Modi’s First Russia Visit Since Ukraine War Begins

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi embarks on a two-day visit to Russia on Monday, marking his first trip since the commencement of Moscow’s military operation in Ukraine. This visit comes amidst a period of complex relations between the long-standing partners, with the war pushing Russia closer to China, India’s strategic rival.

Modi’s itinerary includes a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, whom he last met in Russia in 2019, in the far eastern port city of Vladivostok. The two leaders also had a face-to-face encounter in September 2022 in Uzbekistan, during a summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO).

Russia has maintained robust ties with India since the Cold War, and New Delhi’s significance as a key trading partner for Moscow has amplified since the Kremlin launched its military action in Ukraine in February 2022. China and India have emerged as major purchasers of Russian oil, following the imposition of sanctions by the United States and its allies that effectively closed off most Western markets to Russian exports.

Under Modi’s leadership, India has refrained from condemning Russia’s actions in Ukraine while emphasizing the need for a peaceful resolution to the conflict.

However, the partnership between Moscow and New Delhi has grown strained due to Russia’s burgeoning ties with China, India’s primary competitor, in the wake of the hostilities in Ukraine.

Modi notably skipped the recent SCO summit held in Kazakhstan last week.

Chietigj Bajpaee, a senior South Asia research fellow at Chatham House, a UK-based think tank, observes that India is progressively distancing itself from forums where Russia and China play prominent roles.

“This is evident in India’s relatively subdued presidency of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization last year, and now the decision by Modi not to attend this year’s summit,” Bajpaee stated.

A confrontation in June 2020 along the disputed China-India border significantly altered their already delicate relationship as troops from both sides engaged in clashes using rocks, clubs, and fists. This encounter resulted in the deaths of at least 20 Indian soldiers and four Chinese soldiers. Tensions have persisted since then, despite ongoing talks.

These tensions have influenced New Delhi’s perspective on Moscow.

“Russia’s relations with China have been a major concern in the context of China’s increased assertiveness in the region,” D. Bala Venkatesh Verma, a former Indian ambassador to Russia, told The Associated Press.

Despite these challenges, Modi will seek to sustain close ties with Russia, a crucial trading partner and major defense supplier for India.

Since Western sanctions blocked Russian oil exports following the onset of the Ukraine war, India has become a significant buyer of Russian oil. According to analysts, India now imports over 40% of its oil needs from Russia.

India also relies heavily on Russia for military supplies. However, with Moscow’s supply chain disrupted by the conflict in Ukraine, India has been diversifying its defense procurement, increasing purchases from countries like the U.S., Israel, France, and Italy.

“Defense cooperation will clearly be a priority area,” Bajpaee noted, adding that 60% of India’s military equipment and systems “are still of Russian origin.”

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

India has adopted a neutral stance, neither condemning nor endorsing Russia’s military action in Ukraine, and has called for negotiations to end the fighting. This stance has bolstered Putin’s efforts to counter what he refers to as the West’s dominance of global affairs.

Facing an arrest warrant issued by the International Criminal Court for actions related to the war in Ukraine, Putin’s foreign travel has been relatively limited in recent years, making Modi’s visit potentially beneficial for the Russian leader’s image.

“We kind of see Putin going on a nostalgia trip — you know, he was in Vietnam, he was in North Korea,” said Theresa Fallon, an analyst at the Center for Russia, Europe, Asia Studies. “In my view, he’s trying to demonstrate that he’s not a vassal to China, that he has options, that .”

Alexander Gabuev, head of the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center, stated that Putin’s interactions on the world stage indicate that he “is far from isolated” and that Russia is not a country to be dismissed.

Trade development will also be a key focus of the talks, particularly efforts to establish a maritime corridor connecting India’s major port of Chennai with Vladivostok, the gateway to Russia’s Far East.

India-Russia trade has witnessed a sharp rise, approaching $65 billion in the 2023-24 financial year, driven by robust energy cooperation, Indian Foreign Secretary Vinay Mohan Kwatra informed reporters on Friday.

Imports from Russia reached $60 billion, while exports from India amounted to $4 billion in the 2023-24 financial year, Kwatra revealed. India’s financial year runs from April to March.

He indicated that India was working to rectify the trade imbalance with Russia by increasing its exports. India’s top exports to Russia include pharmaceuticals, telecom equipment, iron and steel, marine products, and machinery.

Its primary imports from Russia consist of crude oil and petroleum products, coal and coke, pearls, precious and semi-precious stones, fertilizer, vegetable oil, gold, and silver.