Modi In Russia: What This Visit Means For India’s Foreign Policy

The Prime Minister would be aware that his decision to visit Russia would not please his western interlocutors who continue to demonise the Russian president

Prime Minister Narendra Modi receives Russian President Vladimir Putin for a meeting at Hyderabad House in New Delhi in December 2021 Photo: PTI

Prime Minister Modi’s visit to Russia on July 8-9, 2024 is opportune. It restores the practice of annual summits with Russia interrupted by the Covid pandemic and the Ukraine conflict. That Modi has decided to make his first bilateral visit abroad in his third term to Russia sends a diplomatic message. It ends speculation that relations between the two countries were cooling down because India’s reliance on a weakened Russia was diminishing and stronger ties with the US and the West in general were being forged.  

The continued importance that India attaches to its ties with Russia is being underlined by Modi’s visit. The Prime Minister would be aware that his decision to visit Russia would not please his western interlocutors who continue to demonise the Russian president and seem determined to pursue the proxy war against Russia in Ukraine, even if at the official level they may not voice any criticism publicly. He is signalling to them that India will make independent foreign policy choices in national interest. 

Russia has not doubt stood by us in the past on crucial issues, but our attachment to strong ties with Russia is not merely sentimental. Russia remains a formidable power still, with a nuclear and missile arsenal matching that of the US, possessing huge natural resources, self-sufficient in energy and food, a permanent member of the Security Council, exerting influence in many regions, with great diplomatic experience, besides being the biggest country in the world. Russia was earlier pursuing its European vocation but has now turned eastwards, which opens up more opportunities for us. To preserve our wider diplomatic options, friendship with Russia is of vital importance. 

India is not part of any military alliance. The basis of our security therefore lies in being friendly with all countries, even as we assiduously build up national capacities to ensure our security. This is not fence sitting, it is our approach to international relations. In pursuing such an approach, close ties with Russia as well as with the US and the West become necessary. India can thereby maintain a balance in its foreign policy, widen its diplomatic options and deal with its security challenges. This explains why India is present on many platforms, be it the BRICS, the SCO or the QUAD.   

At the forthcoming summit Modi and Putin will have an opportunity to discuss several aspects of our bilateral relations. On defence, in the background of Russia’s pre-occupation with the war in Ukraine, issues of timely delivery of contracted platforms, supply of spare parts and servicing of Russian origin equipment etc would be on the agenda. This would be in addition to Russia’s participation in defence manufacturing in India as part of our atmanirbharta goal. India is holding regular naval exercises with Russia. If a logistics agreement with Russia is signed, as is speculated, it will make sense. India has signed such agreements with the US, Japan, France and Australia. Signing one with Russia, which remains our biggest defence partner, would be normal. 

Russia is the only country building nuclear power plants in India. Russia has interest in cooperating with India in the area of Nuclear Modular Reactors. Russia is cooperating in our space programme to which Modi pays special attention. Russia has now become the biggest supplier of oil to India. The challenge would be to sustain this on a longer term basis. Connected to this, but more broadly on the issue of expanding trade ties, are payment issues in view of the sanctions imposed on Russia which prevent payment in hard currencies. Satisfactory solutions to this complicated issue have to be found durably. India had committed itself to investments in Russia’s Far East at the Vladivostok Modi-Putin summit in 2019, when the Vladivostok-Chennai maritime corridor was announced. To build much needed connectivity to enhance India-Russia trade ties both countries have interest in boosting the operational capacity of the International North South Transport Corridor through Iran. The balance of India-Russia trade is highly in Russia’s favour. Russia, especially under condition of sanctions, could buy much more from India, with promising areas such as pharmaceuticals. India could meet Russia’s manpower needs, especially in its vast Far East region. An India-EAEU (Eurasian Economic Union) is now on the table. These are some of the issues that could be discussed during  Modi’s visit. 

It would be important to have a conversation at the highest level about BRICS expansion, its scope and the criteria for membership. Promoting the objective of multipolarity as a response to the West’s hegemony should not be the primary reason for expansion. A consensus on expansion should be developed. Modi’s visit should provide him an opportunity to assess the implications for India of the “no limits” partnership between Russia and China. How Putin views the endgame in Ukraine would be of great interest to Modi,  as an end to the conflict is of interest to India and the global south in general. 

(Views expressed are personal)

Kanwal Sibal is a former Indian foreign secretary