Ties That Bind: Biden and Modi engage in a virtual call over the Ukraine-Russia conflict

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President Biden flanked by U.S. and Indian delegations on virtual call with PM Modi April 11, 2022. Photo: Twitter at MEAIndia

Washington: The United States and India are linked not just by global concerns, but also by intimate family and kinship ties, according to President Joe Biden.

Speaking to India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi on a virtual call just hours before the US-India 2+2 Ministerial Dialogue kicked-off April 11, 2022, the two heads of state discussed a wide range of bilateral and global issues including joint efforts to manage the destabilizing effects of the Russia-Ukraine war, ending the pandemic, countering climate change, strengthening the global economy, and upholding a free and open Indo-Pacific including the development of the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework and infrastructure.

Biden engaged Modi in the most pressing of issues for Washington — Russia’s invasion of Ukraine– in a bid to bring New Delhi around to fully side with allies, and made assurances that had the potential to reduce dependence on Moscow.

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The President spoke to Modi flanked by members of his delegation and members of the Indian team here for the bilateral meetings – Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, Secretary of Defense, Lloyd Austin, National Security Advisor, Jake Sullivan, India’s Defense Minister, Rajnath Singh, External Affairs Minister, S. Jaishankar, and Indian Ambassador to the United States, Taranjit Singh Sandhu at the White House.

“At the root of our partnership is a deep connection between our people — ties of family, of friendship, and of shared values,” said Biden who has over the last year, placed numerous Indian-Americans at high levels in his administration.

“We are two vibrant democracies and we take the same concerns about the global challenges we face from COVID-19, advancing health security, and tracking the climate crisis. And we share a strong and growing Major Defense Partnership,” Biden said.

The last time Biden spoke with Modi was during The Quad leaders’ meet in March, and said he looked forward to meeting Modi on May 24th in Japan.

In a carefully worded message, Biden indicated that U.S. was cognizant of India’s current concerns about the Ukraine-Russia conflict.

President Joe Biden with the U.S. and Indian delegations in virtual call with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Photo: White House press pool report.

“I want to welcome India’s humanitarian support for the people of Ukraine, who are suffering a horrific assault, including a tragic shelling in a train station last week that killed dozens of innocent children and women and civilians attempting to flee the violence,” Biden said. “The United States and India are going to continue our close consultation on how to manage the destabilizing effects of this Russian war. Our continued consultation and dialogue are key to ensuring the US-India relationship continues to grow deeper and stronger delivering our people and our global good that we all are seeking to manage particularly in your part of the world.”

“Our talks today are taking place at a time when the situation in Ukraine is very worrying,” Modi responded. “A few weeks ago, over 20,000 Indians were stuck in Ukraine, and most of them were young students. After a lot of hard work, we were successful in getting them all out safely. One student, however, lost his life,” Modi pointed out.

Modi emphasized India’s stand, noting that he had spoken with Presidents of Ukraine and Russia a number of times on the phone and not only appealed for peace, but also suggested that they engage in direct talks. He also said that India had extensive discussions on Ukraine in its parliament as well.

The tragedy in Bucha, Ukraine, was very worrying, he noted, adding, “We instantly condemned the killings and have called for an independent inquiry. We hope that the ongoing discussions between Russia and Ukraine will lead to peace. We have also emphasized the importance of the security of civilians in Ukraine and the unhindered supply of humanitarian assistance to them. We have sent medicines and other relief material to Ukraine and to its neighboring countries. And on Ukraine’s request, we will be sending them another consignment of medicines very soon.”

Modi also reiterated how India and the U.S. were “natural partners” and that “the progress that has taken place in our relations in the last few years, the new momentum that has been created would have been hard to even imagine a few decades ago.” The call continued privately following the initial exchange which was broadcast publicly.

At a background briefing following the virtual call, a senior administration official said, “The two leaders covered the whole range of issues related to Russia-Ukraine.  It was a very candid conversation.  I think you will have seen — even in Prime Minister Modi’s remarks at the top to press, he talked about it as well.  They were very direct conversations.”

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki, later characterized the call as a constructive and direct conversation between the leaders. She said that India did not violate international sanctions by importing oil from Russia, and that India can look towards the U.S. for assistance in its diversification of energy requirements, the way the European countries benefited from the US.

“I would say that energy imports are not banned. They don’t violate our sanctions.  We certainly recognize every country is going to take steps that are in their interest. At the same time, on this call, what the President did is consistent with what our Deputy National Security Advisor did during his visit just a few weeks ago — was to make clear what the impact of our sanctions would be. We expect everybody to abide by those.  And while India only imports about 1 to 2 percent of its energy from Russia, we also made clear and the President made clear that we would be happy to help them in diversifying this as well. The President also made clear that he does not believe it’s in India’s interest to accelerate or increase imports of Russian energy and other commodities as well, which is something we certainly convey to other countries.”

Responding to a question on whether Biden urged Modi to speak out forcefully against the Russian invasion in Ukraine, Psaki said, “We have seen the Indians do exactly that more recently, as they did, as it relates to the horrific photos that we saw around Bucha.  We’ve seen them take steps to provide humanitarian assistance and a range of assistance.  But it is something we always encourage leaders to do, to speak out, and to be vocal to ensure they’re on the right side of history.”

During his opening remarks in the 2+2 dialogue at the State Department, Secretary of State Blinken said “as President Biden said when he hosted Prime Minister Modi in September of 2021, the relationship between the oldest and biggest democracies in the world is destined to be stronger, closer, more meaningful.  And those were sentiments that I believe both the President and Prime Minister reiterated today when they spoke via videoconference.”

Later during a joint press conference at the State Department, Blinken said that President Biden and PM Modi had a very warm and productive conversation during their virtual summit and covered topics such as the global economy, and free and open Indo Pacific. On Russia-Ukraine war, he said, “they talked about ways of mitigating the profound impact this is having on global food supplies and embraces commodity markets and working together to achieve that.”

Jaishankar, while addressing concerns of energy and food security issues across geographies, said these topics came up during the virtual summit as well. “I think the subject also came up in the virtual summit between PM Modi and President Biden about what India could do to stabilize the global economic situation. And we are quite willing, and in fact we’ve already started responding to the need of greater food supplies especially wheat most of all, but to some degree sugar as well. At this moment, a number of countries discussing with us the possibility of greater food supplies, including the World Food Program.”

Meanwhile, a Senior Administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity, elaborated on India’s sincere concerns in the region said Modi spoke candidly during the call. “What I’ll say is that Prime Minister Modi took the opportunity to share his views in a pretty candid way about what’s going on. We know that Russia has concerns and we know that India has concerns about the links between Russia and China. India, of course, is facing a very tense situation along the Line of Actual Control. And when India sees the tight links between China and Russia, that’s obviously going to impact their thinking.”

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