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Modi Gets A Red Carpet Welcome In Moscow  

Modi’s visit to Moscow, the first since the Ukraine war, has given a fillip to India-Russia ties. To take the sting off for US and Western leaders, Modi tells Putin that bombs, bullets and guns cannot bring about solutions. His comments that our humanity is troubled when there are deaths of innocents was a reference obviously to reports of children killed by Russian missiles in Ukraine.

X/@Narendramodi
PM Modi with Russian President Putin in Moscow Photo: X/@Narendramodi
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Russia has pulled out all the stops to make Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s first bilateral foreign visit since taking office for the third time a memorable one. A visit by Modi, the leader of the world’s largest democracy, is a feather in Russia’s cap at a time when the US and its allies have tried to isolate Putin and project him as a pariah on the world stage.  

He was received at the airport by First Deputy Prime Minister Denis Manturov and later had dinner with President Vladimir Putin at his home, a singular honour reserved for the Indian PM. Putin took the wheel Monday evening  to drive Modi around his Dacha in an electric vehicle. The PM also picked up Russia’s highest civilian award, the Order of St Andrew the Apostle for his stellar contribution to India-Russia ties. The award was announced in 2019. 

"Gratitude to President Putin for hosting me at Novo-Ogaryovo this evening. Looking forward to our talks tomorrow as well, which will surely go a long way in further cementing the bonds of friendship between India and Russia," Modi posted on X after the dinner.  

Modi’s visit coincides with the NATO summit in Washington starting later on Tuesday. Additionally, on Monday, the news of a deadly Russian strike in Ukraine leading to several deaths and a hit on a children’s hospital was something Modi could have done without. More so as New Delhi is treading a delicate balance between Russia, a time-tested ally, and its growing closeness to the US. India while not condemning Russia’s invasion had told President Putin that this was not the era of war. He expanded on this again during his talks with the Russian leader.

"It is a huge disappointment and a devastating blow to peace efforts to see the leader of the world’s largest democracy hug the world’s most bloody criminal in Moscow on such a day," Ukraine’s President Zelensky said in a post on X.  

In the opening remarks ahead of the delegation level talks in the Kremlin on Tuesday, Modi spoke out, “Whether it’s conflict war or terror, any person who believes in humanity is troubled when there are deaths, especially when innocent children die…I know that war cannot solve problems, solutions and peace talks can't succeed among bombs, guns and bullets. And we need to find a way to peace through dialogue,” Modi said in televised remarks with Putin sitting on a chair beside him.

This statement was as much for Putin as for the US and world leaders pointing a finger at Modi for courting Russia. It was meant to soften the blow for the US and the West. This will be seen by the US and its allies as a positive move. Later, at a briefing after the talks in Moscow, foreign secretary Vinay Kwatra said that the Prime Minister had offered India’s support and any contribution it could make to bring peace and stop the horrors of war.

The two-day visit to Moscow, Modi’s first since the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, is being closely watched in Western capitals. While most European leaders have stayed away from Russia, the rest of the world, including leaders of the global south have refused to boycott Moscow. A host of leaders including from the UAE, South Africa, Egypt and other African nations, as well as Turkey, Indonesia and even Israel had met Putin in Moscow. In fact, former Israeli president Naftali Bennet was in Russia in March 2022, just after the invasion of Ukraine. 

On Monday, in Washington, answering reporters’ questions on Modi’s visit to Moscow, State Department Spokesman Matthew Miller said: "We would urge India, as we do any country when it engages with Russia, to make clear that any resolution to the conflict in Ukraine needs to be one that respects the UN charter, that respects Ukraine’s territorial integrity, Ukraine’s sovereignty. India is a strategic partner with whom we engage in a full and frank dialogue. And that includes our concerns about their relationship with Russia."

But the US knows well that India cannot be pushed beyond a point and doing so could be counter-productive. "Prime Minister Modi has from the beginning been careful to emphasise that he will not be deflected from pursuing India’s national interests and forced into positions that are  dictated by the geo-political considerations of other countries,’’ says P S Raghavan Chairman of the National Security Advisory Board, and a former ambassador to Russia.

So despite the all-pervasive sanctions on Russia slapped by the Biden administration, India has been buying discounted Russian oil, refining here and selling to several European countries. It is an open secret that Europe is picking up Russian oil from India. All this after the fracas European countries made about New Delhi buying oil from Russia soon after the sanctions. 

Earlier on Tuesday, Modi laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and later met with members of the Indian diaspora. Here, he gushed over India-Russia ties and said, "Every Indian considers Russia to be India’s friend in good and bad times." He also announced the setting up of two new consulates in Kazan and Yekaterinburg in the industrial area of  Russia.  

The bilateral talks reviewed all aspects of the Special and Privileged Partnership between India and Russia. A major point of discussion was the request to send back home all Indians who had joined the Russian army. Most of them were unemployed youth duped by agents to travel to Russia with the promise of earning big bucks. Many did not realize they had to serve in the frontlines of the war. Two of them were unfortunately killed. India had been demanding that the 35-50 of the remaining Indian nationals be sent home. When a question was asked if those who were willing to stay behind would also be sent back, the foreign secretary did not reply. Nor did he give a deadline when the men would return. He said the two sides would look into it.

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The focus of the talks was mainly on economics and the promise to reach $100 billion in bilateral trade by 2030. However, thanks to the quantity of oil India is buying from Russia, the figure is already a little over $60 billion. But trade is skewed as the balance of payment is in favour of Russia. The two sides signed nine MOUs, a nine point agreement on strategic areas of economic cooperation till 2030.

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