Putin hosts ‘dear friend’ Modi on first trip to Russia since Ukraine war

The Indian leader treads a fine line between maintaining a longstanding relationship with Moscow and courting closer ties with the West.

Russia's President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi during their meeting at the Novo-Ogaryovo state residence near Moscow, Russia July 8, 2024.
Russian President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi during their meeting at the Novo-Ogaryovo state residence near Moscow, Russia July 8, 2024 [Sputnik/Sergei Bobylyov/Pool via Reuters]

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has welcomed India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Moscow, greeting him as his “dear friend” as the Indian leader made his first trip to the country since the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Putin embraced Modi at his home at Novo-Ogaryovo just outside Moscow on Monday and toured him around his residence ahead of official talks in the Kremlin on Tuesday.

Putin told Modi that he was “very happy” to see him, according to an account by Russia’s TASS state news agency.

“Our official talks are tomorrow, while today in this comfortable, cozy setting we can probably discuss the same issues, but unofficially,” Putin was quoted as saying.

The Russian president offered Modi tea, berries and sweets and took him on a tour of the grounds in a motorised cart.

Modi posted photos of his arrival in Moscow on X, in both Russian and English, saying he was “looking forward to further deepening the Special and Privileged Strategic Partnership between our nations”.

“Stronger ties between our nations will greatly benefit our people,” he wrote, also sharing a picture of himself and Putin hugging.

Modi last travelled to Russia in 2019, when he attended a forum in the far eastern port of Vladivostok and met with Putin. The leaders also saw each other in September 2022 at the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit, held in Uzbekistan.

Russia remains a key supplier of cut-price oil and weapons to India, especially following sanctions on Moscow imposed by the United States and its allies, which came in response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine and shut most Western markets off to Russian exports.

According to analysts, India now gets more than 40 percent of its oil imports from Russia.

Oil and arms

Under Modi’s leadership, India has avoided condemning Russia’s military action in Ukraine while emphasising the need for a peaceful settlement. But Russia’s isolation from the West and blooming friendship with Beijing have affected Moscow’s time-honoured partnership with New Delhi.

Putin China
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping meet on the sidelines of the 2024 Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit in Kazakhstan [File: Sergey Guneyev/Sputnik/Kremlin Pool Photo via AP]

India and China are intense rivals competing for strategic influence across South Asia. A confrontation in June 2020 along the disputed China-India border dramatically altered their already touchy relationship as rival troops fought with rocks, clubs and fists. At least 20 Indian soldiers and four Chinese soldiers were killed. Tensions have persisted despite talks.

Modi notably missed last week’s summit in Kazakhstan of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, a security grouping founded by Moscow and Beijing.

Western powers have meanwhile also cultivated ties with India as a bulwark against China and its growing influence in the Asia Pacific, while pressuring it to distance itself from Russia.

India is part of the so-called Quad grouping with Australia, Japan and the US, which positions itself against China in the Asia-Pacific region.

The US State Department on Monday said Washington has raised concerns with India about its relationship with Russia amid Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.

“We would urge India, as we do any country when it engages with Russia, to make clear that any resolution to the conflict in Ukraine needs to be one that respects the UN Charter, that respects Ukraine’s territorial integrity, Ukraine’s sovereignty,” State Department Spokesperson Matthew Miller told reporters.

“And India is a strategic partner with whom we engage in a full and frank dialogue, and that includes on our concerns about the relationship with Russia.”

Analysts say Modi is expected to seek to continue close relations with Russia, given Moscow’s role as a major defence supplier for India.

“Defence cooperation will clearly be a priority area,” Chietigj Bajpaee, a senior South Asia research fellow at Chatham House, told the Associated Press news agency, adding that 60 percent of India’s military equipment and systems are “still of Russian origin”.

“We have seen some delay in the deliveries of spare parts … following the Russian invasion of Ukraine,” he said. “I believe both countries are due to conclude a military logistics agreement, which would pave the way for more defence exchanges.”

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Moscow
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Moscow [X/@narendramodi]

Analysts also noted that India’s neutral stance on the war in Ukraine has bolstered Putin’s efforts to counter what he calls the West’s domination of global affairs.

Following an arrest warrant issued in 2023 by the International Criminal Court for his actions in Ukraine, Putin’s foreign travel has been sparse in recent years. Modi’s trip, analysts say, could help the Russian leader boost his clout.

“We kind of see Putin going on a nostalgia trip – you know, he was in Vietnam, he was in North Korea,” Theresa Fallon, an analyst at the Centre for Russia, Europe, Asia Studies, told the AP.

“In my view, he’s trying to demonstrate that he’s not a vassal to China, that he has options, that Russia is still a great power.”

Trade development will also figure strongly in the talks, particularly the intention to develop a maritime corridor between India’s major port of Chennai and Vladivostok, the gateway to Russia’s Far East.

Indian Secretary of Foreign Affairs Vinay Mohan Kwatra told reporters on Friday that due to strong energy cooperation, India-Russia trade increased to nearly $65bn in the 2023-24 financial year.

Imports from Russia touched $60bn and exports from India $4bn in the 2023-24 financial year, Kwatra said. India’s financial year runs from April to March.

He said India was trying to correct the trade imbalance with Russia by increasing its exports.

India’s top exports to Russia include drugs and pharmaceutical products, telecom instruments, iron and steel, marine products and machinery. Its top imports from Russia include crude oil and petroleum products, coal and coke, pearls, precious and semiprecious stones, fertiliser, vegetable oil, gold and silver.

From Russia, Modi will travel to Vienna for the first visit to the Austrian capital by an Indian leader since Indira Gandhi in 1983.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies