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On Biden's Asia trip, a reminder of an unresolved Ukraine dilemma

In one of the more complex meetings of the trip, Biden sits down in Japan this week with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has resisted pressure to cut ties with Russia.
PM Modi Meets Vladimir Putin At Hyderabad House
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi shakes hands with Russian President Vladimir Putin during their meeting at Hyderabad House in New Delhi on Dec. 6. Sonu Mehta / Hindustan Times via Getty Images

WASHINGTON — In what is expected to be one of the more complex meetings of his trip to Asia, President Joe Biden plans to sit down in Japan this week with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a key ally of the U.S. who has been less than in sync with its pressure campaign against Russia.  

India, along with other nations, has tried to walk a fine line between the U.S. and Russia following its invasion of Ukraine, seeking to maintain a relatively neutral position from which it isn't expected to budge, said foreign policy experts. Biden plans to meet with Modi during a summit of the so-called Quad countries, which also includes Japan and Australia.

“India doesn’t move to one side or the other, they like to reinforce their independent great power status, and so I think that’s the tougher part of the trip, maybe the toughest,” said Barry Pavel, director of the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. “Getting India to play more of a role in the coalition should be a top priority, and they just haven’t wanted to play ball.”

India, while far from alone in its reluctance to part ways with Russia, has provided a stark example of the challenge facing the U.S. on this front, particularly in Asia.

While India has called for a cease-fire and sent humanitarian assistance to Ukraine, it has also increased its imports of Russian oil, using a rupee-ruble mechanism that avoids sanctions against U.S. dollar transactions, according to data compiled by Reuters. It has also abstained from votes at the United Nations critical of Russia.

Beyond Biden’s interactions with Modi, the war in Ukraine was expected to loom large in conversations with other leaders on the trip to South Korea and Japan that began Friday, given the ripple effects the war is having throughout the global economy, driving up prices of food and materials used in electronics. 

“It’s going to affect every single meeting, except maybe the ones on North Korea,” said Pavel. “I don’t think you can talk about China policy or the China agenda without thinking about Ukraine because Ukraine is affecting the global economy, it’s affecting supply chains, it’s strengthening U.S. relationships with European as well as Indo Pacific allies in a big way.”

Projecting a united front has been key to Biden’s strategy to put pressure on Russian President Vladimir Putin, and was the central focus of Biden’s previous trip overseas to Brussels and Poland in March. Biden will have the opportunity to show that unity when it comes to Korea, Japan and Australia, something the administration plans to highlight not just as a message to Putin but also to China.   

“The message we’re trying to send on this trip is a message of an affirmative vision of what the world can look like if the democracies and open societies of the world stand together to shape the rules of the road, to define the security architecture of the region, to reinforce strong, powerful, historic alliances,” said Biden's national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, during a news briefing on Wednesday.

That unity “will send a powerful message. We think that message will be heard everywhere. We think it will be heard in Beijing,” Sullivan said. 

Despite earlier rhetoric from the administration about consequences for countries that didn’t join efforts to cut Russia off from the world, the U.S. has avoided putting public pressure on India, the world’s most populous democracy. It’s unlikely Biden will make any public attempts at pressuring India during his visit, said foreign policy experts. 

“What they would really like India to do in the short term is clearly call out Russia for the invasion, publicly defend the rights of sovereign democratic states, and also not purchase cheap Russian oil,” said Manjari Chatterjee Miller, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “Instead, they have just asked India to limit its oil purchases from Russia and have avoided any public stance that seems to condemn India for its position, even while they have made disappointed noises.”

India has historically avoided taking sides in global conflicts and Russia presents a complex economic and national security challenge for the country. The vast majority of India’s military equipment comes from Russia, which has been a national security partner for decades in its conflicts with Kashmir and Bangladesh. Meanwhile, Indian media has accused the West of instigating the conflict by supporting the expansion of NATO.

Cheap oil from Russia since the invasion has helped support the country's economy, which has been roiled by soaring food prices as exports of essentials like wheat and sunflower oil have been cut off since the invasion.

During meetings across Europe earlier this month, Modi showed little sign of any shift in his stance toward Russia, and instead walked away from the trip with new trade and national security agreements and smiling photo opportunities with European leaders. 

“The U.S.–E.U. posture is full throated condemnation of Russia, sanctions and the supply of military weapons and aid to Ukraine,” said Miller. “India is not going to do any of those things.”