Posted on / by Saikiran Kannan / in Long Story

Greasing the Tongue: How Russian Oil Softened the West’s Words About India

Analysis of news and Twitter posts between Jan 1, 2022, to Feb 28, 2023, shows India’s Russian oil imports sparked intense anti-India rhetoric from the West. Paradoxically, access to the same oil via India eventually softened their stance. Only Germany—the nation most affected by the Russian oil crisis—remained a bitter exception.

In April 2022, US President Joe Biden’s top economic adviser Brian Deese expressed the US administration’s disappointment with India’s reaction to the Ukraine invasion and, in a thinly veiled threat, warned against aligning with Russia.

“There are certainly areas where we have been disappointed by both China and India’s decisions in the context of the invasion,” the director of the White House National Economic Council, Brian Deese, told reporters.

Soon after, US Deputy NSA Daleep Singh further intensified the threatening messaging by suggesting potential consequences if India tried to circumvent the embargoes on Russia. He also stated that India should not expect Russia’s assistance if China violated the Line of Actual Control (LAC) on its border.

The New York Times followed suit and blamed India for financing the Russian invasion, labeling it “economic opportunism.” However, towards the end of 2022, India’s stubborn diplomacy began paying off, and sentiments in the West started to shift.

Several Western nations recognized India’s decision to continue buying oil from Russia as a sovereign choice. France and the UK, which initially opposed India’s decisions, softened their stance. British Foreign Minister Liz Truss emphasized respecting other countries’ decisions and acknowledged India as a sovereign nation.

By February 2023, the US vocally “hoped” India’s close relationship with Russia could persuade Russia to end the war. Assistant Secretary of State Donald Lu stated that India’s influence with Russia should be used to support a resolution to the conflict based on the principles of the UN Charter regarding territorial integrity and sovereignty.

“I don’t think they’re going to end those relations anytime soon, but we are talking to them about the role they can play in this conflict,” Lu said.

“We may not share the same approach every day in Ukraine,” he added, “But I think we do share the goal that this conflict ends and it ends based on principles in the U.N. charter. It is our hope that India will use that influence with Russia to support an end to this conflict,” said the top U.S. diplomat.

The following year, in March 2023, following his G20-related meetings, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken embarked on a public relations initiative by taking an auto-rickshaw ride and enjoying a cup of “masala-chai.” He shared images of these experiences on his Twitter profile.

Digging deeper, we see that the shift in sentiments wasn’t mere happenstance or change of heart but driven by specific events – all of which are linked to India’s imports and processing of Russian Oil.

The US and the EU underestimated the significance of Russia’s oil exports and eventually had to backtrack. Their initial strong stance, including banning oil imports from Russia and targeting countries with independent energy policies, proved futile in the face of the energy crisis in the EU.

The US and EU imported far more oil from Russia than India had done. And Indian imports of Russian oil gave them a much-needed energy lifeline without toning down their anti-Russian rhetoric.

By the end of the first quarter in 2023, western nations began to recognize India’s rightful stand to safeguard its energy needs, separate politics from national interest, and not succumb to international pressure.

Besides the Russian oil imports, an allied factor in the sweetening of the tone was India’s pursuit of the free trade pact with the US. This pursuit of the pact demonstrated India was willing to work with the West, but not compromise on Russian oil.

In September 2022, India’s External Affairs Minister visited the US for the UN General Assembly and other key meetings, engaging in focused discussions with Antony Blinken and senior officials of the Biden Administration. The visit also involved meetings with officials from BRICS, QUAD, G4, and L69, a group of developing countries focused on UN Security Council reforms.

Essentially, this two-pronged approach helped the West get their much-needed Russian oil without having to compromise on their anti-Russian rhetoric.

The Analysis

To conduct this analysis, we examined critical events from January 1, 2022, to February 28, 2023. We focused on media coverage by prominent Western news agencies, including Reuters, Diplomat, The Economist, France24, The New York Times, Sky News, Washington Times, Associated Post, Independent, The Times, CBS News, Financial Times, BBC, Epoch Times, and The Washington Post. We scrutinized how these sources influenced narratives on Twitter. Approximately 390 stories were analyzed during this period, divided into five quarters of three months each, except for the final quarter.

As for social media sentiment, we collected and evaluated nearly 600,000 tweets from 240,000 unique users from the US and EU for over thirteen months.

