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Will India stay close to Russia during Modi's third term?

June 13, 2024

Narendra Modi is unlikely to distance New Dehli from Moscow due to international pressure or his new coalition partners. But Russia's war fatigue and its partnership with China could give him cause for concern.

Modi and Putin smile to each other during a meeting in Kazakhstan, 2017
Russia has signaled it would help India position itself as an advocate for the Global SouthImage: Mikhail Metzel/TASS/dpa/picture alliance

As Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi heads to Italy as a guest at this week's G7 summit, support for Ukraine is high on the agenda for leaders of the world's most advanced economies.

The war has drawn scrutiny to Russia's close ties with India as Ukraine's Western partners urge Modi's government to condemn the 2022 invasion and put pressure on the Kremlin. While in Italy, Modi is also expected to discuss the issue with US President Joe Biden, although the meeting at the sidelines of the G7 summit has yet to be confirmed.

Modi is also facing a changed political landscape at home as he enters his third term. His Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) no longer holds an absolute majority in the Indian Parliament, forcing Modi's new government to rely on coalition partners.

However, analysts believe that India will largely stick to its established foreign policy, including its longstanding ties with Moscow.

Modi's 'open invitation' to visit Putin

"There is a political consensus across major political parties on ties with Russia. Many previous governments have been non-BJP, but the relationship with Russia flourished under them," Nandan Unnikrishnan, a distinguished fellow in Eurasia studies at the Observer Research Foundation (ORF), a New Delhi-based think tank, told DW.

India's balancing act between Russia and the West

In India, Russia enjoys a better public image than in the United States or Europe. India and Russia are also cooperating on weapons development.

The Kremlin has extended an "open invitation" for Modi to visit Moscow. The Indian prime minister signaled that the visit would happen this year, although no date has been set. And the new government in New Delhi is unlikely to spoil this friendship.

"The coalition partners are likely to be concerned about domestic and regional issues. They will try and extract a pound of flesh or two from Modi in terms of resources for their states, leaving matters of foreign policy to Modi and his foreign policy advisers," said Sumit Ganguly, visiting fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution.

New Delhi wants more influence for Global South

After the election win last week, Russian leader Vladimir Putin called Modi to congratulate him, and the leaders agreed to strengthen India and Russia's "special and privileged strategic partnership."

Part of this partnership with Russia is supporting India's goal of becoming a leading voice in a "multipolar" world, which entails a greater role for the Global South, for example, through organizations like BRICS of which Russia and India are founding members.

This is also expected to be one of Modi's top goals at the G7 summit.

Modi last met Putin in person in 2022, on the sidelines of a security summit in Uzbekistan. After talking to Putin, Modi received praise from the US for expressing his concern over the war in Ukraine and telling Putin that "today's era is not an era of war."

While Modi's statements echo Western sentiment, the US and Europe are still critical of India's purchases of Russian oil and continued close relationship.

India saves billions buying Russian oil

Since Russia launched its war on Ukraine in 2022, the G7, led by the US, has imposed sanctions and price caps on Russian oil. India has continued to purchase petroleum products at a steep discount.

Driven by purchases of Russian crude, total trade between India and Russia approached $50 billion (€46.3 billion) between 2022 and 2023, surpassing a goal set in 2019 of reaching $30 billion by 2025, according to ORF research.

Cheap oil has been a boon for India's coffers. From 2023 to 2024, Russian crude supplies, along with overall lower international prices, saved India over $25 billion worth of foreign exchange, according to the Hindustan Times citing government data.

China, Russia present challenges to India's Modi

During the Munich Security Conference in February, India's Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar was pressed on these issues. Speaking alongside his US and German counterparts, Jaishankar reaffirmed India's commitment to buying Russian oil and maintaining close ties, saying it was a "smart move" to have "multiple options."

Along with supporting Russia's oil industry, India has provided Russia with implicit diplomatic backing, for example, by pushing through a joint communique with Russia-friendly wording at the G20 summit last September and skipping around explicitly condemning Russia's actions in Ukraine.

Russia running out of weapons to sell

The war, however, might have unintended consequences for the partnership between New Delhi and Moscow. Russia has traditionally been India's top supplier of weaponry. However, as the war in Ukraine exhausts Russia's defense industry, India has more incentive to look elsewhere.

"India's dependence on Russia is structural, cheap oil, spare parts for weaponry and access to high-technology weapons it cannot easily obtain elsewhere," said Ganguly.

India is also looking to cooperate closer with the US on developing more modern defense capabilities, for example, by signing industrial cooperation agreements.

The EU is working with India on developing digital technology through the EU-India Trade and Technology Council.

China-Russia ties loom large

On a strategic level, however, the US and India perhaps have the strongest shared interest in containing China, as is seen through initiatives like the Quad grouping, an informal strategic forum in the Indo-Pacific.

And Russia's growing partnership with China as the war in Ukraine drags on is a critical foreign policy concern for India.

"This is a very sensitive issue for India. New Delhi will be carefully watching the Sino-Russian relationship for significant changes given that China is viewed as India's most challenging adversary," said Unnikrishnan from the ORF.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping stand together holding hands
India's Modi might find himself pushed out by deepening ties between Russia and ChinaImage: MIKHAIL KLIMENTYEV/AFP/Getty Images

India could also find itself in a position of vulnerability if Russia emerges from its war in Ukraine defeated, weakened, and more beholden to China.

"China is something that dominates the Indian strategic mind-space. A formal Russia-China alliance is a worst-case scenario for India … We should exert all our energy to ensure this kind of scenario doesn't happen," Pankaj Saran, former Indian deputy national security advisor told a discussion hosted in April by the United States Institute of Peace (USIP).

Edited by: Darko Janjevic

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Wesley Rahn Editor and reporter focusing on geopolitics and Asia