Modi to meet Putin in Moscow as India charts its course

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi arrived in Moscow on Monday to meet Russian President Vladimir V. Putin, a visit that shows the Indian leader's determination to continue on his diplomatic path even as the West continues to isolate Moscow over its war against Ukraine.

For Putin, Modi’s visit will be a way for Russia to demonstrate that the Kremlin continues to have a strong partnership with India, despite India’s deepening relationship with the United States. India’s purchases of discounted Russian oil have helped fill Russia’s coffers drained by international sanctions over the war, and Russia has sought to present India as a partner in reshaping the Western-dominated global order.

This is Mr Modi's first visit to Russia in five years. He arrived on a red carpet welcome at Moscow's Vnukovo International Airport, where he was greeted by a Russian military band, as well as First Deputy Prime Minister Denis V. Manturov.

In a message posted on social media platform X after his arrival, Mr Modi said he looked forward to deepening the “special and strategic partnership” between India and Russia, stressing that stronger ties “will be of great benefit to our people”.

Mr Modi arrived on a day when Russia unleashed a brutal air strike on Ukraine, including an attack on the country’s largest children’s hospital in Kiev. The attack has drawn condemnation from the West and could shine a harsh light on India’s ties with Russia.

The South Asian nation has become a major buyer of cheap Russian oil at a time when Western sanctions limited what Russia could sell or charge for the product in international markets. India is building massive 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 from China.

The meeting in Moscow on Tuesday will coincide with the first day of a high-profile summit of NATO leaders in Washington. During the NATO meeting, Western allies are expected to announce additional air defense systems for Ukraine and offer assurances of the alliance's long-term commitment to Kiev'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 “great importance”, but stressed that relations with Russia were not aimed at any third party. They also tried to downplay the timing of the meeting.

“I would not like to read anything else about its significance other than that we attach great importance to this annual summit,” Vinay Mohan Kwatra, India's foreign minister, said at a news conference on Friday.

The annual summit is part of a long-standing strategic partnership between India and Russia. The two leaders last met in 2021 as part of that partnership, when Mr 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 his full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Mr. Putin has attempted to double down on his relationships with world leaders outside the West as he pursues what he calls a “multipolar” world order free from American dominance.

With its vast economic and military resources, China has become the most important partner in this effort, but Putin has also fostered relations with other nations, including Vietnam, Brazil and India, to demonstrate that Russia will not succumb to the isolation the West hopes to see.

At an investment forum in Moscow last December, Mr Putin praised the Indian leader for pursuing an independent foreign policy and refusing to cave in to Western pressure. Mr Modi had not been “scared, intimidated or coerced into taking actions or decisions that would run counter to the national interests of India and the Indian people,” Mr Putin said.

For Mr Modi, the meeting is an opportunity to signal India’s determination to chart its own foreign policy course. India, which needs both the US and Russia to counter China, is constantly trying to balance its relations between Washington and Moscow. Even as it has strengthened ties with Washington, India has refused to publicly denounce Russia over Ukraine, despite US pressure to do so.

Delhi may seek to strengthen its relations 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 aligned since declaring a “no-limits” partnership in 2022. (The two leaders praised their countries’ ties at a meeting in Kazakhstan last week.)

India likely realizes that it is “unlikely that the United States will penalize India for continuing its relationship with Russia,” Jacob said, with China emerging as Washington’s “main adversary.”

Mr Modi may also raise the controversial issue of Russia’s recruitment of Indian nationals to fight its war against Ukraine, according to Mr Kwatra, India’s foreign minister. Several dozen Indian nationals have been lured to Russia under “false pretenses,” he said, and the government is working to bring them back.

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

Russia is India’s biggest supplier of military equipment, but the share of Russian weapons has declined over the years, partly because that country has older technology. India has sought to diversify its sources of military supplies and pursue defense cooperation deals, including with the United States. And the United States and India have also said they would expand cooperation in advanced weaponry, supercomputing and other high-tech fields.

But U.S. officials are wary of providing sensitive equipment and technology to India if there is a risk that the Russian military might have access to it. In a recent visit to New Delhi, Kurt Campbell, the U.S. deputy secretary of state, said the United States wanted a strong technological relationship with India, and was clear about “what areas are affected by the continuing relationship between India and Russia militarily and technologically.”

India's defense ties with Russia “may be an irritant for the United States, but they are not enough to hinder Washington's military cooperation with India,” said Nandan Unnikrishnan, who oversees the Eurasia Studies Program at the Observer Research Foundation.

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

Indian officials have said the country’s trade imbalance with Russia will be a priority for Mr Modi. India exports just $4 billion in goods to Russia and imports $65 billion, much of it from its purchases of huge amounts of oil. India wants to increase its exports to Russia across all sectors, including agriculture, pharmaceuticals and services.

Paul Sun contributed to this report from Berlin.

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