India’s Modi set to reaffirm Russia ties in Moscow even as US eyes sanction compliance

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Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s coming visit to Moscow is seen as an attempt by New Delhi to reaffirm its strong strategic partnership with Russia and signal its role as a key power balancer amid global geopolitical tensions.

Analysts say Modi’s two-day trip, which starts on Monday, would reaffirm the two countries’ historically close ties. It would also reflect India’s aim to balance its relationships with Russia, China and Western nations, particularly as the US scrutinises international compliance with sanctions against Moscow following its 2022 invasion of Ukraine.

Foreign policy expert Harsh V. Pant told This Week in Asia that Modi’s visit was an attempt to reassure Russia that India would continue to prioritise their relationship.

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“Apart from the economic concerns between the two countries, India will also raise the issue of Indians fighting in the Ukraine war. So I think the optics of this [bilateral talk] are important,” Pant said.

Modi’s trip to Moscow, his first since 2015, marks a return to the India-Russia summits that were held annually until 2021. The prime minister last met with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit in 2022.

Pant, vice president for studies and foreign policy at the Observer Research Foundation, a Delhi-based think tank, said India wanted to have an open communication channel with Russia at a time when Moscow’s relations with Beijing were deepening.

Isolated from the West, Russia has become increasingly reliant on India and China to buy its oil as its economy continues to sputter over the war in Ukraine.

“There will also be an attempt to understand where Russia is going with China and what the future possibilities of India-Russia defence relations are as well. From multiple fronts, this is an important visit,” Pant said.

Sanction considerations

Modi’s trip comes amid Washington’s dissatisfaction with some Indian companies for violating global sanctions against Russia.

In a recent interview with The Hindu’s Businessline news outlet, US Ambassador to India Eric Garcetti said any Indian company that violated global sanctions against Russia would have to be aware of the “consequences”.

One of the companies under scrutiny is Bengaluru-based Si2 Microsystems. In June, Japan announced sanctions against the company, which designs and manufactures electronics equipment, for allegedly “helping Russia evade sanctions related to its invasion of Ukraine”.

The company, which was also previously sanctioned by the EU and US, is a partner of the Indian IT ministry’s “Atmanirbhar Bharat” (Make in India) campaign.

The US has sanctioned over 4,000 Russian businesses and individuals around the world since the start of the Ukraine war.

Michael Rubin, a former Pentagon official, told This Week in Asia that Modi’s trip to Moscow would not impact India’s relations with the US as the two countries were strategically important to each other.

“That said, Washington will continue to push New Delhi to see the world its way. Garcetti is right on one point, though. Some sanctions have waivers and wiggle room to make exceptions for allies, but others do not,” Rubin said.

Rubin, a senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington-based think-tank, said Indian companies should not believe they could use their connections to get around the consequences of violating US regulations.

“Ultimately, Indian companies will need to make a cost-benefit assessment … will they gain more from working with the United States or with Russia?”

Pant said the US has thus far chosen not to punish India over its relationship with Russia.

“I think the issues around Indian companies, the impact of sanctions … all of that the Americans have been observing. But so far they have largely given India a long rope ignoring relations [between New Delhi and Moscow],” he said.

“So it would also depend on what kind of outcome this [summit] produces,” Pant said.

Close ties in trade and defence

Former Indian diplomat Anil Trigunayat said that Russia and India have a strong strategic partnership with engagement across various fields.

“India-Russia cooperates across the regional and global landscape in areas of mutual concerns and interests,” Trigunayat said, citing both countries’ memberships in Brics the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and the G20.

The Modi-Putin summit would also offer a perspective on whether India could play a role in bringing about peace in the conflicts in Ukraine and the Middle East, he said.

Russia and India have maintained strong ties with each other since the Cold War. Despite its closer ties with the US and European nations in recent years, India continues to buy Russian oil, disregarding Western sanctions against the Kremlin.

India’s exports to Russia rose by 35 per cent to US$4.26 billion in 2023-24. Its imports from Russia increased by 33 per cent to US$61.43 billion over the same period, with oil purchases accounting for almost 90 per cent of imports.

Russia’s market share of India’s arms imports has shrunk over the decades.

From 2009-2013, Russia accounted for 76 per cent of India’s arms imports before its share fell to 36 per cent from 2019-2023, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

Rajan Kumar, an associate professor at the School of International Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University, said Modi’s visit was aimed at restoring Russian confidence in the bilateral ties.

Previously, Indian and Russian leaders would meet regularly through their bilateral summits but these were disrupted by the pandemic and possibly the Ukraine war, Kumar said.

“So the people start raising concerns, especially from the Russian side about India’s shifting policies.”

While Western countries were hoping for India to downgrade its ties with Russia, they were aware of New Delhi’s economic and defence needs that could be fulfilled by Moscow, according to Kumar.

“India is now engaging with multiple countries for its economic and defence requirements and among them all, Russia is very critical for them,” Kumar said.

Kumar said he did not expect the US to impose sanctions against New Delhi over its ties with Moscow as Washington perceived India as a crucial country in counteracting China.

“India wants the US by its side but at the same time India knows it can never be a subordinate ally with the US … India is a big country with powerful neighbours so our policy cannot be in complete alignment with US policies,” Kumar added.

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