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Ukraine speed bump in Delhi ties with US

New Delhi, July 29: India and the US are standing on either side of a speed bump called Ukraine that is threatening to slow down an alliance both hope to reenergise with a visit this week by US secretary of state John Kerry to New Delhi.

Neither side appears willing to shift positions on Russia’s role in the conflict in Ukraine as negotiators from the two allies try and hammer out a joint statement they can release after Kerry meets Indian foreign minister Sushma Swaraj on Thursday.

India’s implicit support for Russia over the past year as Moscow cleaved Crimea away from Ukraine has led influential Congressmen in Washington to question the potential of the Indo-US strategic partnership at a time the US is locked in myriad disputes with its former Cold War rival.

But New Delhi is unwilling to concede on any statement critical of Russia after Kerry’s meeting with Sushma and on Friday with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, senior Indian and US officials have confirmed to The Telegraph.

“It is an issue where we differ, and eventually, it may be best for both nations to try and ignore this area of difference, and focus on areas where we converge,” an Indian official said.

A US official conceded that circumventing the Ukraine bump may eventually be the only option, but added that silence on the crisis would make it harder for American proponents of the India-US relationship to domestically push for patience on other, mostly economic, niggles. Those niggles include differences over India’s nuclear liability law that American firms dub draconian and that has effectively stalled the implementation of the Indo-US nuclear deal for the past two years. The US has also blamed India for blocking a key trade pact at the World Trade Organization.

“It will not be easy,” the American official said. “Not if the differences aren’t purely economic, but also strategic.”

The US accuses Russia of violating international law by annexing Crimea and of supplying pro-Moscow rebels in eastern Ukraine with heavy weapons that it insists were used in the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight 17 earlier this month. Washington has imposed a series of economic sanctions against Moscow.

But India has publicly — and repeatedly — opposed those sanctions, and former national security adviser Shivshankar Menon described Russia’s interests in Crimea as “legitimate” earlier this year.

India, officials said, does not want the crisis in Ukraine to figure at all in the text of the joint statement that will be the lasting record of the outcome of talks between the American and Indian delegations during Kerry’s visit.

“We’ve indicated to India that it would be befitting both our relationship and India’s growing stature in the world, to articulate its position on the crisis in the joint statement,” the American official said.

The joint statement will be watched closely by Moscow, a Russian diplomat confirmed. Moscow is convinced Washington is trying to lure the new Modi administration away from India’s traditional support for Russia, and pull it closer to the US. Separately, China too will analyse the statement for any hint of criticism — either over the Indo-China border differences or related to the tension between Beijing and other East Asian capitals over territorial disputes in the South China Sea.

But ahead of Modi’s scheduled visit to the US at the end of September, the joint statement and talks between Kerry and Sushma will also be closely dissected in Washington, where the Indian Prime Minister may address the US Congress.

“New Delhi has given Russia’s aggression in Crimea implicit approval and strongly opposed sanctions on Moscow, calling Moscow’s interests in Crimea legitimate,” Steve Chabot, the Ohio Republican chairman of the Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific of the US House of Representatives told senior members of the Obama administration last Thursday at a hearing on what Kerry’s visit could hold for India-US ties under the new Modi government.

“Can the US trust India to be a reliable partner on significant geopolitical challenges if, for example, we can’t get India’s support on this growing crisis? And has the Malaysian airliner shoot-down changed India’s attitude at all in this particular area?”

Nisha Desai Biswal, assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asia replied to Chabot’s questions saying the US had communicated to India “our perspective, particularly with respect to Russian aggression in the Ukraine and the implications that that has”.

“Our belief is that the more that we’re able to closely consult on these critical issues and challenges that we face around the world, that we hope that we can bring closer together our perspectives and align efforts as much as possible,” Biswal said at the hearing.

But Chabot remained unconvinced.

“I would consider myself to be very pro-India, but their attitude on this matter with respect to Russia is very disappointing, to say the least, and I think a lot of other members would probably agree on that,” Chabot said.