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Why Modi Made Russia the Destination of the First Bilateral Visit of His Third Term?

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Why Modi Made Russia the Destination of the First Bilateral Visit of His Third Term?

The likely return of Trump as U.S. president is expected to reduce American support for Ukraine. Modi could be eyeing a peacemaker’s role in that conflict.

Why Modi Made Russia the Destination of the First Bilateral Visit of His Third Term?

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi with the President of the Russian Federation, Vladimir Putin, at Hyderabad House, in New Delhi, India, on December 6, 2021.

Credit: Wikimedia/Press Information Bureau, Government of India.

On July 8, Prime Minister Narendra Modi will embark on a three-day visit to Russia and Austria. This marks his first bilateral visits since taking oath for a rare third consecutive term as India’s prime minister last month.

Traditionally, Modi has chosen one or more of India’s neighbors for his first visits abroad, emphasizing India’s neighborhood as a foreign policy priority.

So, the choice of Russia and Austria this time may seem odd, but a closer look could help discern the “method behind the madness.”

Given the intense global flux, India’s stated aim has been multi-alignment, that is joining hands with different partners at different points in time to maximize New Delhi’s advantage. A case in point: India getting Russian oil at discounted prices despite Western objections in the midst of the Ukraine conflict.

With Modi giving the 2024 Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) meeting in Kazakhstan that Putin is attending, a miss, and no indication yet that he will attend the Moscow-hosted BRICS summit later this year, this bilateral visit by Modi, as the Ukraine war rages, will send out some key messages. It could also address some issues.

For starters, this will be Modi’s first Russia visit in five years. It comes at a time when the Russian president has few credible friends.

Annual India-Russia summits have been a regular feature since 2000, when New Delhi and Moscow alternatively began hosting the meetings. However, there has been a break in these summit meetings in recent years.

In 2021, Putin visited New Delhi. Then on February 24, 2022, Russia invaded Ukraine. That shredded ties between Western nations and Russia.

Although Modi did meet Putin in 2022, this was not in Moscow but on the sidelines of the SCO meeting in Samarkand, Uzbekistan. It was at that meeting that Modi told Putin that “this is not an era of war.”

New Delhi and Moscow have enjoyed close ties for decades, especially after India and the former Soviet Union signed the “Indo-Soviet Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Cooperation” in 1971. With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, their relationship was redefined.

The annual summits have been a key means to anchor long-standing ties in a changing world. Defense and energy have been crucial elements of a reframed partnership but ties are still flagging, as an economically stronger India relies more on the West for technology and investments.

Meanwhile, Russia has been drifting towards India’s strategic rival China following tensions with the West, after the annexation of Crimea in 2014. Russia’s move into the Chinese orbit is worrisome for India, which is in the midst of a tense border standoff with China.

In 2022, just days before the Ukraine invasion, Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping announced a “friendship without limits” much to New Delhi’s chagrin.

Against this backdrop, engaging Russia politically while trying to add more practical economic elements to the relationship is imperative. Most of India’s military hardware is still of Soviet-Russian origin, which needs spares. To cite an example, the bulk of the Indian Air Force fighter aircraft is of Russian origin. India has begun diversifying defense procurement but needs Russia to deliver critical spares and some pending batteries of the S-400 air defense systems. India is also looking for replacements for some Sukhoi fighter aircraft. Once a dependable defense partner, New Delhi has been worried about Russia sharing sensitive technology with China or going slow on the supply of spares in the event of clashes with China and/or Pakistan.

Hence, balancing ties between Russia and the West has been key for New Delhi.

Meeting Putin in Moscow after attending a G-7 outreach session in Italy last month is part of this “hedging of bets” strategy. India did attend a conference for peace in Ukraine in Switzerland last month but did not endorse the outcome document.

Second, keeping good ties with Russia going would be helpful should former President Donald Trump take the White House after the November elections. While Putin shares an antagonistic relationship with the Biden administration, he previously shared a comfortable rapport with Trump. There are no indications that this will change in a second Trump term. After the presidential debate between Biden and Trump last week, the latter’s chances of winning a second term have brightened.

Third, Putin’s recent visit to North Korea resulted in a mutual defense pact. This could be a cause of some discomfort in New Delhi, given that India has always expressed concern over defense cooperation between Pakistan and North Korea.

A 2016 article in The Diplomat details the genesis and trajectory of this cooperation – how Pakistan received long-range missiles from North Korea in return for nuclear technology. The possible transfer of sophisticated defense and sensitive space technology to Pakistan via North Korea is something that could cause trouble for India.

Fourth, India and Russia are set to sign a logistics support pact that will help India extend its naval reach — even to the Arctic. Similar pacts with Japan, Australia and the U.S. are allowing Indian ships to traverse longer routes with access to port facilities in these countries. The Russian logistics pact is expected to give India access to Russian naval facilities in the Arctic region that is seeing increased global interest and new shipping routes open up. This is also important for India in the context of an increase in investments in Russia’s eastern regions.

Fifth, could Modi be carrying a message from the West to Putin during this bilateral visit? Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar has indicated several times that New Delhi has played messenger between the two sides and also did its bit to secure the 2022 United Nations-backed Black Sea Grain Initiative. Given India’s contacts with both sides, perhaps New Delhi could play a role in getting the warring parties in the Ukraine conflict to the negotiating table.

Should Trump triumph in the November U.S. elections, there are indications that U.S. support for Ukraine could dwindle. And Europe seems unprepared to shoulder the burden on its own.

Perhaps the time is right for India to try playing peacemaker.