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In Russia's war on Ukraine, India has remained neutral. Will it stay that way?

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

The United States is making a bold prediction about India. Both sides in Ukraine's war have been lobbying for India's support. And a top U.S. diplomat insists that Russia will be sorely disappointed. She spoke with our co-host Steve Inskeep.

STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: Victoria Nuland is a veteran diplomat, undersecretary of state and one of many officials who've been traveling to India so much it's a wonder they don't bump into each other at the airport. Russia's foreign minister is visiting this week. Russian bank officials were already there. Nuland is among several British and U.S. officials all coming because India is not fully committed to either side. The world's largest democracy has become more aligned with the United States in recent years. But as Nuland knows, India buys Russian weapons and Russian oil and has not embraced Western sanctions.

VICTORIA NULAND: Well, you know, the Indian situation is a little bit unique because almost their entire ground force uses Russian weaponry. And so they are heavily dependent, and they worry about their security. So we've been engaged in an intensive conversation with them. I think that they are quite uncomfortable, particularly as they see how Russian weapons have performed and the fact that they're likely not going to be a very reliable supplier going forward. And you know, Steve, for a long time, the United States was not willing to supply weapons to India ourselves. So now that has changed. And now we are talking about how we help them make that transition.

INSKEEP: However, those weapons, those Russian weapons underline a larger truth. India has been friendly with Russia, and before that, the Soviet Union, for many decades. And that does seem clear in some of the actions they're taking or declining to take now.

NULAND: Well, Steve, I would say that one of the things that we've talked about intensively - I talked about it on my trip - is that Russia is increasingly aligned with China. So should India come into conflict with China, it can't count on Russia being in its corner - and that increasingly we are seeing the autocracies band together. And that's not where India wants to be as one of the world's largest and oldest democracies.

INSKEEP: But what did you think about when officials from the Russian central bank met officials from India's central bank to talk about mechanisms they could use to evade Western sanctions?

NULAND: We've been talking intensively to India about the importance - if they cannot join all of our sanctions, at least ensuring that Russia doesn't use India to evade them. The Indians are not going to be fooled by Russian ploys. But that doesn't stop the Russians from going all around the world for cash now. And the reason they're doing that is because our sanctions have been very crushing on their economy.

INSKEEP: A deputy national security adviser from the United States also traveled to India ahead of the Russian foreign minister's visit and warned - this is a quote which we found in the Indian media. "There are consequences to countries that actively attempt to circumvent or backfill the sanctions." What consequences are you warning India about here?

NULAND: In our conversations with India, whether it was my conversations, Daleep Singh's or Secretary Blinken's - this is not a matter of warning. It's simply a matter of reminding India that Russia will try to abuse their long-standing defense relationship to get advantages here and that it is not a good bet to help Russia out during this brutal conflict.

INSKEEP: I just want to make sure that I understand what you think is going to happen. You don't believe - is this what you're telling me? - you don't believe that India's central bank is going to go into business with some sanctions-evading mechanism with Russia's central bank. You don't believe that India is going to be that helpful to Russia? Is that what you're saying?

NULAND: I think the Russians are going to be sorely disappointed by their partnership with India, if our consultations in recent days and weeks are any example. Russia has nothing to offer India. They increasingly know that. And our partnership is far more valuable. And we are working to strengthen that.

INSKEEP: You've mentioned India's work with large democracies. They're, of course, part of this quartet of four big democracies facing China in one way or another. But the reality is that India itself, as I'm sure you know very well, has become less democratic in recent years. The media are less free. Political opposition is less tolerated than it was. Is it possible that Prime Minister Narendra Modi sees himself a little bit more like Vladimir Putin or Xi Jinping than he does the West?

NULAND: You know, that is not the impression that we have. Obviously, we talk frankly to all of our partners, including India, when we have concerns about some of the issues that you raised. And we do have those concerns - and that all of us as democracies, the United States included, have to work on the places where we are not open enough, we are not free enough. And we're talking about that. But the notion that India wants to live the way China lives or live the way Russia lives - we have no indications of that. And on the contrary, I think they are looking for ways to divest themselves of this historic relationship, and they are understanding that it is a bad bet for them going forward.

INSKEEP: What is the hardest question you faced, the hardest challenge you faced from an Indian official during your visit?

NULAND: You know, I think the most difficult issue is how quickly they can be helped by the rest of us to get out of these legacy relationships, whether it's their dependency on certain kinds of oil and other energy products from Russia, whether it's their dependency for their land forces and others. You know, they want to do more with us. And this - these kinds of transitions take time. Like a lot of us, they're having to do some rebudgeting as fuel prices go up. So the question is simply, how much can we do together in this context to strengthen the democratic world, and can we do it fast enough?

INSKEEP: Given the price, as you mentioned, is India going to buy some more Russian oil, and is the United States going to have to look the other way on that one?

NULAND: So when we made the decision - and Canada did, and a number of other countries - that we would completely ban the import of Russian oil, it was relatively straightforward for us to do because we have very little exposure. But as you know, some of our other allies and partners, including allies in Europe, India, have some dependencies that it's going to take time for them to break. So we were understanding both in the German context and the Indian context, a couple of other countries, that they would need to continue to do some importing but that they needed to do it within agreed channels, and they needed to ensure that they were not stockpiling extra at this moment. And that's the understanding that we have with India, even as we work together to try to help them wean off of Russian energy.

INSKEEP: Your understanding is they're not going to stockpile extra Russian oil. Is that what you said?

NULAND: Our understanding is that they will only import at the same level that they have traditionally imported and that we will try to reduce that over the coming months and years because they are understanding that this dependence on the Russians is, again, not a good deal for India.

INSKEEP: Victoria Nuland is undersecretary of state for political affairs and one of many global officials who have recently visited India. Thanks so much.

NULAND: Thank you, Steve.

(SOUNDBITE OF HANDBOOK'S "STARRY SKIES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.