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Will Kyiv’s ‘conciliatory’ stance change India’s neutrality on Russia-Ukraine war?

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Kuleba on Friday hinted that Ukraine could tolerate India’s oil purchases as long as it paid in Indian rupees. Indian buyers mostly pay Russian oil firms in UAE dirhams or US dollars.

“The visit appears to be a shift in Ukraine’s foreign policy towards India but not necessarily a shift in India’s foreign policy,” said Donald Camp, a retired foreign service officer in Washington and a South Asia expert.

“Ukraine has decided it had little to gain from castigating India for its Russian ties and has moved to a more conciliatory position,” Camp told This Week in Asia. “I suspect it’s partly a recognition that India is a global player, and it’s better to have India on their side, or as close to their side as they can get.”

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba (right) meets Indian Foreign Minister S Jaishankar on March 29. Photo: X/@DmytroKuleba
India has maintained a stance of diplomatic neutrality in the conflict between Russia and Ukraine. While Delhi has repeatedly called for a ceasefire and a dialogue between the two countries, it has resisted pressure from the West to openly condemn Moscow’s actions. India has also routinely abstained from UN Security Council resolutions on anti-Russia matters.

India-Russia relations date back to the Cold War era, and Delhi has relied heavily on Moscow for its arms supplies, although the imports have steadily declined over the past decade. According to figures from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute in March, Russia accounted for 36 per cent of India’s arms imports from 2019-2023, a sharp drop from the 76 per cent seen in 2009-2013.

Even as India maintains close ties with Russia, it had leaned closer to the United States and the West in recent years and hence “has become careful in its relationship with Russia”, said Nandan Unnikrishnan, a distinguished fellow at the Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation think tank.
“It is only natural because Russia is a toxic word in the West,” he said. “However, that doesn’t mean New Delhi would take dictations from the West on who should be our friends. India will not undertake steps that would significantly affect Russia strategically, just as Russia would not take an adverse position to affect India strategically in favour of China or Pakistan.”

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For now, Russia remains India’s biggest arms supplier, despite Delhi’s attempts to balance and diversify its imports from countries such as the US and France.

India has also not shown any intention of slowing down its oil purchases from Russia, despite repeated appeals made by Ukraine and Western powers.

Observers doubt Kuleba’s trip will alter the India-Russia dynamic dramatically, but have not ruled out the possibility of a mediating role for Delhi.

Ahead of the visit, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke to Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky expressing Delhi’s interest in strengthening ties with both nations.

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Besides boosting trade ties, another unstated aim of Kuleba’s visit was to get India to send a senior representative to the Ukraine-proposed international peace summit in Switzerland, Indian media reports said. Although the date for the summit has not been announced, Russia has already declined to take part.

“Ukraine might hope that India would use its leverage to bring Russia into the proposed peace process. India has stressed that it will serve as a mediator [only] at both sides’ request, so this is unlikely,” said Katherine Hadda, a visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank in Washington.

“Kuleba’s visit can nevertheless be seen to have yielded positive results for Ukraine: a reiteration of India’s neutrality despite its more significant economic and strategic ties to Russia, and its commitment to rebuild bilateral India-Ukraine trade to pre-war levels as well as a further deepening of the relationship,” added Hadda, a former US envoy to India.

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