Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Why Modi will go to Moscow

Many in the West will be annoyed by the sight of India’s PM shaking hands with Vladimir Putin, but they should remember the shadow of China’s leader.

Grip, grin, and bear it: Narendra Modi and Vladimir Putin at the SCO summit in 2022 (MEA Photo Gallery/Flickr)
Grip, grin, and bear it: Narendra Modi and Vladimir Putin at the SCO summit in 2022 (MEA Photo Gallery/Flickr)
Published 3 Jul 2024 

Indian foreign policy is playing at a consistent tempo. Just four days after being sworn in for a third term last month, Prime Minister Narendra Modi was in Italy attending the outreach session of the G7 summit, reinforcing chummy ties with its partners in the West.

You might ask what is new here? Delhi has been expanding cooperation with its Western partners for two decades now. However, the significance of Modi’s presence in picturesque Apulia stands in stark contrast to him skipping the upcoming Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit in Astana, scheduled to be held this week. India’s Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar will instead be filling in for Modi in a summit overshadowed by Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping.

There are different degrees in India’s multi-alignment.

India’s hesitancy to participate in the SCO at the top-level stems from its China conundrum. In recent years, Moscow’s growing dependence on Beijing and Xi’s foreign policy assertiveness has made China the key fulcrum in SCO manoeuvres. India is circumspect about this. With Modi’s absence, Delhi is telling its Chinese interlocutors that relations are under severe strain. Unless the Chinese roll back their aggressive posture in the Himalayas, the space for engagement between the two Asian neighbours is scarce. The SCO has a distinct security sentiment around it – unlike BRICS, which also includes Russia, China and India, but carries more of an economic ring.

Media reports suggest that Modi will visit Russia in the second week of July. This trip will rankle many Western observers. Since the Ukraine war began, India’s purchase of cheap oil from Russia has been seen as profiting from troubles in the heart of Europe.

There is no doubt that India’s unallied position on Ukraine, along with US-led sanctions against Russia, has prompted Moscow to sell oil at cheaper rates to India. Delhi has consistently held an ambivalent position on the Ukraine conflict in calling for “dialogue and diplomacy”. But this goes to strategy, not cheap oil. To paraphrase Jaishankar, the reason for the time-tested stability in India-Russia ties is to maintain a continental balance in the Eurasian heartland. That is, to balance China. Or to put it another way, don’t go around making new adversaries when there are already two open fronts – China and Pakistan.

India’s arms dependence on the erstwhile Soviet Union began in part due to mutual concern about China in both capitals during the 1960s and 70s. From Moscow’s perspective, tensions with Europe have compelled it to turn towards Asia. Keeping India close signals to China that it has other friends, too. It also shows the West that Russia enjoys the support of key emerging powers.

Remember this when Modi shakes Putin’s hand in Moscow. There are different degrees in India’s multi-alignment. Make no mistake – the United States and its allies are more consequential for India’s future than its relationship with Russia. But India’s ties with Moscow are a product of the past and to stave off a potential future, too.

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