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Democrats call out India for buying Russian oil and weapons

The lawmakers suggested the Biden administration should consider sanctions

Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken, left, arrives to testify before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday.
Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken, left, arrives to testify before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Democratic senators urged Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken at a Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Tuesday to put more pressure on countries that have continued to do business with Russia despite its invasion of Ukraine.

They also warned Blinken to call out human rights abuses across the world, even as Washington focuses on threats posed by Russia and China.

The senators noted in particular India’s increased purchases of Russian oil and the State Department’s request that Congress stop placing human rights conditions on Egypt’s ability to receive U.S. defense assistance as examples of concern.

The Biden administration’s response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is creating sometimes contradictory signals about which human rights and anti-corruption principles are flexible and which are not, the senators, including Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Menendez, D-N.J., suggested.

Appearing to testify about the State Department’s fiscal 2023 budget request, Blinken acknowledged that uncomfortable reality but also urged lawmakers to see the broader goals that the administration is trying to achieve.

“I think we’re at a very important strategic moment as various countries … are thinking about and possibly reconsidering some of their other relationships, including with Russia,” Blinken said in his first of four scheduled appearances on Capitol Hill this week. “As a strategic proposition, I think it’s very much in our interests to encourage that and work with that and see what we can do to make sure that along with success for Ukraine, in Ukraine, we also take advantage of other strategic opportunities that may present themselves as a result of Russia’s aggression.”

Blinken was responding to a question from Menendez about why his department has not forcefully called out India’s decision to increase oil purchases from Moscow just as European and other Western democracies are rushing to curtail their own energy imports from Russia.

Indian oil buys

Senators suggested they were more open to sanctioning India if it didn’t stop buying Russian defense equipment, on which India has long relied.

Prior to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, lawmakers were more open to supporting the State Department issuing a sanctions waiver for New Delhi’s purchase of a Russian anti-missile system. A decision on the waiver has not yet been made. 

A 2017 sanctions law, passed with overwhelming support in Congress, requires that secondary sanctions be imposed on nations that buy Russian weapons. Until recently, however, Congress has not urged sanctions on India, seeing it is as part of “the quad” of four major democracies in the Indo-Pacific, which also includes the United States, Australia and Japan. Lawmakers also view India as a check on rival China’s regional ambitions.

But Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has made that pragmatic calculation more difficult for some lawmakers to stomach as they watch India refuse to take steps to punish Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aggression.

“They go buy oil from Russia. They buy the S-400 [anti-missile system]. They abstain at the United Nations [on votes criticizing Russia], but they are a member of the quad. So at some point messages that we send globally here are inconsistent,” Menendez said. “When we say we’re ‘troubled’ and ‘disappointed,’ that doesn’t cut it.”

Since Moscow’s assault on Ukraine began on Feb. 24, India has imported more than double the amount of crude oil from Russia that it did in all of 2021, according to a Monday report from Reuters.

“Why aren’t we applying secondary sanctions against countries … that are increasing their imports from Russian commodities?” asked Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md. “There are countries that are taking advantage of discounted Russian oil prices … which only helps Putin.”

Blinken said the administration has “engaged with some countries” that have increased their purchases of Russia’s discounted commodity exports “to dissuade them from doing that.”

But as far as trying to coerce those countries through the use of secondary sanctions, which the United States can impose on businesses or individuals that continue to do business with entities under primary U.S. sanctions, Blinken suggested that was inadvisable.

“Where we can, it is far preferable to get countries to voluntarily not engage in these practices, and that’s where our diplomacy is focused,” Blinken said.

New Delhi has defended its Russian oil purchases and accused the West of hypocrisy for any criticism.

“If you are looking at energy purchases from Russia, I would suggest that your attention should be focused on Europe,” Indian External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar said at a news conference earlier this month during a visit to Washington. “But I suspect, looking at the figures, probably our total purchases for the month would be less than what Europe does in an afternoon.”

Human rights in Egypt

On Egypt, the Biden administration’s fiscal 2023 budget proposal continued a long-standing policy of seeking $1.3 billion in foreign military financing grants for Cairo that it can use to purchase U.S. weapon systems.

But Connecticut Democrat Christopher S. Murphy, who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Near East, South Asia, Central Asia and Counterterrorism Subcommittee, said that request came with a “curious proposal … to delink human rights conditions from military aid to Egypt.”

“The assault on Ukrainian democracy I think has elevated the need for us to be incredibly consistent between our words and our actions on supporting human rights and democracy,” Murphy said. “I worry about the message that this would send to [Egyptian President Abdel Fattah] al-Sisi, but also the world. They have made tepid progress, even when presented with fairly minimalist requests for reforms.”

But Blinken responded that while he shared Murphy’s concerns about human rights abuses in Egypt under Sisi, he also argued it was important for the State Department “to have maximum flexibility in being able to deal with this.”

“This is a critical time in the relationship with a number of countries, particularly countries that may be reconsidering their own relationships and potential dependencies on Russia,” Blinken continued. “They’re seeing how Russian military equipment is performing or not performing in Ukraine. They are seeing growing challenges to Russia being able to sustain and ultimately export its military equipment. They are making different decisions about the future. That presents a strategic opportunity for us, one we want to make sure that we also have flexibility to take advantage of.”

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