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Modi bear hugs Putin in Moscow, marking deep ties between Russia and India

3 days ago 28

NEW DELHI — Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been hosted by President Biden at a state dinner and lavished with praise by White House officials, who describe ties with India as “one of the most consequential relationships” for the United States.

But this week, Modi reminded the world that he has another close relationship — with “my friend Vladimir Putin.”

As Modi makes his first visit to Russia since the outbreak of the Ukraine war, the images emerging from Moscow of Modi wrapping the Russian president in a bear hug send a clear signal that the South Asian giant will maintain deep ties with Russia despite the Biden administration’s efforts to woo its prime minister. It also shows that Putin is not as isolated as the White House has hoped.

The trip to Moscow, which overlapped with three days of NATO meetings in Washington, was met with consternation in Washington and Kyiv. Asked about the Modi-Putin meeting, State Department spokesman Matthew Miller told reporters at a press briefing: “We have made quite clear directly with India our concerns about their relationship with Russia.”

On X, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky posted photos of a children’s hospital in Kyiv that was struck by a Russian missile on Monday and criticized the meeting. “It is a huge disappointment and a devastating blow to peace efforts to see the leader of the world’s largest democracy hug the world’s most bloody criminal in Moscow on such a day,” he wrote.

The meeting represented a geopolitical hedge for Modi and Putin, two leaders who are otherwise drifting closer to rival camps led respectively by the United States and China. For Modi, Russia remains a crucial source of weaponry and energy and space technology that India sees as indispensable in becoming a great power. Analysts also say India does not want Russia to grow overly dependent upon its rival, China.

Putin’s war effort, meanwhile, has been funded in significant part by Indian purchases of Russian oil products, which have increased almost 20-fold since 2021. Russia, likewise, hopes India will keep its distance from the United States, and Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov mocked the West this week for feeling “jealous” about Russia-India ties.

The Moscow meeting appeared to deepen what the two countries have called a “special and privileged strategic relationship.” Indian officials said Tuesday that discussions were underway to import more Russian oil and nuclear fuel for Indian power plants that use Russian nuclear technology. In a speech to the Indian diaspora, Modi also announced that India would open consulates in Kazan and Yekaterinburg to enhance ties between the two peoples.

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“India and Russia are walking shoulder and shoulder and infusing new energy into global prosperity,” Modi said in his speech. “Any mention of Russia reminds every Indian of an ally that has been with us through good times and bad, as a trusted friend of India.”

After arriving Monday evening, Modi met Putin at the Russian leader’s Moscow region residence in Novo-Ogaryovo over tea on an outside terrace.

“It is a great honor to visit a friend’s home,” Modi said, according to clips released by Russian state media, after he warmly embraced Putin with his trademark hug.

“We have official talks tomorrow, but today we can talk in a home environment, in my residence,” Putin said. “I’d like to congratulate you on your reelection as prime minister; that is not by accident but a result of your work over many years. You have your own ideas, you are very energetic, and you are successful in achieving results in the name of the Indian people.”

Modi’s trip to Moscow, coming less than a month after he was sworn in for a third term, broke with the Indian tradition of prime ministers visiting South Asian neighbors first after an election. But it demonstrated Modi’s global aspirations and gave him a chance to show Putin that India has not slipped too far into the Western camp, even as U.S.-India cooperation reaches its highest level in decades, Indian analysts say.

“The decision to go early in the term is a signal that India remains invested in the Russia relationship — that is part and parcel of India’s foreign policy, cutting across party lines,” said Pankaj Saran, a former Indian ambassador to Russia and deputy national security adviser who continues to advise the Indian government.

The Indian establishment, Saran added, still considers ties with Washington its highest priority. India could seek to assuage U.S. concerns by arguing that an India that is friendly with Russia could prove useful as a potential interlocutor between Moscow and the West, he said.

Even though the India-Russia relationship reaches back to the Cold War era, the energy and defense ties between Russia and India — the world’s largest weapons buyer and the No. 3 importer of oil — have continued to thrive. Indian imports of Russian crude rose from $2.5 billion in 2021, before the Ukraine war erupted, to $46.5 billion in 2023, according to Indian Commerce Ministry data. Last year, only China purchased more Russian crude.

Indian officials say the transactions have been priced below the $60 per barrel cap imposed by the Group of Seven countries, and the United States has refrained from criticizing India’s purchases. But they represent such a large windfall for Russia that Indian officials have begun to voice concerns about India’s mounting trade deficit.

And while U.S. officials have publicly and privately urged India to wean itself off Russian weapons, the Russian state-owned arms manufacturing giant Rostec announced last week that it would produce armor-piercing tank ammunition in India to supply its army.

In exchange for lending its support, Indian officials and observers say they hope Putin will signal to Modi that he has maintained a degree of independence from China, India’s rival, at a time when Russia is increasingly seen as a junior partner to Beijing.

India hopes to “engage Russia, to provide options to Russia and to remind Russia that they have to be cognizant in how they conduct their relationship with China,” Saran said. “India will be closely watching the Russia-China military or intelligence relationship and how much of it will be detrimental to India.”

For Putin, Modi’s visit, which wraps up Tuesday, provides a further chance to demonstrate he is not totally isolated over his war in Ukraine.

“For Putin, it’s very important. It is international recognition,” a Russian official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter. Touting Russia’s relationship with India also allows Putin to boost Russia’s position in relation to China, he said.

Russian officials and analysts say that despite the bonhomie and “no limits” friendship between Putin and Chinese leader Xi Jinping, the Russian president has kept a certain distance from China. Just last month, Putin visited North Korea in a trip that was “not received very well in Beijing,” said the Russian official, who is close to senior Russian diplomats.

“When we became completely dependent on China, we suddenly had the visit to North Korea and now this balance with India,” the official said. “With these types of triangles, [Putin] is able to balance the situation to show that he is not completely subservient.”

Belton reported from London and Ilyushina from Berlin. Anant Gupta in New Delhi contributed to this report.

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