To understand the events that influenced the narratives over the thirteen-month analysis period, it’s crucial to examine the overall timeline. Each event significantly impacted different stakeholders and thereby molded the narratives of news agencies and social media trends.

As the US and EU imposed sanctions on Russia starting in February 2022, India continued to amp up its oil imports at a cheaper rate, further irking Western nations. 

On 22 March 2022, France24 published an article that lampooned India’s stance vis-a-vis the Russia-Ukriane conflict as a “diplomatic dance”—aptly capturing the sentiment held by the Western media towards India’s independent decision-making.

The article went on to declare that India’s reluctance to condemn Russian aggression in Ukraine, despite the costs involved, reflects its longstanding relations with Moscow. However, as the war intensifies, the price of maintaining this stance, even for cheap Russian oil and arms, could become too high if it draws India’s arch-rivals closer to Moscow.

It’s important to note that this assessment was made before India had actually increased its oil imports from Russia and had only declared its intention to do so. Such was the prevailing sentiment in Western media newsrooms, as they actively sought to influence India’s stance and diplomacy amid the Russian invasion. The article also quotes Joe Biden referring to India as the only “shaky” partner in the QUAD concerning its response to the Russian attack.

By June, Russia overtook Saudi Arabia as India’s second-largest oil supplier; and by September, India further increased its oil imports from Russia. This move drew a backlash through diplomatic channels, discussions, and media coverage from the Western world.

And on cue, between April and October 2022, negative sentiments related to the keywords “Russia,” “India,” and “Oil” peaked at nearly 50% in Germany, the USA, the UK, and France. The shift in social media sentiments across the Western world initially appeared subtle but became more pronounced in the second and third quarters of 2022.

In September 2022, India showcased its ability to balance business and diplomacy.

As India increased its oil imports from Russia, Prime Minister Narendra Modi emphasized the importance of peaceful and diplomatic resolutions to the conflict, emphasizing that war was not the appropriate course of action.

Simultaneously, while the EU and the US maintained a moral stance against Russia, energy costs in the EU and the UK surged. The economic ramifications of refraining from purchasing oil from Russia were deemed too high. Consequently, India and China emerged as the only viable options for processing oil imports from Russia and supplying fuel back to the EU and the US.

The outlier in this trend was Germany.
Despite being heavily dependent on oil exports from Russia, Germany took the lead in calling for sanctions on Russia and banning oil imports from Russian gas pipelines. And despite feeling the brunt of the drying up of Russian oil to feed its industries, it kept up constant rhetoric attacking India.

According to data published by the country’s Federal Statistics Office, Germany’s economy has been adversely affected by the energy crisis, as evidenced by a 0.4% decline in GDP during the final quarter of 2022. The office attributed this decline to significant price increases and the ongoing energy crisis. Russian gas pipelines are the foundation for Germany’s industries and manufacturing.

And yet, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz scrapped the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline as a statement to pressure Russia shortly after President Vladimir V. Putin ordered armed forces to the separatist regions.

It’s important to note that even before the Russian invasion, the Nord Stream 2 project was a geopolitical subject of contention in Europe and the US for various reasons.

The energy crisis in the EU prompted senior officials from France and Germany to accuse the US of overcharging for liquefied natural gas (LNG) and exploiting the war in Ukraine and the energy crisis to maximize profits and make Europe dependent on its gas. French Finance Minister Bruno Le Mair emphasized that the conflict in Ukraine should not result in America’s economic dominance and a weakened Europe. German Economy Minister Robert Habeck accused LNG exporters, including the US, of charging excessive prices for gas at a time when Germany, Europe’s largest economy, struggles to balance its energy mix without Russian supplies. German companies are even closing down manufacturing facilities due to the high cost of gas.

Apart from Germany, there has been a positive shift in sentiments towards India driven by favorable reactions from the US, the UK, and a few other EU countries. India’s ascension to the G20 presidency in December 2022 may also have contributed to this shift. Consequently, India’s oil exports to the US and UK reached record levels, and negativity in social media and mainstream news steadily declined.

Shifting Sentiments

Of the sixteen media agencies examined in this study, only four–Reuters, The Economist, Independent, and The Times–maintained a higher ratio of negative stories about India, Russia, oil, and Ukraine. The remaining 12 agencies showed a steady decline in negativity, marking a significant shift from their previously negative tone.

The charts below display the linear trendlines of the data, illustrating the decrease in negatively toned stories about India as we approach the end of 2022 and the first quarter of 2023.

