India has condemned the killing of civilians in Ukraine, marking the first time New Delhi has publicly criticized actions blamed on Russia but also said that Moscow continues to be a critical economic partner.
So far Delhi has refrained from censuring its long-time ally Russia over its invasion of Ukraine, despite mounting pressure from the United States and its allies.
“We strongly condemn the killings in Bucha,” Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar said in parliament Wednesday. “This is an extremely serious matter and we support the call for an independent investigation.”
Officials and residents in Ukraine have reported more than 300 civilians had been killed by Russian troops during the occupation of the town of Bucha near Kyiv. Moscow has denied any involvement and blamed Ukrainian “radicals.”
“We are strongly against the war and we believe that no solution can be arrived at by shedding blood and at the cost of innocent lives,” Jaishankar said, reiterating India’s push for dialogue and diplomacy to resolve the conflict. “If India has chosen a side, it has chosen side of peace and it is for an immediate end to the violence.”
The foreign minister’s statement came a day after India also condemned the civilian killings in Bucha at a meeting of the United Nations Security Council, calling the reports “deeply disturbing.” India has abstained from several U.N. resolutions criticizing Russia.
“It marks a shift in stance on India’s part,” says Manoj Joshi, distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi. ”You cannot stay neutral on human rights issues.”
However underlining Russia’s importance to India, the Indian foreign minister told parliament that “efforts are underway to stabilize economic transactions between India and Russia because this is very important for us.”
Although trade between India and Russia is only around nine billion dollars, India is critically dependent on Moscow, its Cold War ally, for much of its military hardware. In recent weeks, its oil companies have also sealed deals to buy crude oil from Russia being offered at a discounted rate. India has defended the purchases, citing its energy security and pointing out that Europe is also continuing to buy energy from Russia.
India and Russia are exploring using a mechanism to trade in their local currencies to bypass sanctions by Western countries, according to reports. Jaishankar told parliament that a group of ministers is seeing how the payments issue can be addressed.
India’s stance has frustrated the United States and its allies, which have repeatedly called on India to join them in strongly condemning Russia. Last month U.S. President, Joe Biden said India was “somewhat shaky” in acting against Russia.
Analysts say India is trying to navigate a middle ground between Moscow, which it needs for its defense supplies, and Washington, with which it has built a strong strategic partnership over the last two decades amid their growing convergence on the need to counter China.
U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said in Washington Tuesday that it expects India to scale down its dependence on Russian military equipment, going forward. He was addressing a congressional hearing on the annual defense budget.
“If the war intensifies, the pressures on New Delhi will mount. India is in a very tough spot. The point is how long can it juggle its ties with Russia and its Western partners? says analyst Joshi. “The more prolonged the conflict is, the more challenging will be the situation for India.”
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who visited India last week, praised New Delhi for “not taking a one-sided view of the conflict” and said that ties between the two countries have sustained them through difficult times in the past.