America may want to school India on Russian oil today, but in the larger scheme of things, both countries need each other to counter the bigger threat in Beijing

by Tushar Gupta

Amongst the key American exports that include Big Tech, Hollywood, fast food chains, there is also the political diktat of liberal convenience, one that is quite prominent during any Democratic regime. Thus, as the Russian invasion of Ukraine unfolded in the recent weeks, more and more diktats started to come in, from the White House, several commentators in the western press, and other observers as to how it was imperative for India to boycott one of its oldest and strongest strategic partner to ensure it was not isolated globally. For many, this was the hour of threatening India, a key ally for the Americans to counter China, with the sword of diplomacy.

India, much to the dismay of many in the West, has refused to relent. In the last two weeks, on two separate occasions, two key ministers of the Narendra Modi government, unapologetically, have emphasised the need of Russian oil in the larger game of energy security.

Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, at an event in Mumbai, stated that if the supply was available at a cheaper price, why should India be wary of making a purchase. Speaking to the media, External Affairs Minister Dr S Jaishankar elaborated on the volume of energy imports from Russia, stating that India’s month worth of energy imports from the Putin regime were equivalent to what Europe imported in one afternoon.

Jaishankar made a critical point, one that not only won him the Internet, but put into perspective the convenience with which the Americans are willing to ignore the Russian energy influence within the NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization).

To give it a numerical context, India, on a daily basis, consumes approximately five million barrels of oil, or close to 1,800 million barrels every year. For the United States, the figure is close to 20 million barrels a day. In the previous financial year, India imported close to 1,440 million barrels, or around 85 per cent of its crude needs.

Russia’s share of imports, within the 1,440 million barrels, is not even 3 per cent, and thus they are not even in the list of top 10 countries by virtue of import volume. Even if the Russian share of imports is assumed to be at 3 per cent (it was 1.3 per cent in 2019-20), it amounts to 150,000 barrels per day, on an average.

Compare this with the numbers for Europe. At 258,000 barrels per day, Russia makes up for 21 per cent of Turkey’s oil imports. For Portugal, it is 31,000 barrels per day (bpd) at 10 per cent. For Czech Republic, it is 52,000 bpd at 21 per cent. For Hungary, 92,000 bpd at 43 per cent. For Austria, 8000 bpd at 3 per cent. For Poland, 509,000 bpd at 58 per cent. For Estonia, 13,000 bpd at 34 per cent. For Ireland, 11,000 bpd at 6 per cent. For Latvia, 9,000 bpd at 24 per cent. For Lithuania, 185,000 bpd at 83 per cent. For Finland, 246,000 bpd at 80 per cent.

The list goes on. For Norway, at 45,000 bpd, Russia makes up for 25 per cent of the oil imports. For Spain, it is 183,000 bpd at 11 per cent. For Italy, 204,000 bpd at 13 per cent. For Belgium, 278,000 bpd at 23 per cent. For Germany, 835,000 bpd at 30 per cent. For Slovakia, 109,000 bpd at 74 per cent. For Greece, 200,000 bpd at 29 per cent. For Netherlands, 748,000 bpd at 23 per cent. For Sweden, 43,000 bpd at 9 per cent. For the French, 233,000 bpd at 13 per cent. For Denmark, 28,000 bpd at 15 per cent, and finally, for the United Kingdom, the closest ally of the Americans in Europe, at 170,000 bpd, Russian crude imports have a share of 11 per cent.

Together, these 23 countries (data for four European states was unavailable), import close to 4.49 million barrels of oil, each day, from Russia against 150,000 barrels assumed for India (on the higher side). Thus, even if India were to make five, 10, or 50 million barrels worth of discounted purchases of oil from Russia, it would be nothing more than ten days worth of what Europe buys.

Even South Korea imports twice of what India does, when it comes to Russia. United States, consuming 20 million bpd, relies on Russia for around 8 per cent or close to 600,000 bpd. Yet, at 150,000 bpd, the lecturing is reserved for India, even when India’s population is at least 50 per cent more than that of Europe and four times that of the United States.

Therefore, it does not come as a surprise that the European states have failed to reach an agreement on the question of Russian oil, for like India, they are also concerned about their energy security, and for all the right reasons.

For national economies, still reeling from the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, oil priced anywhere in excess of $70 is a nightmare. Even for India, as per the recent budget estimates, the ideal pricing point for oil is less than $75 a barrel. In totality, Europe imports 30 per cent of its oil from Russia, and 40 per cent of its gas. To even call for a ban of one-fourth of those quantities would unleash the inflation monster in these democracies.

Beyond oil, Europe has the natural gas problem as well. Of the 440 billion-odd cubic metres (bcm) of natural gas that was imported into the region in 2020, Russian imports were in excess of 167 bcm. The other big suppliers included Norway at 106 bcm, Netherlands at 28 bcm, Azerbaijan at 13 bcm, Iran at 5 bcm.

Therefore, if Europe were to give up completely on Russian gas, they’d need Norway and Azerbaijan to step up, for instance. However, the two countries can only increase their annual production by 5 bcm and 3 bcm respectively, a number insignificant against the Russian volume at 167 bcm.

Therefore, can the likes of Germany, Italy and United Kingdom as the key importers of Russian gas prefer rationing over economic recovery? Will temporary bans on imports, as an urgent response to the invasion, translate into complete energy boycott of Russia within the European states? Are the European democracies willing to sacrifice their economies, and are their leaders willing to sacrifice their political interests at the altar of American hypocrisy?

Nowhere has this hypocrisy been more evident than in America’s trade with China. The US imports from China are exceeding the pre-pandemic levels, thus ignoring the human right abuse in the mainland, the swift political takeover of Hong Kong, and the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan that has cost trillions of dollars and millions of lives across the globe. For the Joe Biden regime, it is as if the pandemic never happened. For all the noise Americans have made so far on India’s oil imports from Russia, they have been relatively silent on the Russian-Chinese axis in the making, and China’s defence exports to Russia.

There is also the question of India’s position in the multipolar world. Unlike the era of the Cold War, one the Democrats want to perpetually be in, the geopolitics of today is dictated by bilateral interests in a multipolar world. Within this multipolar world, many power centres, like that of India, Europe, America, Russia, China and Japan will find themselves in disagreement, but will look for more reasons to agree upon to further their strategic interests.

Put simply, if the pandemic can’t get America to decouple from China, or sanction their economy, it is naïve to hope that it can get Europe to decouple from Russia, or Japan to give up on Russian oil, or China to not cultivate its interests with both Russia and Europe. Even Europe, in an America-China trade war, will have to play the balancing act.

The question of India’s neutral stance in the ongoing war, one it has no security stake in, that of Russian energy imports, and America’s hypocrisy on China ends at the inability of the Democrats to adapt to the realities of a multipolar world. America may want to school India on oil today, overplaying their hand, but in the larger scheme of things, they both need each other to counter the bigger threat in Beijing.