Ukraine crisis tops agenda at Biden-Modi virtual meet

White House calls India “an incredibly important partner”; World’s largest and oldest democracies are “natural partners”, says Modi

By Geeta Goindi

Washington, DC, April 12, 2022 – President Joe Biden began his official engagements this week with a virtual summit which he held with Prime Minister Narendra Modi to deepen US-India ties. The “candid” conversation between the two leaders was clearly dominated by the “worrying” situation in Ukraine.

In his opening remarks at the summit, the president welcomed India’s efforts to send humanitarian aid which has included shipments of much-needed medicines to the war-torn country.

“I want to welcome India’s humanitarian support for the people of Ukraine who are suffering a horrific assault, including a tragic shelling on a train station that killed dozens”, he said.

Announcing that their next interaction would be in person, Biden said he was looking forward to meeting Modi at the upcoming Quad Summit in Japan on May 24.

“US and India will continue close consultation on how to manage the destabilizing effects of the Russian war”, he added.

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“Our talks today are taking place at a time when the situation in Ukraine is very worrying”, Modi said, revealing he has spoken to both Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy “several times”, attempting to bring them together to end the war.

“I not only appealed for peace, but also suggested that there be direct talks between President Putin and the President of Ukraine. We had extensive discussions on Ukraine in our Parliament as well”, he said.

Referring to the Bucha massacre, he made it clear that India has condemned the killings and urged an independent investigation.

“We hope that the ongoing discussions between Russia and Ukraine will lead to peace”, Modi said. “We also emphasized the importance of civilians and their unhindered access to humanitarian aid”.

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The two leaders were interacting at the virtual meet ahead of the fourth 2+2 ministerial dialogue between Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and their Indian counterparts External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar and Defense Minister Rajnath Singh. 

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Following the hour-long online event, President Biden tweeted, “I spoke today with Prime Minister Modi of India. We committed to strengthening our defense, economic, and people-to-people relationship to together seek a peaceful and prosperous world”.

“We share the ties of friendship, family and values”, he said in opening remarks at the Summit, noting the US and India are “two vibrant democracies”.

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Modi, on his part, described the countries as “natural partners”, pointing out that the two democracies are the world’s largest and oldest.

Later, at the White House briefing, Press Secretary Jen Psaki was queried repeatedly about the extent to which Biden was pushing Modi to limit Russian energy imports and arms. 

Noting that India only imports 1 to 2 percent of its energy from Russia and 10 percent from the United States, she told reporters that Biden made it clear the US would be happy to help India diversify its means of importing oil.

“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”, Psaki said.

At the same time, she noted “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”, she acknowledged. 

“We also know different countries are going to make decisions based on what their needs are economically and what the needs are for the people in their country. We have, of course, banned the import of (Russian) oil here. Other countries have not done that. It’s not a violation of any sanctions or any requirement or request from our end”, she reiterated.

Responding to a question about the interaction between Biden and Modi, Psaki said, “It was a constructive, direct conversation”. The White House spokesperson told reporters, “It was a productive call. It’s a relationship that is vitally important to the United States and to the President”, she said about US-India ties. “I would not see it as an adversarial call”, she added.

“India is an incredibly important partner”, she stressed. “We consult very closely with India on a range of issues. And this was an opportunity to work very closely and discuss the consequences of Russia’s unprovoked and unjustified war against Ukraine”.

Psaki noted, “What India has done to date is that they have condemned the killings of civilians in Bucha. They have supported calls for an independent investigation. They have provided over 90 tons of humanitarian relief material to Ukraine and its neighbors to include medicine and other essential relief. Earlier in the conflict, they also used its resources to evacuate almost 150 foreign nationals from 18 different countries”.

“So, part of our objectives now is to build on that and to encourage them to do more. And that’s why it’s important to have leader-to-leader conversations”, she said.

Regarding India’s purchase of the S-400 missile defense system from Russia, a reporter wanted to know whether the US would impose sanctions under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) or issue a waiver. “We have not made a decision about the waiver under CAATSA”, Psaki replied.

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