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Biden Urges Modi Not to Increase India’s Reliance on Russian Oil and Gas

WASHINGTON — President Biden on Monday urged Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India not to increase his country’s reliance on Russian oil and gas, officials said, part of a global effort by the United States to maintain economic pressure on Russia for its invasion of Ukraine.

Mr. Biden also emphasized growing defense cooperation with India in a virtual meeting with Mr. Modi — a line U.S. officials have increasingly highlighted in the hopes of convincing New Delhi to come off the fence over Russia’s invasion.

In the meeting between the two leaders, Mr. Biden offered to help Mr. Modi acquire oil and other energy from other sources. The United States and its allies have been working for months to deprive President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia of the financial resources generated from the sale of oil and gas around the world.

But Mr. Biden stopped well short of pressuring India to stop buying Russian oil, which amounts to about 1 percent of its imports. And American officials said the president did not ask India to condemn Russia by name for the brutal military campaign against its neighbor, a step that India has been unwilling to take since the beginning of the invasion.

“The president made clear that he does not believe it’s in India’s interest to accelerate or increase imports of Russian energy and other commodities,” Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, told reporters after the leaders’ meeting, which lasted about an hour.

On Monday, Mr. Modi again declined to single out Russia by name even as he condemned the apparent human rights abuses in Bucha, which the United States and others have said are evidence of war crimes.

“The news about the killings of innocent civilians in the Bucha city was very worrying,” Mr. Modi said in public remarks at the beginning of his meeting with Mr. Biden. He did not attribute the killings to Russia, but said that “we instantly condemned the killings and have called for an independent inquiry.”

India has long been reliant on Russia for military hardware, an important factor in the deep historic ties between the two countries. And so despite global condemnations of Russian aggression in Ukraine, Mr. Modi’s administration has tried to remain neutral — refraining from criticizing Russia, while calling for negotiations and engaging Ukraine with humanitarian assistance.

While American officials have been understanding of the complexity of India’s balancing act, seeing New Delhi as an important ally in the face of an assertive China, they have at times expressed frustration that India’s stance is offering Mr. Putin some cover. Some U.S. officials have warned of consequences if India expands trade with Russia, especially any increase in purchasing oil, as the West tries to tighten sanctions.

India is emblematic of the challenge facing Mr. Biden and other Western allies as they seek to expand the coalition of nations willing to punish Mr. Putin for his actions. The president has said global unity behind economic sanctions is the key to forcing the Russian leader to abandon what Mr. Biden calls his “war of choice” in Ukraine.

But while the United States has had success rallying more than 50 nations, including much of Europe, behind that strategy, India and other countries around the world have held back. India abstained when the United Nations voted to condemn the invasion in March, and again when the U.N. ejected Russia from the organization’s Human Rights Council.

That was not a surprise to Biden administration officials, according to longtime observers of India’s relations with other countries. Tanvi Madan, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said the meeting on Monday underscored the careful American approach to relations with India over the past several decades.

“They understand that forcing India to make a choice is not likely to be effective and might even be counterproductive,” she said. “And so, I think I’ve seen them talk about enabling India to make choices rather than forcing India to make choices. And so they don’t talk about it publicly as choosing camps.”

That frustrates some inside and outside the administration, who believe that India, the world’s largest democracy, and other countries should be more assertive in defending the principles of national borders.

And India’s determination to stay neutral in a conflict that is roiling Europe and much of the rest of the world is likely to be an irritant in the group known as the Quad — the United States, Australia, Japan and India — whose other nations have firmly condemned Russia for its invasion of Ukraine.

Derek Grossman, a senior defense analyst at the RAND Corporation, said the issue highlighted the differences among the four nations even as the group professes to come together around a set of common values.

“The Quad is really about maintaining a rules-based order, and one sovereign country, in Russia, invading and destroying another sovereign country, in Ukraine, is completely contrary to a rules-based order,” he said. “And so, that’s going make future Quad meetings — and we’re going to see them later this year — a bit awkward and a bit chilly.”

But both Mr. Grossman and Ms. Madan praised Mr. Biden and his administration for trying to deal delicately with India. Ms. Madan said there was little to be gained for the United States to try to exert too much pressure on countries that have their own domestic realities.

“You want to try to attract as many people to your positions,” she said, “but also recognizing that there will be a group of countries that will not necessarily be as like-minded as you.”

“The next best thing is to try to continue your efforts to kind of align them with you,” she added, “but if not, keep them nonaligned.”

As part of that effort, Mr. Biden on Monday echoed sentiments that other U.S. officials have expressed in recent weeks in attempts to reassure India that its source of military hardware would not run dry if it took a firmer stance against Russia.

“We share a strong and growing major defense partnership,” the president said in his opening remarks, before the defense and foreign ministers of both countries sat for extended dialogue. “The United States and India will continue our close consultations on how to manage the destabilizing effects of this Russian war.”

India’s defense purchases from the United States have increased over the past decade to about $20 billion. But analysts have said expanding the ties to the point where India’s dependency on Russian military hardware would wane would take time. That would require overcoming deeply rooted hesitancy in the relationship between the United States and India that dates back decades.

In his remarks, Mr. Modi continued India’s delicate line on Ukraine — expressing concern about the suffering caused by the war but refraining from calling out Russia as the aggressor.

“Our talks today are taking place at a time when the situation in Ukraine is very worrying,” Mr. Modi said. “During this entire process I spoke several times to the presidents of both Ukraine and Russia. I not only appealed for peace, but also suggested there be direct talks between President Putin and the president of Ukraine.”

Michael D. Shear reported from Washington, and Mujib Mashal from Kathmandu, Nepal.

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