By Krishna N. Das and Devjyot Ghoshal
NEW DELHI (Reuters) - India is articulating its position against the Ukraine war more robustly to counter criticism that it is soft on Russia, but it still has not held Moscow responsible for the invasion and will not alter its policy on importing cheap Russian oil and coal.
In their first in-person meeting since the Feb. 24 invasion, Prime Minister Narendra Modi told President Vladimir Putin earlier this month that "today's era is not an era of war" - the clearest position New Delhi has taken on the conflict.
India's foreign minister followed up last week at the U.N. Security Council, describing the trajectory of the Ukraine war as "very concerning" and the risk of a nuclear escalation as of "particular anxiety".
Analysts said New Delhi's shift, even though nuanced, reflected concern about the growing economic costs of the conflict and how it would affect India. Russia's first mobilisation of troops since World War Two marks a major escalation of the conflict that has thrown markets into turmoil and threatens a global recession.
Moreover, India is worried the war is pushing Russia closer to China, which has fraught relations with New Delhi, the analysts said. India also hopes its more robust approach would help it meet criticism by Western allies that it is too close to Moscow.
P.S. Raghavan, chairman of India's National Security Advisory Board and a former ambassador to Russia, said India had always sought an end to hostilities in Ukraine but was now taking a sharper public stand.
"This is countering a narrative that India and China are both doing the same thing – that China is supporting Russia and India, by sitting on the fence, is also supporting Russia," Raghavan told Reuters.
"Our stand is very different. It is not blindly supporting Russia. We have certain cooperation lines going with Russia, which we have to keep going. Defence is the most important thing, but petroleum also. Fertiliser imports have also gone up. The point is, if we get energy cheap, we buy it."
India and Russia have had deep relations for decades: Russia accounted for $5.51 billion of the $12.4 billion that India spent between 2018 and 2021 on arms imports.
From being a marginal player, Russia has become India's third-biggest oil supplier since the war, with purchases jumping about 10-fold from a year-earlier because of cheap prices. The value of India's coal imports from Russia, meanwhile, has risen four-fold during the same period.
"We have some benefits from dealing with Russia, and we have an economic advantage," Raghavan said. "So let us do that. That is what we are doing and that does not mean that we are good with everything that Russia does."
'SIDE OF PEACE'
Analysts said India's sharper position would not hurt ties with Russia.
"India at this point of time has no intention of totally breaking with Russia," said Nandan Unnikrishnan, a distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation think-tank in New Delhi.
"The bridge to Russia is not one that is going to be destroyed very soon, but what will happen is that maybe the traffic on that bridge may get reduced," he added, referring to India's drive to diversify military imports and promote domestic production.
Russia's foreign ministry did not respond to a Reuters request for comment on India's position.
However, after a meeting between Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar and his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov on Saturday in New York, Russia said the ministers emphasised a "firm intention to strengthen bilateral interaction on the entire range of issues of mutual interest".
India's foreign ministry did not respond to an e-mail seeking comment for the story, but Jaishankar told the U.N. General Assembly on Friday that New Delhi was committed to diplomacy and dialogue.
"As the Ukraine conflict continues to rage, we are often asked whose side are we on," he said, again without mentioning Russia. "India is on the side of peace and will remain firmly there."
India's recent statements have been welcomed by the United States without drawing any negative reaction from Russia - a diplomatic balance not always easy to strike for New Delhi that has strategic ties with both countries, analysts said.
"The target audience seems to have taken the message positively - that is, Western governments as well as the public in general, including in India," said Unnikrishnan.
"The so-called ostensible target of the criticism, which is Russia, has also sort of taken it in its stride."
Analysts said the worry for New Delhi is that if Putin is cornered further as the war progresses, Russia could be drawn even more closer to China. India's ties with China have been strained since a deadly border clash in 2020 in the western Himalayas.
"I feel there is a growing realisation in India that Russia is hurting itself to the cost of Indian national security," said Avinash Paliwal, senior lecturer in international relations at SOAS University of London.
"The Sino-Russian relationship has skewed so much in favour of Beijing that ... Russia is unlikely to play ball as far as India's concerns are concerned if there is ever a moment of serious conflict outbreak (between India and China) in the Himalayas."
(Reporting by Krishna N. Das and Devjyot Ghoshal; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)