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India's foreign minister is in Moscow to discuss relations between the nations

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

India's foreign minister is in Moscow for a five-day visit that began yesterday.

ASMA KHALID, HOST:

These two countries, Russia and India, have a friendly relationship that goes back decades and has only grown closer since Russia's invasion of Ukraine. But India, of course, is also close to the United States. So how does it square this circle?

FADEL: To talk about this, we've got NPR's Diaa Hadid from her base in Mumbai. Hi, Diaa.

DIAA HADID, BYLINE: Hi, Leila.

FADEL: So India's top diplomat is in Moscow. What's he doing there?

HADID: So India's foreign minister - he's known as S. Jaishankar - is likely going to talk about trade. India has been a huge customer of Russian oil since the invasion of Ukraine. And it's getting that oil cheaper because Western sanctions have kept other buyers away. But those sanctions have also complicated how India pays for that oil. Russia is also India's top arm supplier, and it has been for decades. The war in Ukraine may have complicated that, so that could be on the agenda as well.

FADEL: Now, India has been getting closer to the U.S. and its allies in Asia as it tries to counter China's influence in the region, but it's not on the same page when it comes to Ukraine, right?

HADID: Right. It's not on the same page at all. And it's important to note that India has not condemned Russia's invasion of Ukraine, despite significant pressure to do so. And there's two reasons why. The first, as you mentioned - India has an old friendly relationship with Russia. You might ask, how old? Consider then the tweet by the Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar yesterday. He wrote how it started and how it's going, and he posted a picture of a visiting card to the Red Square from 1962, when he went there with his father, alongside a picture of himself yesterday at the same place. So that's one reason. The other is that India prides itself on its independent foreign policy - what it calls strategic autonomy. So Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan is a political scientist at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi. And she says the Indian foreign minister going to Russia is a way of signaling that autonomy even as India moves closer to Western allies on issues surrounding China.

RAJESWARI PILLAI RAJAGOPALAN: Even as India has gotten closer to the United States, Japan, Australia, to sort of balance China, India still does not want to be seen as going completely into one camp or the other.

FADEL: OK, so I would guess that the U.S. also wants to have India on side when it comes to China. So will it even criticize this visit?

HADID: That's what analysts say. But there's also some understanding that India's position is also difficult because it has its own tensions with Beijing. And that's part of the reason why it's drawing closer to the U.S. and its allies. But it might need Russia's support as well if those tensions escalated. Michael Kugelman is the South Asia director of the Wilson Center.

MICHAEL KUGELMAN: India has not condemned the Russian invasion, but that doesn't mean that it supports the war. It doesn't support the war at all. The war makes Russia more dependent on China, and India doesn't want that because China is India's strategic competitor.

HADID: So India needs the U.S. It also needs Russia - both to counter what it sees as this threat from China.

FADEL: NPR's Diaa Hadid in Mumbai. Thank you so much for your time.

HADID: You're welcome, Leila. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
Diaa Hadid chiefly covers Pakistan and Afghanistan for NPR News. She is based in NPR's bureau in Islamabad. There, Hadid and her team were awarded a Murrow in 2019 for hard news for their story on why abortion rates in Pakistan are among the highest in the world.