Biden's effort to isolate Russia has a big problem: India
Two global powers are undercutting Western efforts to isolate Russia and deplete the Kremlin coffers as they scale up purchases of Russian oil and join Russia this week in major military exercises.
Why it matters: One of those countries is China, which has moved closer to Moscow amid its confrontation with the U.S. The other, though, is India — one of Washington's most valued partners, which has taken a neutral position on Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
How it happened: The EU was by far the top destination for Russian oil prior to February's invasion of Ukraine, but EU countries have cut back their purchases and plan to end nearly all imports of Russian oil by year's end.
- Even still, Russia's oil revenues are on track to jump by 38% this year, per Reuters. Asked about that projection this week, a White House spokesperson said it had made clear to countries that this is no time for "business as usual with Russia."
- For China and India, it's been far beyond business as usual — they've both dramatically increased their purchases. India accounted for less than 1% of Russia's oil exports prior to the invasion, but was up to 13% by July, helping to offset Russia's lost market share in Europe.
Yes, but: That's due not to politics, but price. Prices from the Gulf have been sky-high, Russia is selling at a discount, and India is trying to keep inflation down and recover economically from the pandemic, Tanvi Madan of Brookings tells Axios.
- Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar has called it an "obligation and moral duty" to get the lowest-possible energy prices for Indian consumers. Russia, meanwhile, has praised India for resisting Western pressure.
What to watch: To stop Russia from benefiting from the high oil prices that its invasion helped create, the White House wants to put a price cap on Russian oil. G7 finance ministers will discuss that proposal on Friday.
- For it to be effective, they'll need India on board. U.S. Deputy Treasury Secretary Wally Adeyemo visited New Delhi last week and said he'd had "a very constructive conversation" with Indian officials on the cap.
- India has thus far been noncommittal. It stands to benefit from lower prices, but will be wary of provoking Moscow — particularly considering its military's overwhelming reliance on Russian arms.
Zoom out: The long-standing military relationship between India and Russia is on display this week at the Vostok war games in Russia's far east, which will also include China and several other countries.
- India's troops will be "full-fledged" participants, not just observers, a source briefed on the matter tells Axios. The source noted that India has taken part in similar exercises in the past but doesn't "always publicize it."
- Asked about India's participation, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said the U.S. "has concerns about any country exercising with Russia while Russia wages an unprovoked, brutal war against Ukraine."
Between the lines: She avoided any direct criticism of India and dodged a follow-up as to whether the U.S. has pressured India to stop helping Russia, as it has pressured China.
- The Biden administration recognizes that India's long-standing relationship with Russia won't fade away overnight, and while it's trying to help New Delhi diversify its arms supply away from Russia, the U.S. priority is deepening coordination in the Indo-Pacific, Madan says.
The bottom line: India is too important to the U.S. strategy toward one top rival, China, to push back too hard as it undermines U.S. policy toward the other.