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In Moscow, Modi Treads Fine Line Between Russia And The West

Russian President Vladimir Putin decorates Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi with the Order of St. Andrew the Apostle the First-Called during a ceremony following their talks at the Kremlin in Moscow on July 9.
Russian President Vladimir Putin decorates Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi with the Order of St. Andrew the Apostle the First-Called during a ceremony following their talks at the Kremlin in Moscow on July 9.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi wrapped up a high-stakes visit to Moscow on July 9 -- his first to Russia since 2019 -- that highlighted the fine line New Delhi treads as it bolsters relations with Russia while courting closer ties with the West.

On the second and final day of Modi’s visit to the Russian capital, India and Russia set out nine key areas for closer cooperation, ranging from nuclear energy to medicine, with officials from both sides saying they aimed to boost bilateral trade by more than half to hit $100 billion by 2030.

While the 22nd India-Russia annual summit focused on bilateral cooperation, it took place against the backdrop of wider geopolitical turmoil sparked by Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

Notwithstanding a personal chemistry between the Russian President Vladimir Putin and Modi, bilateral relations are weighed down by several issues, first and foremost the war in Ukraine and, linked to that, how New Delhi should navigate relations with China and the West.

The meeting in Moscow on July 9 also coincided with the opening of a high-profile summit of NATO leaders in Washington, as well as the Russian bombing of a children’s hospital in Kyiv.

Modi did appear to reference that attack in comments to Putin on July 9, saying that "when innocent children are murdered, one sees them die, the heart pains and that pain is unbearable."

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy had slammed Modi’s visit, posting on social media that it was 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."

The U.S. State Department said on July 8 that it had raised concerns with India about its relationship with Russia.

Modi: War Cannot Solve Problems

Modi said that a solution to the war in Ukraine "cannot be found on the battlefield...we have to find peace through talks." Those comments echoed remarks he made on the sidelines of a Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit in September 2022, when -- in an apparent snub to the Russian leader -- he said that "this is not the era of war."

On July 9, Putin hailed the "very long-standing friendship" and now a "specially privileged, strategic partnership" between Russia and India.

Despite his remarks of concern, Modi was not likely to confront Putin directly over the Russian invasion of Ukraine, sources close to the Indian prime minister's office said. The Indian leader seems rather to be engaging Russia as part of a broader balancing act between East and West, which is at the crux of his multifaceted foreign policy.

India has taken a neutral stance, neither condemning nor condoning Russia’s war on Ukraine, and has said the conflict should be resolved through dialogue and diplomacy.

New Delhi fears that if it condemns Russia and joins Western sanctions, it will alienate Moscow and push it ever closer to China and Pakistan, both archrivals to India.

For that reason, India refused to sign a joint communique at the recently held Ukrainian-initiated peace summit in Switzerland, pitching for Russia’s presence at the negotiating table as a prerequisite for a durable and lasting peace.

It remains to be seen if Modi heeded Western calls to emphasize Ukraine's territorial integrity during his meeting with Putin in Moscow.

Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine does impact India, including having a human cost.

Modi raised the issue in Moscow of Indian citizens who had signed up for so-called "support jobs" with the Russian military, following reports some had been killed after allegedly being forced to fight in Ukraine.

Indian Foreign Secretary Vinay Mohan Kwatra said on July 9 that Russia had pledged to begin discharging Indian nationals who had been "misled" into joining its military.

He added that the situation affected an estimated 35-50 Indians, of whom 10 had already been brought home.

The China Factor

The partnership between Moscow and New Delhi has become more complicated as Russia, facing growing international isolation, has edged closer to China since the outbreak of the war in Ukraine.

Those growing Russian-Chinese ties are said to have factored into Modi’s decision to stay away last week from an SCO summit in Kazakhstan.

"Moscow’s growing dependence on Beijing and Xi’s foreign policy assertiveness has made China the key fulcrum in SCO maneuvers. India is circumspect about this," explained Ved Shinde, a former researcher at the Asia Society Policy Institute in New Delhi.

The snubbing of the SCO gathering contrasted starkly with Modi's presence at an outreach session of the Group of Seven summit in Italy in June, his first trip abroad since he was reelected for a third term.

For India, the most critical strategic challenge is China’s expansionism at its borders, said Ajay Bisaria, a former Indian diplomat.

"It will tend to look at all its relationships through that prism. The China factor makes for an additional driver for India’s engagement not just with China’s strongest global competitor, the U.S., but also with its closest ally, Russia", added Bisaria.

At the same time, India is a member of the Quad security grouping involving the United States, Japan, and Australia, which serves as a bulwark against China's assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific region.

Still Dependent On Russian Arms

As the world’s biggest arms importer, India still mostly relies on Russian technology for traditional arms. In the early 1990s, the Soviet Union was the source of about 70 percent of Indian army weapons, 80 percent of its air force systems, and 85 percent of its navy platforms.

However, India's dependence on Russian arms has dropped as it diversifies, in part to prop up domestic defense manufacturing, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

India is also being forced to eye other sources as the war in Ukraine has stretched Russia's arms supplies thin. However, 60 percent of India’s military equipment and systems are still of Russian origin.

India's importance as a key trade partner for Russia has steadily grown since the beginning of the war in Ukraine in February 2022. Apart from China, India has become a key buyer of Russian oil, sold at discounted prices, providing Russia a crucial financial lifeline amid Western sanctions.

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    Dragan Stavljanin

    Dragan Stavljanin is the foreign affairs editor of RFE/RL's Balkan Service. He has published numerous articles and written two books, The Cold Peace: The Caucasus And Kosovo and The Balkanization Of The Internet And The 'Death' Of The Journalist.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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