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The U.S. and Russia are each seeking India's support

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Russia's top diplomat was in China today, and he's heading to India tomorrow. Now, both China and India - which are the world's two most populous nations - have refused to condemn Russia's invasion of Ukraine. NPR's India correspondent Lauren Frayer was just reporting from Ukraine and joins us now from her base in Mumbai. Hey, Lauren.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Hi there.

CHANG: So can you just first explain to us - why hasn't India condemned Russia's invasion of Ukraine? Like, what do Indian officials say about this?

FRAYER: Yeah, so India has called for an end to the violence, but it has not explicitly condemned Russia's invasion. And, you know, certainly while I was in Ukraine, but also in the U.S., you hear so much criticism of Russia from the U.S. government. You know, there's been this sort of outpouring of grief and opposition on social media. But that is not the case in a lot of the world, particularly the non-Western world. And where I am in India, there's a pretty nuanced debate over whether the invasion was justified - whether NATO provoked Russia, what Washington's motives might be. And there's even a lot of pro-Putin sentiment here.

CHANG: Pro-Putin sentiment? Where does that come from in India?

FRAYER: Yeah, well, surveys show that Indians have a very positive view of Russia, also a very even more positive view of the U.S. You know, it's not a zero-sum game. India buys weapons and oil from Russia. Moscow has helped India when it's gone to war as far back as 1971. But India's basically wary of taking sides, and part of that comes from its colonial past. Part of it comes from its history of neutrality throughout the Cold War. And part of it comes from having watched the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the messy withdrawal from Afghanistan. And so when President Biden calls India's position on the Ukraine war shaky - which is what he said - some Indians bristle at that, and they see it as Western hypocrisy.

CHANG: Well, at the moment, a top U.S. official is visiting India. Can you talk about the kind of reception he's getting?

FRAYER: Yeah, Daleep Singh. I mean, he's actually a perfect example of the close ties between the U.S. and India. You know, one of - he's one of the millions of Americans who have Indian heritage. He's also a deputy national security adviser, and he's the point person for a lot of these sanctions that the U.S. is imposing. Biden administration officials, though, have been telling India that they understand this neutrality. And they also appreciate India's concern about China, which is something that the U.S. shares.

CHANG: Well, meanwhile, a top Russian official - it's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov - was in China today. He's heading to India tomorrow. What is the ultimate purpose of his visit?

FRAYER: Well, Russia wants support from both China and India. I mean, it's a huge feather in your cap if you have the world's largest country and the world's largest democracy not joining these Western sanctions. Russia wants to keep selling weapons, keep selling oil. India buys a lot of both of those from Russia. And so Sergey Lavrov may be discussing new ways to try to get around Western sanctions and keep selling that oil. India right now is suffering from really high inflation. It has a huge, growing population with huge energy needs and little oil and gas of its own. So cheap Russian oil is pretty attractive to India right now. India also, though, wants to maintain influence with Russia and try to prevent it from getting closer to China. You know, India and China share a long border. Soldiers have fought there in recent years. They have an increasingly hostile relationship. And Russia's India's biggest weapons supplier. And India wants to count on Russia if and when it needs help. And, you know, U.S. officials have also said that, yes, the Ukraine war is a big focus now, but countering China's rise is still a top focus. And India is pretty crucial to that.

CHANG: Yeah. That is NPR's Lauren Frayer in Mumbai. Thank you, Lauren.

FRAYER: Thank you.

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