Victoria Nuland: ‘Russia-China axis not good for India… US can help with defence supplies’

FRAMING the Russia-China alliance over Ukraine as a debate between democracies and autocracies, visiting US Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland told The Indian Express Wednesday that US was ready to help India move away from dependence on Russia for defence supplies. Excerpts from an exclusive interview:

On the Russia-Ukraine crisis, how do you read India’s statements?

We had very broad and deep conversations (Nuland met External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar and her counterpart Harsh Vardhan Shringla) about what’s in this war. Unfortunately, Indian students got trapped, and they were able to get out, but unfortunately one Indian lost his life which was very tragic.

Russia itself and President Putin have become so much more aggressive even as we spent months and months and months — the United States or allies and partners, Ukraine itself — trying to find a negotiated solution to this problem, before Russia invaded and President Putin spurned those efforts.

…(In a way) so brutal that President Biden actually called him war criminal not too long ago. So that has implications for all of us and those are the kind of conversations we had, including the fact that Russia is now seeking and seeking out help from China in this field. They are looking for money, and they are even looking for weapons and that is tightening the alignment between Russia and China, which isn’t good for us and is not good for India .

You worried about that?

We are absolutely worried about that, we are also worried about President Putin who has made loose statements about chemical, biological and even nuclear weapons. So it is very important in this context, as the autocracies tighten their relationship…to break the rules of the international system that have favoured India, the US, it is very important for democracies to stand together. And we feel a real understanding and evolution in India’s position, but you have a historical relationship. So we are all re-evaluating where we are with Russia, and that’s important and it’s important that we do it together.

Besides historical ties, India’s dependence on Russia for defence supplies is crucial.

Among the things we talked about, is this legacy of security support from the Soviet Union and Russia at a time when the US was less generous with India. Now, of course, times have changed and we are very eager to do more and more on the defence side with India. The US is, we also have European allies and partners eager to do that.

We also talked about the fact that, in this context, is Russia (going to) actually be a reliable supplier for India, a supplier you want to have? Look at how poorly Russian equipment is performing on the battlefield.

Some 60 per cent of their surface-to-air missiles are not even operational, they have lost vast amounts of equipment. Sanctions are going to make it harder to have financial relationships, and, most importantly, Russia has lost so much equipment so quickly in this conflict. So, are they actually going to have the supply lines? What we have been saying is, among other things, we have had over this last month, this massive US and allied partner-led effort to source Soviet-made equipment and other equipment for Ukraine. So if we can help provide that for Ukraine, we can also provide alternatives for India to make this transition that you yourself are seeking to make. It was a very rich discussion. You don’t want to get trapped in a dependency with a guy like Putin, and there are alternatives and we are eager to be your partner.

But that could take time?

It will take time… but (India) talked about how some of the weapons (it) needs can actually be produced in Ukraine, and some of the weapons can be produced in eastern Europe and in some other parts of the world. We understand there is an evolution here but we also are pretty open about the fact this is a major inflection point in the autocratic-democratic struggle, and we want and need India’s voice in that.

What are the prospects of a waiver from CAATSA as India is getting the S-400 air defence system from Russia?

I’m not going to get ahead of the process. But we are having very good conversations with a number of steps through and we will see where it goes. But it’s certainly very much on our minds, that if we want to do more together with India, we need to work through this process.

Does this crisis with Russia take away the attention from the Indo-Pacific?

What is the Indo-Pacific strategy really about? It’s about ensuring that we have a free, open, prosperous, technologically-open Indo-Pacific. And what we are fighting for, in the Russian Ukraine context, what is Ukraine fighting for — it’s the right to be a free, open and prosperous society. So essentially, what we are trying to do as democracies, is ensure that our way of life — all of these tenets of international law, of human rights, of sovereignty and territorial integrity of countries, non-coercion, non-aggression — whether it’s in the Indo Pacific or whether it’s in Europe, prevail, and then our kids get to live in that kind of world…So that’s what we are — we are all about and India is a lynchpin to so much of that.

The Chinese Vice Foreign minister drew a parallel between NATO’s eastward expansion in Europe and the Quad in the Indo-Pacific.

Obviously, China is trying to seek an advantage for itself in this conflict, as it always does. But again, what threatens China most: open and free societies who offer their people a different way of life than the Communist party of China offers for Chinese people.

So NATO is a defensive alliance, of voluntary alignment of countries who asked to join together to defend themselves. In the Indo-Pacific strategy, we are talking about the great democracies of the region, working together to protect themselves and to advance prosperity, and free and open commerce and navigation and all of these things. All of the things that the autocrats want to change, want to threaten. So I’m not surprised that the Chinese are trying to draw parallels here. Because, in both cases, we’re talking about trying to keep the world free for democratic governance.

Who is a bigger threat — Russia or China?

The worry now is that they intensify their efforts together. They learn from each other, whether it is how to coerce a neighbour economically, or militarily. Whether it’s about how to go in the UN system and undercut the rules of the road that the US, India and other democracies have built to favour freedom. Whether it is that they let each other off the hook by financing each other’s militaries.

All of these things are worrying. But I also think that this is an energizing moment for the democracies, because now we see very clearly what we are up against.

You see how actively the global community came together — European countries, North American countries, Asian countries, to support Ukraine, to impose sanctions on Russia, to say no to this kind of aggression in the UN and elsewhere. We need in a similar way to ensure that we have the structures and systems to guard against Chinese coercion. So I do think that this is a moment for us to stand up for what we are about.

Do you want India to step up, with sanctions, as India considers buying oil from Russia?

So on the oil side, for the US, and for a number of other countries who are less dependent on Russian energy at the moment, it was a relatively straightforward decision to cut off. For other countries, some in Europe, but some in other parts of the world, it’s going to be a transition to Russian oil and gas dependence and we understand that…We have said that, in the context of India increasing it’s actually a relatively small amount of your energy mix. So that is understandable.

I think we have seen very generous humanitarian support for Ukraine from India. India’s strong voice in terms of stopping this war, have humanitarian corridors and get back to diplomacy. Obviously, we would like as many of our friends to say no to this aggression, ensure they do not become harbours for dirty Russian money, work together to warn China about involving itself in this war, to warn Russia about this alignment that could happen. So I think the fact that we have these consultations today, able to really exchange views that our secretaries will have consultations, our heads of state can meet soon, is important.

President Biden said that among the Quad, India is being “somewhat shaky” in terms of showing support against the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Is that a fair characterisation?

Well, again, I think India’s coming from a different historical context, is making its own evolution from a different starting point than we were. But I do think that for President Biden, and for us, after working so hard, early in the term to have a stable and predictable relationship with Russia, it’s really jarring, painful and awful to see the course that Putin has taken. That’s why having these conversations of what we are seeing, and their impact is important for India and the US to work together, as we seek to do more together.

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