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Why India has not condemned Russia's invasion of Ukraine

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

President Biden is meeting virtually with India's prime minister today, part of a diplomatic push to get India off the fence when it comes to the war in Ukraine. India has not condemned Russia's invasion. From New Delhi, NPR's Lauren Frayer explains why.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: I can smell the gunpowder in the air.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: The Ukraine war is getting lots of coverage in India. One of the top Hindi channels here has 3D holograms of Russian tanks zooming around the studio set. It looks like a video game. But while Western media report on Russia's retreat, this channel is reporting on Russian advances.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: (Speaking Hindi).

FRAYER: And the news commentary here about sanctions and diplomacy is also often sympathetic to Russia. Listen to how one of India's most famous TV hosts, Arnab Goswami, opened his show recently.

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ARNAB GOSWAMI: Has isolating Russia as a war tactic worked so far? It hasn't. It hasn't. And if there are any Americans watching this tonight, it hasn't. And let me tell you, Americans, it won't.

FRAYER: That monologue reflects India's mistrust of the West, its commitment to neutrality and its long-standing friendship with Russia. Columnist Seema Sirohi says that despite some flamboyant TV news personalities, India's debate about Ukraine has actually been more nuanced than what she's experienced where she lives in Washington.

SEEMA SIROHI: Here there is only condemnation. It's bordering on hysteria. And it kind of reminds me - in the runup to the Iraq War, it was very depressing to watch U.S. media play the role of cheerleaders. And we know what happened in the Middle East after that war.

FRAYER: Watching that, plus having a colonial past, leaves India wanting to make its own decisions, so it has not joined Western sanctions on Russia. Neither have most countries other than the relatively rich democracies of the West. The world's biggest democracy is India, and it is still buying Russian oil. Indian officials suggest it's hypocritical of the West to ask them to stop. Here's India's foreign minister, S. Jaishankar, at a recent event with his British counterpart.

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S JAISHANKAR: If you look at the major buyers of oil and gas from Russia, I think you'll find most of them are in Europe.

FRAYER: Now, this isn't only about cheap Russian oil, though that goes a long way in energy-poor India. Russia also supplies fertilizer for crops that help feed 1.4 billion Indians. And Russia has armed India for decades. It's still India's biggest weapons supplier.

PRANAY KOTASTHANE: A lot of people in India still feel that Russia has been a reliable partner to India.

FRAYER: Analyst Pranay Kotasthane says the classic example is 1971, a war in which the U.S. backed Pakistan, and the USSR backed India. But that was 50 years ago, and India sees a bigger threat now - China. India and China share a long Himalayan border where soldiers fought two years ago and are still in a standoff. India wants Russia to have its back.

KOTASTHANE: So the fear is that if India were to disconnect from Russia altogether, then Russia will not come to India's aid if something happens between India and China.

FRAYER: And that's actually something that the U.S. fears, too. And so while the West may be dismayed by the world's biggest democracy refusing to condemn the invasion of a sovereign nation - Ukraine - U.S. officials have told India they get it. They understand India's neutrality, and they also understand and share India's real concern about China. Lauren Frayer, NPR News, New Delhi.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.