Why is Modi sucking up to Putin? It’s simple and cynical: China and oil

Why is Modi sucking up to Putin? It’s simple and cynical: China and oil

Sergey Radchenko

If bear-hugging a murderous autocrat is not your idea of a sensible foreign policy, then you aren’t thinking like the Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi. His fraternising with Vladimir Putin this week has included a private welcome at the latter’s sprawling estate outside Moscow, a lavish dinner and even a happy ride-around in an e-cart.

During the frivolities, Russia launched another series of airstrikes on targets in Ukraine, destroying a children’s hospital in Kyiv. But Modi would not let that derail the summit. He is playing for higher stakes. Modi knows well how to opportunistically turn someone else’s war to his advantage. His objective, after all, is to raise India’s profile – and his own – in the hope of becoming an indispensable power, one equally courted by democrats and dictators.

Modi’s geopolitical acrobatics is nothing new. India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru (of whom Modi is a bitter critic), was the original author of India’s longstanding policy of nonalignment, a policy that served Delhi reasonably well during the cold war. There were hiccups of course. When in October 1962 China invaded India, Nehru suddenly became desperate for America’s friendship, but the change of heart proved painfully brief. No sooner did the Chinese retreat than India returned to its position of non-alignment.

Modi follows a similar policy. As long as China is not actively invading India, he has no reason to heed western reproaches about his loving embrace of Putin. Modi’s unspoken refrain to the west is this: mind your own business. He has a point. There is at least an even chance that the west will best India in a contest of hypocrisies. Regardless, Modi is trained on his goal to build up India’s stature as a truly global power and a key leader of an emerging post-western world.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Brics summit in 2016.

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Moreover, building bridges to Russia plays to India’s immediate strategic interest, which is to insert itself between Beijing and Moscow, and so obstruct too intimate a relationship between the latter two. Modi needs Russia’s benign neutrality in any possible Indian conflict with China, whose time-honoured territorial claims in the Himalayas could well lead to a special military operation much closer to Modi’s home turf than a war in faraway Europe.

And then there is the oil. Since the war, and in particular since the western price cap on Russian crude, India has been a happy importer of underpriced oil, a circumstance that has clearly benefited Indian industry even as it filled Putin’s pockets with hard cash for the war in Ukraine. Estimated to have saved about $7.9bn just between April 2023 and March 2024, India has become the second biggest importer of Russian oil, just behind China, which has similarly benefited from steeply discounted prices. Delhi’s response to critics has been to say that by buying up Russian oil, it is helping keep global oil prices low.

Meanwhile, Modi’s courting of Putin has dealt another blow to the notion that Russia can or will be globally isolated. Indeed, the summit is a part of a broader trend. In the days before meeting Modi, Putin schmoozed with central Asian countries at the summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation in Kazakhstan (India has also become a member) where he exchanged views with a western sometimes-ally, Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Before that, Putin had another meeting with the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, whom he generally refers to as his “dear friend” (fully reciprocated by Xi); and welcomed Viktor Orbán, a self-appointed mediator in the Ukraine war, to Moscow. It is almost as if there is a queue of international statesmen eager to knock on the Kremlin’s gates.

Putin clearly cherishes every opportunity to prove that his vision for the world – he predicts the inevitable decline of the US and the rise of multipolarity – has been spot on. But he is also sending a signal to Beijing. By showing that it has other international partners – including a robust relationship with one of China’s greatest adversaries, India – Putin hopes to ensure China does not take its relationship with Moscow for granted.

The game is not without risks. China has enormous economic leverage over Russia, one that India comes nowhere close to matching. Nearly half of Russian oil and gas exports end up in China, which also serves as an essential supplier of industrial equipment and electronics. The Chinese yuan is now the main currency traded on the Moscow stock exchange.

Yet so far, Xi has been very patient with Putin, whom he values as an important strategic partner in the context of the rising threat of a Sino-American confrontation. Whatever jealousies he may have over Putin’s flirtation with Modi, Xi will probably put them aside in the name of his broader strategic purpose. He may even do a better job engaging Putin, for example by finally delivering on the promise to contract for another big gas pipeline from Russia to China, thus throwing a lifeline to the pitiful Gazprom that has lost access to its former European markets. Xi certainly will not put Putin under any stress over Russia’s continued war of aggression against Ukraine.

Modi, by contrast, has been rather critical of the Russian invasion. He even reportedly told Putin, during their get-together, that “when innocent children are killed, the heart bleeds and that pain is very terrifying”. Still, judging by the outcome of the summit, the Indian prime minister survived this pain, and found comfort in Putin’s friendly embrace.

  • Sergey Radchenko is Wilson E Schmidt distinguished professor at the Henry A Kissinger Center, Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Baltimore

  • theguardian

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