Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov visits China and India under shadow of Ukraine war

Analysis by Jessie Yeung, CNN

Hong Kong (CNN) – Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov is meeting his counterparts in China and India this week — two countries under pressure to condemn Russia’s actions in Ukraine as the death toll from the unprovoked conflict rises.

Lavrov met first with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi on Wednesday before a planned flight to India on Thursday, in only his second trip abroad since the Russian invasion began on February 24.

On paper, Lavrov’s meeting with Wang was ostensibly about the turmoil in Afghanistan. But one expert said it was “inconceivable” they wouldn’t discuss the situation in Ukraine, including harsh sanctions imposed by the international community on Russia and its ally Belarus.

“It is inconceivable that the sides will avoid Ukraine in their discussions, whatever they say the focus of the visit is about,” said Steve Tsang, director of SOAS China Institute at the University of London, ahead of the visit.

Lavrov’s trip will offer him the opportunity to gauge the state of Russia’s relations with China and India as they come under increasing international scrutiny over their lack of forceful response to Moscow.

Both China and India have refused to condemn Russia’s brutal invasion outright, and both abstained from voting on United Nations resolutions demanding Moscow immediately stop its attack on Ukraine.

By the end of Lavrov’s first day in China on Wednesday, Beijing had made its stance clear.

“There is no ceiling for China-Russia cooperation, no ceiling for us to strive for peace, no ceiling for us to safeguard security and no ceiling for us to oppose hegemony,” said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin, according to state-run news agency Xinhua.

Reaffirming China’s friendship
Since Russia launched its invasion into Ukraine, China has attempted to take what it calls a neutral position — choosing not to impose sanctions on Moscow, or even call it an invasion. Instead, China has increasingly blamed the United States and NATO for the conflict, with state media promoting Russian disinformation.

On Wednesday, Wang Wenbin reiterated China’s stance that “dialogue and negotiation is the only right way to resolve the Ukraine crisis,” and warned against “adding fuel to the fire” — a phrase often used by Chinese officials criticizing Western sanctions.

Chinese President Xi Jinping and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin have publicly cultivated their partnership in recent years, even declaring in February that their relationship had “no limits.” They are burgeoning trading partners, conduct joint military training exercises, and have both decried what they view as Western interference into domestic affairs, often voting as a bloc in the UN.

“There is common purpose that exists between those two sides, particularly with regard to the kind of international order that they would like to see,” said Manoj Kewalramani, a fellow of China studies at the Takshashila Institution in India.

But the invasion of Ukraine has tested this relationship, as China faces the growing the threat of secondary sanctions if it lends any assistance to Russia — lending high stakes to Lavrov’s visit, which allows both sides to get clarity on the “gray areas” of their relationship, said Tsang.

“The war is in a difficult stage for Russia, and I can see that Moscow would like to ascertain the scale of Chinese assistance or support moving forward,” said Tsang. “On the China side, I can see Beijing wanting to know what Moscow has in mind as the end game and how (Russia’s) plans may impact on China.”

Tsang added that Xi likely wants to continue his and the country’s relationship with Putin, but the Chinese President “will not pay a significant price to do so.” Russia, too, is “ultimately realistic that Beijing’s ‘unlimited friendship’ has clear limits in reality,” said Tsang.

On Wednesday, Wang Yi and Lavrov emerged from their meetings with a show of unity, appearing to reaffirm their countries’ friendship.

“China-Russia relations have withstood the new test of changing international landscape,” Wang said after the meeting. “China is ready to work with Russia to take China-Russia relations to a higher level in the new era.”
He voiced support for Russia and Ukraine in “overcoming difficulties and continuing peace talks,” and praised Russia’s efforts to “prevent a large-scale humanitarian crisis.”

Russian bombs have destroyed civilian structures including homes, schools, hospitals and temporary shelters throughout the war — with besieged cities, most notably Mariupol, cut off from heat, electricity, and water.

The India defense trade
Lavrov will arrive in India later on Thursday for a two-day visit, according to the Indian Ministry of External Affairs.
His trip comes amid a flurry of diplomatic activity involving India. Earlier this month, leaders from Japan and Australia held summits with their Indian counterparts. Also this week, diplomats from Germany and the European Union are visiting Delhi. And Lavrov’s visit will coincide with Britain’s Foreign Secretary Liz Truss and the United States’ Deputy National Security Advisor for International Economics, Daleep Singh.

“I think that’s significantly due to what’s happening in Europe and Ukraine right now,” said Kewalramani. “There are clearly discussions going on about India’s response.”

India has refused to condemn Russia’s invasion, despite pressure from its Western partners to do so — and one major reason is India’s dependency on Russian weapons for its own national security, Kewalramani added.
For years, India, the world’s biggest democracy, has looked to counter China’s growing influence in the region — especially as tensions heated up at their disputed border, spiking in 2020 after soldiers from both sides engaged in the bloodiest clash in decades.

Russia’s attack on Ukraine reveals political fault lines in Asia
And Russia has been critical as India steps up its territorial defense. In 2018, India inked a $5 billion weapons deal with Russia for an air defense missile system. Estimates range upward of 50% for how much of India’s military equipment come from Russia.

That relationship is “essential to India’s interests, particularly India’s security interests,” said Kewalramani.
The many foreign diplomats now visiting and speaking with Indian officials may be trying to shift India’s stance, he added — though many have been “understanding” of India’s security concerns.

For instance, Truss, the UK Foreign Secretary, has characterized her visit as a “diplomatic push” to counter Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

“I want to build an even closer relationship between our two nations,” Truss said in a statement from the British Foreign Office on Wednesday. “This matters even more in the context of Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine and underlines the need for free democracies to work closer together in areas like defense, trade and cyber security.”
In the face of this, Lavrov “probably wants to get a sense of the mood in India, where India politically stands,” Kewalramani said.

He added that while it’s unlikely India will express any public support for Russia’s invasion, there are ongoing conversations within the country about its economic and strategic future.
“Is there an effort going on to try and see if you can find ways to move Indian policy? Of course, that is clearly the case,” he said. “I think you will see India remaining cautious while trying to see where it can preserve its interests.”

CNN’s Manveena Suri, Simone McCarthy, Brad Lendon, Rhea Mogul and Julia Hollingsworth contributed reporting.

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