Indian PM strikes balance in meeting with Putin

by Ambarasan Ethirajan, BBC News, Delhi

Indian Prime Minister Modi meets Russian President Putin

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is meeting Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on his first overseas trip since being returned to power for a third term in June, drawing keen attention from Western allies.

Modi’s arrival on Monday came just hours after Russian bombings killed at least 41 people in Ukraine, including at a children’s hospital in Kiev, sparking global condemnation.

Pictures from Moscow show a beaming Modi embracing the Russian president, while a video going viral in India shows a smiling Putin calling Modi “my dearest friend” and saying it was “nice to meet you.”

Modi’s two-day visit to the Kremlin, his first since 2019, will coincide with a NATO summit in Washington where the 2022 invasion is expected to be a key theme.

India, a major global economy with close ties to both Russia and the United States, and Indian government officials have downplayed questions about the timing of Modi’s visit, saying the annual summit is part of a long-standing strategic partnership and that the dates have no connection to the NATO summit.

But there has been some unease as the US has expressed concerns, with State Department spokesman Matthew Miller urging Modi to emphasise Ukraine’s territorial integrity during their meeting in Moscow.

Miller also said the US had expressed concerns to India about its ties with Russia.

“We urge India, as we would with any country negotiating with Russia, to make it clear that any resolution to the Ukraine conflict must respect the UN Charter and respect Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty,” he told a news conference on Monday.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky went further, He didn’t mince words..

“It is a great disappointment and a devastating blow to efforts at peace to see the leader of the world’s largest democracy embracing the world’s most brutal criminals in Moscow on a day like this,” he posted on Twitter late on Monday.

The NATO summit, which begins in Washington on Tuesday, marks the 75th anniversary of the founding of the Western defence group, which was formed after World War II primarily as a bulwark against the then-Soviet Union.

NATO countries have strongly opposed Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, but India and Prime Minister Modi have refrained from explicitly criticising Putin, other than calling for dialogue and diplomacy to resolve the conflict.

As Western countries try to isolate Moscow through sanctions, Putin has been holding top-level talks with leaders of major countries including China, India and Turkey.

Some have questioned whether Modi’s visit to Moscow will benefit Putin. Is the message India is sending playing into Russia’s hands?

AFP Russian President Vladimir Putin attended an informal meeting with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow on July 8.AFP

President Putin hosted Prime Minister Modi for informal talks at his official residence outside Moscow.

“This bilateral visit is just a scheduling priority that we have undertaken. That is the way it is,” Vinay Kwatra, permanent secretary in India’s external affairs ministry, told the BBC ahead of Modi’s visit, denying any link between the two events.

India and Russia have shared a close defense and strategic relationship since the Cold War, and Moscow remains a major arms supplier. India has one of the world’s largest militaries and is locked in long-running border disputes with neighbors Pakistan and China.

Experts say Modi’s focus on Moscow is not surprising, and that the relationship between the two countries goes beyond defence procurement.

“Looking at historical trends, [Moscow] “It is one of the immutable principles of Indian foreign policy,” Pankaj Saran, a former Indian ambassador to Moscow, told the BBC.

“Key pillars of the relationship include defense cooperation, energy, science and technology.”

Over the years, Russia has provided technical assistance for the construction of several nuclear power plants in India.

Since the start of the Ukraine war, India has been buying billions of dollars’ worth of oil from Moscow at discounted prices after Western countries imposed sanctions on Russia, restricting the volume and price of Russian oil sales.

A surge in oil purchases has helped India’s bilateral trade with Russia soar to $65 billion (£50.76 billion) in the past few years. Indian exports to Russia are just $4 billion.

Indian officials say a key priority for Modi is to address this trade imbalance, encourage Russian investment in India and shift some defense production to India.

AFP In this joint photo published by Russian state news agency Sputnik, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visit the stables during informal talks at the Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow on July 8, 2024.AFP

The two leaders also visited a horse stable during their informal talks outside Moscow.

Over the past two decades, Western countries, particularly the United States, have forged close ties with India as a bulwark against the threat from an increasingly assertive China.

India has also become a member of Quad, a strategic forum that includes the United States, Australia and Japan, a grouping seen as aimed at countering Chinese influence in the Asia-Pacific region.

But amid growing Western hostility, Putin has been forging closer strategic and economic ties with Beijing — a move that has not gone unnoticed in India, China’s longtime rival.

a Deadly Brawl Tensions escalated in June 2020 after a gunfight on the disputed border in the Ladakh region left 20 Indian soldiers and at least four Chinese soldiers dead.

There are fears in India that India will be left behind in the Moscow-Beijing nexus.

“One option the Indian government is currently playing is to keep the channels open with Russia to maintain friendly relations with the country and avoid steps that could further exacerbate the Russian military influx into China that is being driven by US and Western policies,” Saran said.

While New Delhi has diversified its arms stockpile in recent decades by buying weapons systems from the United States, France and Israel, it remains heavily reliant on Moscow, raising concerns that the Ukraine war may affect Indian defence exports.

“There are reports of delays in the supply of some spare parts and the delivery of the remaining S-400 missile defence systems, so there will definitely be some discussion on this during the visit,” said Anil Trignayath, a former ambassador and now a fellow at the Vivekananda International Foundation in Delhi.

Getty ImagesThis photo taken on February 22, 2024 shows a photo printout of Indian national Mohammed Asfan in Russian military uniform as he made his final phone call to his family from the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don before being deployed in the midst of the Ukraine conflict. Asfan is embraced by his brother Mohammed Imran in Hyderabad.Getty Images

Lured by false promises of high-paying jobs, Indian nationals ended up fighting for the Russian army.

Delhi and Moscow are not without their differences. There have been several reported cases of Indian nationals being lured with false promises of high-paying job offers to fight for the Russian army in Ukraine. Four Indians have been killed in fighting so far.

Indian officials claim that during his visit, Modi will press his Russian counterpart for the early discharge of what are believed to be several dozen Indian soldiers still fighting in the war.

India recognises that it needs both the US and Russia to counter rival China and feels it needs to strike a balance so as not to anger either country.

“India has a policy of strategic autonomy and multilateral alignment. We have strategic relationships with both the US and Russia. These are mutually exclusive partnerships,” Trignayath said.

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