WASHINGTON: US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman called Indian Foreign Secretary Harsh Shringla on Wednesday to discuss Russia’s ‘concerning’ military build-up on Ukraine’s borders.

A brief readout, issued by the US State Department in Washington, said the conversation also involved other regional issues and the two officials agreed to “remain closely coordinated on shared goals and priorities.”

They also reiterated the importance of a strong US-India partnership to mitigate the Covid-19 Omicron variant’s rapid advance.

But Russia’s “concerning military build-up on Ukraine’s borders” was the only political issue mentioned in the statement, indicating that the conversation between the two officials focused on this subject.

Deputy Secretary Sherman’s call to the Indian foreign secretary followed a warning by her boss, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, that Russia could launch a new attack on Ukraine at “very short notice.”

Secretary Blinken arrived in the Ukrainian capital Kiev on Wednesday to show support for the country and urged Ukrainians to prepare for difficult days.

After a meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in Kiev, the chief US diplomat warned that “if Russia chooses the path of further aggression against Ukraine,? the United States and its allies “will impose crippling costs on Russia’s economy, reinforce Nato’s presence in frontline Allied states, and increase defensive assistance to Ukraine above and beyond what we are already providing.”

Last month, the White House approved $200 million in additional defensive security aid to Ukraine. As tensions increased, the Biden administration also enhanced its efforts to gather international support for its position on Ukraine. Deputy Secretary Sherman’s call to her Indian counterpart seems to be part of this exercise.

Secretary Blinken’s visit to Ukraine is the first leg of a quickly arranged trip that will also take him to Berlin on Thursday to meet German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock and to Geneva on Friday for a meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.

India, which has close friendly ties with both Russia and the United States, is high on Washington’s list of countries that can play a key role in defusing tensions in Ukraine. The Biden administration hopes to persuade New Delhi to support its position on Ukraine, but India seems reluctant to do so.

In a recent paper he wrote for an Indian think-tank, India’s former foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal advised New Delhi to stay neutral on this issue.

“India need not take sides. It should follow a middle course,” he wrote, “appeal for a peaceful, negotiated solution to differences, … and back the principle of equal and mutual security for all sides.”

Last month, India started to procure the S-400 air defence system from Russia, despite Washington’s obvious reservations.

Published in Dawn, January 20th, 2022

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