Modi bear-hugs Putin in Moscow, marking deep ties between Russia and India (2024)

NEW DELHI — Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been hosted by President Biden at a state dinner and lavished with praise by White House officials, who describe ties with India as “one of the most consequential relationships” for the United States.

But this week, Modi reminded the world that he has another close relationship — with “my dear friend Vladimir Putin.”

As Modi makes his first visit to Russia since Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, the images emerging from Moscow of Modi wrapping the Russian president in a hug send a clear signal that the South Asian giant will maintain deep ties with Russia despite the Biden administration’s efforts to woo its prime minister. It also shows that Putin is not as isolated as the White House has hoped.

The trip to Moscow, which overlapped with three days of NATO meetings in Washington, was met with consternation in Washington and Kyiv. Asked about the Modi-Putin meeting, State Department spokesman Matthew Miller told reporters at a press briefing: “We have made quite clear directly with India our concerns about their relationship with Russia.”

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On X, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky posted photos of a children’s hospital in Kyiv that was struck by a Russian missile on Monday and criticized the meeting. “It is a huge disappointment and a devastating blow to peace efforts to see the leader of the world’s largest democracy hug the world’s most bloody criminal in Moscow on such a day,” he wrote.

The meeting represented a coming together of two leaders who need each other but are otherwise drifting closer to dueling camps led respectively by the United States and China. For Modi, Russia remains a crucial source of weaponry and energy and space technology that India sees as indispensable in becoming a great power. Analysts also say India does not want Russia to grow overly dependent upon India’s rival neighbor, China.

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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. Russia, likewise, hopes India will keep some distance from the United States, and Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov mocked the West this week for feeling “jealous” about Russia-India ties.

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The Moscow meeting appeared to deepen what the two countries call a “special and privileged strategic relationship.” As Modi wrapped up his visit on Tuesday evening, Indian and Russian officials announced their ambition to expand annual trade volumes to $100 billion by 2030 and sign long-term agreements on oil and gas supplies while diversifying trade beyond the energy sector.

The two countries signed agreements to collaborate on polar research and, in a speech to the Indian diaspora in Moscow, Modi also announced the opening of new consulates in Kazan and Yekaterinburg to enhance ties between the two peoples.

“India and Russia are walking shoulder-and-shoulder and infusing new energy into global prosperity,” Modi said in his speech. “Any mention of Russia reminds every Indian of an ally that has been with us through good times and bad, as a trusted friend of India.”

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Almost immediately after Modi arrived Monday evening, the leaders showcased their friendship at the Russian leader’s residence in Novo-Ogaryovo, near Moscow, for tea on an outdoor terrace.

“It is a great honor to visit a friend’s home,” Modi said, according to clips released by Russian state media, after he warmly embraced Putin with his trademark hug. Putin congratulated Modi on his recent reelection victory and drove him around his dacha’s manicured grounds in a golf cart, the official footage showed.

On Tuesday, Putin led Modi on a tour of an exhibition by Russia’s State Atomic Energy Corporation. Rosatom officials said this week that it is in talks to build six new nuclear power reactors in India — a fast-growing economy with soaring energy needs.

Modi’s trip to Moscow, coming less than a month after he was sworn in for a third term, broke with the Indian tradition of prime ministers visiting South Asian neighbors first after an election. But it demonstrated Modi’s global aspirations and gave him a chance to show Putin that India has not lost its autonomy even though it is receiving new investments, technologies and weaponry from the Biden administration, Indian analysts say.

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“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, still considers ties with Washington its highest priority. India could seek to assuage U.S. concerns by arguing that an India that is friendly with Russia could prove useful as a potential interlocutor between Moscow and the West, he said.

At a formal meeting with Putin at the Kremlin on Tuesday afternoon, Modi called for “dialogue” to end the fighting in Ukraine and indirectly raised the hospital attack in Kyiv a day prior that Zelensky accused Russia of carrying out. “Anybody who believes in humanity is aggrieved at the loss of life in war or in terror attacks,” Modi told Putin. “Even so, it breaks our hearts to see innocent children get killed.”

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Putin replied: “I am grateful to you for the attention you are paying to the most pressing issues, including trying to find some ways to resolve the Ukrainian crisis, and of course, primarily by peaceful means.”

Indian Foreign Secretary Vinay Kwatra told reporters Russia would work to discharge all Indians currently serving in the Russian military, after Modi apparently requested the step.

The issue became politically contentious in India this year after reports emerged that Indians seeking job opportunities as “security helpers” or porters were recruited to Russia and deployed to fight on the front, possibly against their will. Indian officials say at least four Indians have been killed in combat so far.

Even though the India-Russia relationship was cemented during the Cold War, the energy and defense ties between Russia and India — the world’s largest weapons buyer and the No. 3 importer of oil — have continued to thrive. Indian imports of Russian crude rose from $2.5 billion in 2021, before the invasion of Ukraine, to $46.5 billion in 2023, according to Indian Commerce Ministry data. Last year, only China purchased more Russian crude.

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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 they represent such a large windfall for Russia that Indian officials have begun to voice concerns about India’s mounting trade deficit with Russia.

And while U.S. officials have publicly and privately urged India to wean itself off Russian weapons, the Russian state-owned arms giant Rostec announced last week that it would manufacture armor-piercing tank rounds inside India to supply India’s army.

Indian officials hope that Putin will maintain a degree of independence from China in exchange for receiving India’s support, at a time when Russia is increasingly seen as a junior partner to Beijing. India and China have been locked in a tense border dispute since 2020.

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Even as Modi, the leader of the world’s largest democracy, embraced Putin, the Russian leader’s brutal use of his country’s judicial system for political purposes was on full display. A Russian court on Tuesday ordered the arrest of Yulia Navalnaya, the widow of political opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who died in an Arctic prison earlier this year. Navalnaya, who is living outside Russia, was accused of participation in an extremist community.

She has accused Putin of killing her husband, who previously had survived an assassination attempt by Russian security agents using a banned chemical weapon. Many world leaders condemned Navalny’s death, and some, such as Biden, said Putin was responsible.

On X, formerly Twitter, Navalnaya mocked the judicial process in which, since taking over her husband’s work abroad, she has faced multiple allegations.

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“Oh, there’s no normal procedure? A foreign agent, then a criminal case, then an arrest?!” she posted. “When you write about this, please don’t forget to write the main thing: Vladimir Putin is a murderer and a war criminal. His place is in prison, and not somewhere in The Hague, in a cozy cell with a TV, but in Russia — in the same colony and the same 2 by 3 meter cell in which he killed Alexei.”

For Putin, Modi’s visit, which wrapped up Tuesday, provides a further chance to show 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 discuss the matter. Touting Russia’s relationship with India also allows Putin to boost Russia’s position in relation to China, he said.

Just last month, Putin visited North Korea in a trip that was “not received very well in Beijing,” said the 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 Russian 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. Anant Gupta in New Delhi contributed to this report

Modi bear-hugs Putin in Moscow, marking deep ties between Russia and India (2024)
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