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Biden, Modi talk as U.S. works to shore up response to Russia

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WASHINGTON — U.S. President Joe Biden and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi held talks on Monday as Washington pushed its Asian ally to support its response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Starting an hour long call U.S. officials described as “warm” and “candid,” Biden and Modi both expressed growing alarm in public at the destruction inside Ukraine, particularly in Bucha, where many civilians have been killed.

And Biden told Modi that it was not in India’s interest to increase oil imports from Russia, but he stopped short of making any specific demands, U.S. officials said.

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“It was a very candid conversation,” said a senior administration officials. “India is gonna make its own judgments.”

Broad talks between the world’s two largest democracies took place as the United States seeks more help from India in condemning and applying economic pressure on Russia for its invasion of Ukraine.

“Recently, the news of the killings of innocent civilians in the city of Bucha was very worrying,” Modi said during a brief portion of the meeting open to reporters. “We immediately condemned it and have asked for an independent probe.”

Modi also told Biden he had suggested in recent conversations with Russia that Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy hold direct talks.

The South Asian nation has tried to balance its ties with Russia and the West but unlike other members of the Quad countries – United States, Japan and Australia – it has not imposed sanctions on Russia.

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Lured by steep discounts following Western sanctions on Russian entities, India has bought at least 13 million barrels of Russian crude oil since the country invaded Ukraine in late February. That compared with some 16 million barrels for the whole of last year, data compiled by Reuters shows.

“The president conveyed very clearly that it is not in their interest to increase that,” said White House spokesperson Jen Psaki. But a U.S. official added that “we haven’t asked India to do anything in particular.”

Psaki did not disclose whether India had made any commitments on energy imports but said Washington stands ready to help the country diversify its sources of energy.

The Biden-Modi meeting will be followed by talks between U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, Indian External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar and Indian Defense Minister Rajnath Singh.

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Biden, who last spoke to Modi in March, recently said that only India among the Quad group of countries was “somewhat shaky” in acting against Russia over its invasion of Ukraine.

Still, the president stopped short of making a “concrete ask” of Modi on Monday, an official said, noting that India has concerns about deepening ties between Russia and China.

Biden told Modi he is looking forward to seeing him in Japan for a Quad meeting “on about the 24th of May” and the two leaders also discussed a range of other issues, officials said.

Russia has failed to take any major cities since it launched its invasion on Feb. 24 but Ukraine says it has been gathering its forces in the east for a major assault and has urged people to flee.

Moscow has rejected accusations of war crimes by Ukraine and Western countries. It has denied targeting civilians in what it calls a “special operation” to demilitarize and “denazify” its southern neighbor. Ukraine and Western nations have dismissed this as a baseless pretext for war. (Additional reporting by Nandita Bose, Kanishka Singh, Doina Chiacu and Andrea Shalal; Editing by Doina Chiacu and Alistair Bell)

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