Russia.

Like Beijing, New Delhi has abstained in UN votes condemning the Russian invasion but is now coming under increasing pressure from Western nations to revise its stance.

India buying Russian oil

There have been concerns about India ramping up its oil purchases from Russia at deep discounts.

During a visit to India this week, U.S. Deputy National Security Advisor for International Economics said the Biden administration did not want to see India crank up its crude oil purchases from Russia. 

Speaking from Washing on Wednesday, U.S. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo said India's purchases of cheap Russian oil were "deeply disappointing" and again urged New Delhi to stand "on the right side of history."

Likewise, Truss said Britain respects India's decision to buy Russian supplies but she also discussed ways to cut India's strategic dependence on Russia.

However, one analyst told CNBC India will not likely significantly increase its oil imports from Russia.

"Even with a discount, Russian oil is expensive because of increased insurance rates as a result of the war in Ukraine," said Sunjoy Joshi, chairman of the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi.

India is the world's third-largest consumer of oil after the U.S. and China, and imports about 80% of its energy requirements.

In 2021, India bought about 12 million barrels of oil from Russia. That's between 2% to 5% of its crude imports, Samir N. Kapadia, head of trade at government relations consulting firm Vogel Group, previously told CNBC.

However, India's Petroleum Minister Hardeep Singh Puri has said India bought 419,000 tonnes of crude oil from Russia in the first 10 months of the current fiscal year that began in April 2020, according to local reports. He reportedly told parliament this was just 0.2 % of the total import of 175.9 million tonnes.

Indian media reported this week that state-owned Indian Oil Corporation bought two shiploads of distressed Russian oil — 3 million barrels in each trade — through traders at deep discounts. Another firm, Hindustan Petroleum Corporation reportedly bought two million barrels of Russian crude Urals. 

"There are also not many refineries with the capacity to process Russian crude," Joshi told CNBC, pointing out that the oil purchase would serve to send the signal to Moscow that India had not sanctioned Russia. 

Security concerns

India, which depends largely on Russian military equipment as it faces a border standoff with China, will also want an update from Lavrov on delivery dates of pending arms deliveries, including the S-400 air defense system.

While heavily dependent on Russian arms since its first purchase of Mig-21 fighters back in 1962, India has steadily moved closer to the West in the past decade.

It is the centerpiece of the U.S.-led Indo-Pacific strategy to contain Chinese diplomatic and military aggression in the region. While its trade with the U.S. is over $100 billion, the comparative figure for Russia stands at about $8 billion.

India's security needs cannot change overnight, said Joshi.

"The larger concern is security. India depends on Russia for legacy defense equipment. The spares all come from Russia. Who will replace that?" he said, adding that oil remains secondary in bilateral ties.

Addressing India's defense issues, the U.S. deputy National Security Advisor implied that Russia was not dependable.

"The more Russia becomes China's junior partner, the more leverage China gains over Russia, the less and less favorable that is for India's strategic posture," Singh told a local Indian TV channel on Thursday.

"Does anyone think that if China breaches the Line of Actual Control, that Russia would now come to India's defense? I don't," he said. The Line of Actual Control refers to the 2,100-mile-long unmarked border that separates Indian-controlled territory from Chinese-controlled territory.

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