This was followed up with similar comments from several Biden administration officials, essentially echoing the same message in different words. That the US is not leaving any stone unturned in its effort to drum up support against Russian President Vladimir Putin is understandable. What is not clear is the result it aimed to achieve by having junior officials make public statements that border on arm-twisting.
Even as he clarified that India’s current oil imports from Russia do not violate the sanctions as the US had exempted us from embargoes, the deputy NSA added that the Biden administration wanted allies to reduce banking on the “unreliable supplier”. For good measure, he even added that it would be foolish to expect Russia to rush to India’s corner if border skirmishes with China cropped up again.
There are multiple issues with the public display of displeasure, to counter which, one would have to look at the issue from the prisms of self-interest, geopolitics, energy security and even history. Russia – and more specifically the Soviet Union – has remained the most reliable partner India has had since Independence, extending support through various means during past crises. But few would be naïve enough to consider this support to be based on goodwill alone. It is clearly rooted in the geopolitical strategies that countries adopt. If the border issues erupt again in future, the only certainty that the policymakers in Delhi have is that Russia would not join China against India – and that is good enough.
Every diplomat understands that self-interest is the only guiding light in the hard-nosed world of geopolitics. This is true for any country, whether it is the US, Russia or India. In the present context, the government has to shore up energy security to ensure that India does not struggle in the way that Sri Lanka has in recent days. This is not merely a matter of energy or economy, but one that can snowball into law and order or worse.
Hence, it should not surprise any serious observer that India has decided to purchase oil from Russia at a deep discount. It would be nothing short of hypocrisy to find fault with that. For, even while remaining strident in its criticism against the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the EU sources 25% of its crude from Russia. Before preparing eloquent speeches condemning Russian aggression and the tragedy of wars to criticise India’s position on the conflict, the West – especially the Americans – should perhaps read their own history. For decades since the end of World War II, the United States has assumed the mantle of being the pre-eminent superpower, and it has assumed hegemonic proportions after the collapse of the Soviet Union. This has had a disastrous effect on countless countries in the world, most recently in Iraq, followed by Syria, Somalia and Yemen.
The war has had a catastrophic effect on thousands of Ukrainians, and the US-led West’s efforts have so far had limited effect on bringing it to a close. On the other hand, by taking a rather nuanced stance on the matter, India has occupied a middle ground where there is hardly anyone else. This puts the country in a unique position to mediate and end the conflict – if both Russia and the West are serious about it – like what India did to broker peace between the two Koreas in the 1950s. Security advisers are often equated with police officials. But what is needed is the deftness of diplomats, not the brashness of super cops. It seems surprising that in this day and age, veteran negotiator Henry Kissinger’s descendants need lessons in realpolitik.