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Modi's Moscow visit points to enduring friendship with Putin's Russia

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi take a walk during an informal meeting at the Novo-Ogaryovo state residence, outside Moscow, on July 8.
Sergei Karpukhin
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AFP via Getty Images
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi take a walk during an informal meeting at the Novo-Ogaryovo state residence, outside Moscow, on July 8.

MOSCOW — Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is in Moscow for a two-day visit with Russian President Vladimir Putin — his first trip to Russia since the Kremlin ordered its full-scale invasion of Ukraine more than two years ago.

Yet there are few signs Modi, the leader of the world’s largest democracy, plans to challenge Putin directly over his actions in Ukraine. Instead, the Indian leader appears to be engaging Moscow as part of a wider balancing act between East and West that has been at the core of his foreign policy.

Ahead of his departure for Moscow, Modi noted the partnership with Russia had “advanced” over the past 10 years, and he looked forward to reviewing all aspects of bilateral cooperation with his “friend” Putin.

“We seek to play a supportive role for a peaceful and stable region,” Modi added, without clarifying.

Statements by the Kremlin were similarly sanguine, saying that Modi’s visit would build on “traditionally friendly Russian-Indian relations.”

Modi was greeted by a goose-stepping honor guard upon arrival at Moscow’s Vnukovo airport Monday afternoon. Russian Deputy Prime Minister Denis Manturov, who had worked with an Indian-Russia aeronautics company in the past, greeted him on the tarmac.

As Modi’s motorcade made his way toward his hotel across from the Kremlin, throngs of well-wishers gathered to wave Indian and Russian flags.

Among other announced activities: Putin will host Modi for a private dinner “with a free agenda” for discussion, the Kremlin’s spokesman said — setting the tone for formal talks on Tuesday.

Modi is also expected to lay flowers at Russia’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

There were no current plans for the leaders to address the media, the spokesman added.

Cold War allies

Russia and India have strong ties that date back to the height of the Cold War.

In a partnership that often blurred ideological lines, the Soviets provided weapons to India as both countries found a common threat in the rise of their neighbor China.

Fast forward to today and much has changed: The United States is now one of India’s major partners and India’s military needs have diversified. Yet Modi’s Moscow visit is part tribute to an enduring Indian-Russian friendship, analysts say.

India has refused Western entreaties, including by Washington, to condemn Russia's invasion of Ukraine — with Modi instead urging a vague diplomatic settlement to the conflict.

“Today’s era is not an era of war,” the Indian prime minister told Putin during their last meeting on the sidelines of a regional summit in Central Asia in the fall of 2022.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) meets with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization leaders' summit in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, on Sept. 16, 2022.
Alexandr Demyanchuk / Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images
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Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images
Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) meets with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization leaders' summit in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, on Sept. 16, 2022.

Putin responded by promising Modi that Russia was doing “everything to stop this as soon as possible.”

Nearly two years later, the death toll and destruction in Ukraine continue to mount, with hundreds of thousands dead and no end to the fighting in sight.

Just hours before Modi landed, Russian rockets struck cities across Ukraine, killing at least 29 people and injuring dozens more. Among the targets hit was a children’s hospital in the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv.

Russia’s Defense Ministry insisted its forces had carried out precision attacks on military installations.

Meanwhile, New Delhi has grown increasingly alarmed as Western sanctions have pushed Russia into the arms of India’s key regional rival China, regional exports say.

“India has not condemned the Russian invasion, but that doesn't mean that it supports the war,” Michael Kugelman, South Asia director of the Wilson Center, told NPR late last year. “It doesn't support the war at all. The war makes Russia more dependent on China, and India doesn't want that because China is India's strategic competitor."

The economic ties that bind

Further complicating the picture: New Delhi has also benefited from purchases of Russian oil at steep discounts after the U.S. and its allies imposed sanctions on Russian crude.

Meanwhile, easing the way for more Russian-Indian business — and adjusting a massive trade imbalance that has come with Russia's oil exports — appears at the heart of this week’s talks.

One of key topics discussed will be development of alternative money transfer systems — think a Russian-Indian version of Paypal, Zelle or Venmo — as a workaround to Western sanctions that removed most Russian banks from the global SWIFT payment system.

Ahead of Modi’s visit, India’s Foreign Secretary Vinay Kwatra, said talks would also focus on freeing between 30-40 Indians who were “misled” into Russian military service by promises of mercenary pay.

Different views of a multipolar world

In Moscow, Modi’s arrival is seen as the latest evidence of the West’s failure to isolate Russia over its invasion of its neighbor. Shortly before Modi’s visit, Putin hosted Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orban, in Moscow and met with China’s Xi Jinping and a host of other leaders at a Eurasian regional summit in Kazakhstan.

Russia's president, Vladimir Putin, and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban (left) deliver a joint press statement following their talks at the Kremlin in Moscow on July 5.
Alexander Nemenov / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
Russia's president, Vladimir Putin, and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban (left) deliver a joint press statement following their talks at the Kremlin in Moscow on July 5.

The Indian prime minister’s visit — which partially coincides with this week’s NATO summit gathering in Washington, D.C. — provides yet another opportunity for Putin to herald Russia’s membership in non-Western clubs such as the BRICS group of advanced developing nations and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization among others.

Putin has framed these organizations as evidence of a new “multipolar world order” emerging from what, he argues, is the West’s moral rot and economic decline.

Modi, too, has embraced India’s rise in a new multipolar reality. But he has pursued a balancing act to maintain good relations with Western economies with which New Delhi does much of its business.

Copyright 2024 NPR

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