Modi to meet Putin in Moscow as India charts its own course

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi will meet Russian President Vladimir V. Putin this week, a visit that shows the Indian leader’s determination to pursue his own diplomatic path even as the West continues to isolate Moscow over its war with Ukraine.

For Mr Putin, Mr Modi’s visit will be a way for Russia to demonstrate that the Kremlin continues to have a close partnership with India even as the world’s fifth-largest economy has deepen its relationship with the United States. India’s purchases of discounted Russian oil have helped fill Russian coffers depleted by international sanctions during the war, and Russia has sought to India is a partner in reshaping the Western-dominated global order.

This is Mr Modi’s first visit to Russia in five years. He is expected to land in Moscow on Monday and attend a dinner hosted by Mr Putin. The two leaders will discuss trade, energy and military ties when they sit down for talks on Tuesday.

The South Asian nation has become a main buyer cheap Russian oil at a time when Western sanctions limit what Russia can sell or charge for its products on international markets. India is building major nuclear power plants with technical assistance from Russia. Russia is also India’s biggest arms supplier, making the relationship crucial for India, which has long had to defend its borders against China.

The meeting in Moscow on Tuesday will coincide with the first day of a high-level NATO leaders’ summit in Washington. During the NATO meeting, the Western allies are expected to announce more air defense system for Ukraine and provided assurances of the alliance’s long-term commitment to Kyiv’s security.

Speaking to reporters in New Delhi ahead of Mr Modi’s trip, Indian officials said The summit between Mr Modi and Mr Putin was of “immense importance”, but stressed that relations with Russia were not aimed at any third party. They also sought to downplay the timing of the meeting.

“I don’t want to read anything more into its importance, except to say that we take this annual summit very seriously,” Vinay Mohan Kwatra, India’s foreign minister, told a news conference on Friday.

The annual summit is an aspect of the long-standing strategic partnership between India and Russia, although the two leaders last met in 2021 as part of the summit when Putin visited Delhi. They have met at other events and spoken on the phone several times, Indian officials said.

In the nearly two and a half years since launching a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Mr. Putin has sought to strengthen ties with global leaders outside the West as he pursues what he calls a “multipolar” world order free of unilateral American dominance.

With its vast economic and military resources, China has become the most important partner in that effort, but Mr. Putin has also touted ties with other countries, including Vietnam, Brazil and India, to demonstrate that Russia will not succumb to the isolation the West is seeking.

At an investment forum in Moscow last December, Mr Putin praised the Indian leader for pursuing an independent foreign policy and refusing to bow to Western pressure. Mr Modi was not “feared, intimidated or forced to act or make decisions that are contrary to the national interests of India and its people,” Mr Putin said.

For Mr Modi, the meeting was an opportunity to demonstrate India’s determination to chart its own foreign policy course. India, which needs both the United States and Russia to counter China, has consistently tried to balance its relationship between Washington and Moscow. Even as it has strengthened its ties with Washington, India has refused to publicly condemn Russia over Ukraine, despite pressure from the United States.

Delhi may be looking to strengthen ties with Russia to counter Russia’s growing closeness to China, said Happymon Jacob, an associate professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University and an expert on Indian foreign policy. Mr Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping have become increasingly linked after declaring an “unlimited” partnership in 2022. (The two leaders praised the relationship between the two countries at a meeting in Kazakhstan last week.)

India may realise that the US is “hardly likely to punish India for continuing its relationship with Russia”, as China emerges as Washington’s “main enemy”, Mr Jacob said.

Mr Modi could also address the controversial issue of Russia recruiting Indian citizens to fight in its war with Ukraine, according to Mr Kwatra, India’s foreign minister. He said dozens of Indians had been lured to Russia with “false promises”, and the government was working to bring them back.

At the same time, India also needs US support against potential Chinese aggression in its backyard. China and India have had several border clashes over the decades, including 2022 and 2020when 20 Indian soldiers and an unspecified number of Chinese soldiers were killed. India needs ammunition to protect its northern and eastern borders.

Russia is India’s largest supplier of military equipment, but its market share of Russian weapons has declined over the years — in part because the country has older technology. India has sought to diversify its military supplies and pursue defense cooperation agreements, including with the United States. And the United States and India have also announced that they will expand cooperation on advanced weapons, supercomputers and other high-tech areas.

But US officials are concerned on providing sensitive equipment and technology to India if there is a risk that the Russian military may gain access. During a recent visit to New Delhi, Kurt Campbell, the US deputy secretary of state, said the US wanted a close technological relationship with India and outlined “which areas are affected by the continued military and technological relationship between India and Russia”.

Nandan Unnikrishnan, who oversees the Eurasia studies program at the Observer Research Foundation, said India’s defense relationship with Russia “may be irritating to the United States but not enough to derail Washington’s military cooperation with India.”

Mr Unnikrishnan said he did not expect India to announce any new military purchases from Russia during the summit. But he thought the leaders could announce deals on trade, investment and energy cooperation.

Indian officials say the country’s trade imbalance with Russia will be a priority for Mr Modi. India exports just $4 billion worth of goods to Russia and imports $65 billion, largely due to its huge oil purchases. India wants to increase exports to Russia across the board, including agriculture, pharmaceuticals and services.

Paul Sonne contributed to this report from Berlin.


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