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Putin receives Modi in Moscow with high stakes for Russia and India

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Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been welcomed by President Biden for a state dinner and lavished with praise by White House officials, who describe U.S.-India ties as “the most consequential relationship” of all.

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 send a clear signal that the South Asian giant will maintain deep ties with Russia despite the Biden administration’s efforts to woo Modi, and indicate that the Russian president has not been as isolated as the White House has hoped.

For Modi, Russia remains a crucial source of weaponry, energy and space technology that India sees as indispensable in becoming a great power. 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, and Modi’s visit has bolstered Putin’s international standing.

On Monday, Modi hailed India’s “special and privileged strategic relationship with Russia” as he departed for Moscow, where he was welcomed by a dancing troupe and well-wishers waving Indian and Russian flags.

Putin and Modi met Monday evening 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.

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“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 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.”

The trip, coming less than a month after Modi was sworn in for a third term, gives 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, prioritized cultivating ties with Washington while seeking to assuage U.S. concerns by presenting India as a potential interlocutor between Russia and the West.

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 deepened in many ways. 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.

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 the purchases 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 the Indian 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 speak. 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 demonstrated that he has kept a certain distance from China. Just last month, Putin visited North Korea in a visit that was “not received very well in Beijing,” said a 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.



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