The softening of tone is clear in this New York Times writing:
“So far, the West has remained steadfast in its commitment to Ukraine, but a long period of high fuel prices and potential shortages in Europe could become politically unpalatable.”

Jason Bordoff, the director of Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy and a former adviser to President Barack Obama, was quoted as saying, “One of the consequences of this conflict is a fundamental realignment of the global energy system, trading relationships, and geopolitical alignments, with China and India more closely aligned with Russia.”

The sentiment analysis of tweets related to India, Russia, oil, and Ukraine from Western countries reveals an intriguing trend.

During the fourth quarter of 2022, only Germany and Sweden continued to harbor negative sentiments toward India among the top nine influential and socially active countries. A staunch advocate against Russia in the EU, Germany remains vocal due to the high stakes in oil imports and other aspects.

The United States, Australia, the United Kingdom, Canada, Spain, Italy, and France have all shown a significant decline in negative sentiments toward India. Spain and Italy have witnessed the most notable shifts, indicating a changing perception.

Notably, in September, Italy saw the rise of its populist Prime Minister, Giorgia Meloni. Since then, deeper cooperation between Italy and India has risen, signaling a positive trajectory. Matteo Salvini, Meloni’s coalition partner and Vice President of the Council of Ministers, has repeatedly emphasized the need to reassess sanctions against Moscow, highlighting that these measures “are not damaging the sanctioned party but rather those who are imposing the sanctions.”

Interestingly, Meloni herself previously praised Putin as the defender of European values and Christianity in her book “I am Giorgia,” published in 2021.

The tweet analysis revealed trends throughout the year and revealed quarterly and daily trends. This helped to demonstrate the correlation between events, media coverage, and user sentiments on relevant topics. The diagram below provides a concise summary, showing how user sentiments peak in response to specific events, incidents, and diplomatic exchanges. These sentiments reflect the media narrative and the actions taken by respective nations.

In November 2022, Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen, the top economic diplomat of the Biden administration, visited India and emphasized the concept of “friend-shoring” to advance the interests of the United States.

Ms. Yellen stated: “The United States is pursuing an approach called ‘friend-shoring’ to diversify away from countries that present geopolitical and security risks to our supply chain. To do so, we are proactively deepening economic integration with trusted trading partners like India.”

Three days later, an article in The New York Times commented on the growing importance of the bond between the United States and India. It highlighted that India has become significant as a rare ally with strong diplomatic ties to Russia, which is its top oil supplier and holds influence with President Vladimir V. Putin. Additionally, India’s large English-speaking population presents the potential to serve as an international production hub for American companies.

The United States is, after all, India’s largest overall trading partner.

Even as Joe Biden made statements calling India the only ‘shaky’ member of the QUAD, the relationship between India and Australia strengthened.

April 2022 saw the signing of the India-Australia Economic Cooperation and Trade Agreement (ECTA), which plans to reach a bilateral trade volume of $100 billion over the next five years. The agreement covers critical minerals, mobility, education, sports, space, and defense.

Furthermore, Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese visited India on March 8, 2023, marking his first official visit since assuming office in May 2022.

Starting with the inauguration of an India-Australia cricket match in Ahmedabad, the Prime Ministers of India and Australia ended the tour by signing yet another treaty—the India-Australia Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CECA).

The final chart depicts user sentiments, reflecting the opinions of individuals residing in the Western world. These sentiments are influenced by media coverage and the messaging from their respective governments.

Most Western countries have developed a more favorable perception of India. Negative sentiments have decreased from approximately 47% to 43%, while neutrality has risen from 13.6% to 15.18%. Additionally, positivity has slightly increased from 40.63% to 41.62%.

Although the increase in positivity may be modest, the decline in negativity and the rise in neutrality must be considered collectively to gauge the overall positive shift in sentiments. Even small shifts, such as 0.0001%, hold significance in large-scale studies conducted over extended time intervals.

At the time this article goes to press, a leak from the Atlantic Council exposed that the US and UK conducted psyops to malign India, confirming our analysis.

Rahul Sunny contributed to this report.


  • Saikiran Kannan

    Saikiran Kannan is a Data Analytics, Data Privacy, & AI/ML SME, and an Independent Journalist covering conflicts, global affairs, counter terrorism and data stories. He has a Masters in Data Analytics from the Singapore Management University and is a Harvard Business Advisory Council member.


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