Russian President Vladimir Putin will visit India for a one-day annual summit starting Thursday. The visit will focus primarily on deepening energy and trade ties between Russia and India.
For Putin, the visit comes at a troubling time for Russia geopolitically. Still isolated by the West for Russia’s support of anti-government rebels in Ukraine in addition to annexing Crimea and reeling economically from the effects of falling oil prices, Russia is looking to reinvigorate its partnership with New Delhi. In an interview with India’s Hindustan Times, Putin notes that “we expect to secure ourselves the role of a reliable energy supplier to Asian markets,” suggesting that he’ll be arriving in New Delhi with one objective superseding others.
Putin’s trip to New Delhi also comes at a time when the Indian government has grown considerably closer to the United States. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited the United States in September 2014, concluding a series of economic and security agreements. Additionally, India has invited U.S. President Barack Obama to New Delhi as the chief guest at India’s Republic Day celebrations in late January. There is growing anxiety in Moscow that Russia could lose out in the long term to the United States in terms of its defense relationship with India. The United States surpassed Russia as India’s top arms supplier over the past year. Though Russia generally supplied around 75 percent of New Delhi’s defense needs, it is slowly being overtaken by other suppliers including the United States. The shift has led Russia to also approach Pakistan; it recently closed a deal to sell Mi-35 helicopters to Islamabad, upsetting Indian observers.
The energy angle could prove to work in Putin’s favor. India remains starved for energy and the current government has prioritized both the expansion and diversification of energy suppliers. For Russia, long-term commitments are absolutely necessary. Facing increasing geopolitical isolation and economic uncertainty, Russia is interested in long-term deals in a similar vein to the $400 billion natural gas deal with China concluded earlier this year.
While India has generally been closer to Russia than the United States, with a bilateral partnership dating back to the latter years of the Cold War, India’s shift from a Congress-led coalition government fixated on non-alignment and distancing itself from the West to a more pragmatic government under the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has somewhat cost Russia diplomatically. Ahead of his trip to India, Putin referred to India as a “reliable and time tested partner.”
Modi will be meeting with Putin from a position of relative strength. Modi has already made a name for himself as a dynamic diplomat, traveling and forging relations with a variety of countries. However, Modi has nothing to gain by distancing India from Russia. In fact, on the contrary, Modi will likely go all-in, emphasizing the historic closeness between India and Russia during Putin’s visit.