Why Modi’s Russia visit, first since Ukraine war, holds huge significance
The prime minister will be in Moscow from July 8 to 9 and hold a bilateral summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin. | File photo

Why Modi’s Russia visit, first since Ukraine war, holds huge significance

There are apprehensions among sections in the Indian establishment about the growing proximity in Sino-Russian ties in recent years

Prime Minister Narendra Modi will travel to Russia next week for the first bilateral visit of his third term in office, signaling the importance he attaches to ties with Moscow despite India’s growing ties with the United States and other European countries.

This will be his first visit to the country since the Ukraine war began in February 2022.

The Prime Minister will be in Moscow from July 8 to 9 and hold a bilateral summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin to discuss the entire gamut of the two countries’ multifaceted relationship and other regional and global developments of interest.

From Moscow, Modi will travel to Vienna from July 9 to 10 for a bilateral meeting with the Austrian political leadership and the country’s business leaders.

Safeguarding interests

This is a clear signal of how India is managing its ties with different countries, including those that often have adversarial relations, to promote and safeguard its own interests.

Russia has been India’s largest defence partner and its main oil supplier since the war in Ukraine. Though bilateral trade between the two sides is close to $50 billion, there are issues over payment as Western sanctions on Russia disrupted normal financial channels.

Besides, India has invested $ 1 billion in Russia’s ‘Far East’ and the two sides are cooperating in a wide range of areas from space and nuclear energy to defence and security to infrastructure and connectivity.

Modi goes to Moscow at a time when most Western countries and close allies of the US have avoided traveling to Moscow as they blame Russia for the invasion of Ukraine and have built a narrative on pitching the war as an existential threat to Europe.

Allaying apprehensions

Modi’s visit will allay fears and put to rest doubts that have cropped up in certain quarters that India was diluting ties with Russia following Western pressure.

India has neither condemned Russia nor sanctioned it, as most Western countries have done, for the Ukraine war.

The prime minister’s visit to Moscow is part of the bilateral summit between India and Russia that was put in place since 2000 and led leaders of the two countries to travel to each other’s country alternately.

Modi visited Moscow for the summit in 2018, and his last visit to Russia was in 2019, during an economic conclave in Vladivostok.

But the COVID-19 pandemic had disturbed the regular visit of the leaders and Putin visited New Delhi for the summit in December 2021, making it his first bilateral visit since travel restrictions due to the pandemic.

However, he did not attend the G20 summit that was held in New Delhi under India’s presidency in September 2023. This was done to avoid India the embarrassment as Putin’s presence at the summit would have provoked leaders of the western countries to attack the Russian President for invading Ukraine and might have even boycotted the prime minister’s dinner that he had hosted for all the invitees.

No shift in foreign policy

Modi had begun his third term in office, which came after a much-reduced majority in Parliament that forced him to rely on coalition partners for his survival, by making the outreach program of the G7 summit in Italy last month his first foreign visit.

His attempt was to convey that despite setbacks in the Lok Sabha elections, there was no shift in his foreign policy.

At that meeting dominated by the leading industrialised democracies in the west, Modi engaged with a host of G7 members and met Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky. But he refrained from travelling to Switzerland for the Ukraine Peace summit that was widely seen as an anti-Putin gathering, though he sent a senior Indian diplomat to convey India’s commitment to early peace in Ukraine.

Some sections had seen Modi’s meeting with Zelensky and India’s attendance at the summit, boycotted by most non-western countries, as a shift away from its earlier pro-Russian stand.

Skipping SCO summit

When the Indian Prime Minister decided to stay away from the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit in Kazakhstan, where China and Russia are the two main pillars, and instead sent his Minister for External Affairs S Jaishankar to attend, that too, was seen as an attempt on Modi’s part to avoid being party to anti-US rhetoric and outcome documents that were critical of the west.

But the Modi camp had argued that he skipped the SCO summit because of the ongoing parliament session and also to avoid meeting Chinese President Xi Jinping at this juncture, though he wanted to maintain political engagement with Beijing at the foreign minister’s level to ensure bilateral relations don’t deteriorate further.

It was also felt that a Modi-Xi meeting would be seen by China as India’s keenness to normalise ties and allow Chinese soldiers to consolidate the positions they have occupied unilaterally by breaking the status quo at their informal border.

Keenly watched visit

The Indian Prime Minister's visit to Russia will not only be watched by Western experts and sceptics in New Delhi but also by China.

There are apprehensions among sections in the Indian establishment about the growing proximity in Sino-Russian ties in recent years. The Ukraine war and the western sanctions have brought the two countries even closer and made Russia more dependent on China, according to these experts in India.

Since India continues to depend heavily on Russia for its weapons and military spares, they fear that if tension arises along the Sino-Indian border, Moscow may not be as reliable a partner as it was to New Delhi in the past.

But soon after the Indian and Chinese military face-off along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in May 2020, China had asked Russia to withhold its defence supply to India as this involved two of its close, strategic partners. However, Russia had politely turned down the Chinese request and refused to break its commitment to India.

Change in Russia’s stand?

But the sceptics in India argue that Russia’s position may have changed from its earlier stand since its dependence on China has also increased significantly during the Ukraine war.

It is not clear whether this will come up for discussion between Modi and Putin next week during their talks. But the Ukraine war and other international developments of mutual interest, especially the presidential election in the US in November and the political changes taking place in Europe, are likely to figure during discussions between the two leaders.

However, as Modi continues to maintain a diplomatic balance between Russia and the West and expands India’s strategic options, the ‘Moscow Declaration’ or the outcome document from the talks between the two leaders will be watched with interest by observers in different parts of the world.

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