NEW DELHI — Just over a year ago, Russian President Vladimir Putin was hailed as a statesman for his role in brokering a Syrian chemical weapons deal, while India’s future prime minister, Narendra Modi, was a state leader with bigger dreams little known outside of India.
Putin arrived in India on Wednesday for a short summit, and the increasingly ostracized leader is meeting with Modi on the latter’s turf for the first time since Modi swept into power in May with a significant voter mandate for economic revitalization.
As Putin seeks ways to shore up his sagging economy and support with Cold War-era friend India, the wildly popular Modi — who just won Time magazine’s reader poll for “Person of the Year” — will be operating from a position of strength, analysts say, as both Moscow and the United States are looking to revitalize relations and foster economic ties with India.
The Russian ambassador to India, Alexander Kadakin, quipped to reporters Monday that India was like “a rich fiancee with many bridegrooms,” according to the Economic Times newspaper.
Yet Modi must maintain a balancing act, reassuring the Russian leader that the two countries’ historical ties remain important while keeping the U.S.-India relationship moving forward. After high-level visits from Secretary of State John F. Kerry and others, President Obama will be Modi’s guest next month at India’s Republic Day ceremony. Such a strategy could be risky in the long term, because it could move Putin closer to China and away from India, experts say.
“Modi will likely go heavy on the pro-Russia rhetoric, particularly by playing up the historical friendship between the two countries, while pursuing deals — such as energy ones — when the opportunity arises,” said Michael Kugelman, a senior program associate for South and Southeast Asia at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington. “With the U.S., he’ll likely pursue deeper defense ties and a deeper overall relationship. In effect, going heavy on the pro-Russia rhetoric will give him cover — at least in the short term — to quietly intensify relations with Washington.”
Indeed, India’s Ministry of External Affairs has done just that in recent days. Ministry officials have stressed India’s decades-long association with the former Soviet Union and reiterated support for Russia as the country faces economic fallout from sanctions imposed by the West for Putin’s annexation of Crimea in March and Russia’s intervention in the conflict in Ukraine.
When Modi was still a regional Indian politician, Russia welcomed him three times on visits, while the United States denied him a visa for not doing enough to stop deadly riots between Hindus and Muslims in his home state of Gujarat more than a decade ago.
The Modi government has hewed to the position of India’s former administration, that Russia had a “legitimate” claim to Crimea. Putin has thanked India for its understanding.
Ajay Bisaria, joint secretary for Eurasia in India’s Ministry of External Affairs, said in a briefing that the two countries agree on “the need to defuse Cold War-like tensions that are increasingly manifesting themselves in global relations.”
Russia and India have ties dating to the Soviet era, when economic aid flowed freely to Indian leaders who sought healthy connections to communist leaders as Pakistan aligned itself with the United States.
Hit hard by Western sanctions and reeling from fast-dropping oil prices, Russia is seeking an economic and political boost from Putin’s visit to India.
“India is a reliable and time-tested partner,” Putin said in an interview with the Press Trust of India released Tuesday. “Russia and India have a huge potential of bilateral trade and economic cooperation.”
The Kremlin has tried to play up new ties to Asia as a way of showing that Russia can survive sharply constricted economic relations with the West. But with recession looming, Russia’s economy tells a different story. The country is in the unfamiliar position of seeking more from India than it might have to offer in return.
Kremlin advisers have played up a long list of agreements that will be signed during the visit. Weapons and nuclear energy deals are expected, bolstering ties in the fields where Russia and India have long had good relations. In the face of the bruising sanctions, Russia is also searching for new customers for its bountiful oil and natural gas.
“Military and technological cooperation is one of the most important aspects of the Russian-Indian strategic partnership,” Kremlin foreign policy adviser Yuri Ushakov said Tuesday, Interfax reported.
But Putin’s visit, which ends Thursday, will do little to blunt the impression that his country is short on partners generous enough to lift its economy.
“Everybody in India understands the difficult situation in Russia because of the economic situation, the political problems,” said Petr Topychkanov, an analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center. China appears to have driven a tough bargain with Russia in natural gas deals signed this spring, he said. Now India might be able to get similarly advantageous terms.
“Russia needs India much more than India needs Russia,” he said.
Modi is likely to push for greater economic investment and trade with Russia — as he has during visits with other allies — in energy and defense manufacturing.
On Thursday, Putin and Modi will inaugurate the World Diamond Conference in New Delhi, where they are likely to announce a deal to enable India’s prosperous diamond polishers to obtain raw stones from Russia.
Many experts said that the meeting is significant because it will be the first time the men will have spent so much time together. They have met twice before at international summits. Local reporting here has been filled with stories comparing the two — both strong nationalists not afraid of showing off their machismo.
Putin’s shirtless photos are legendary, and Modi once boasted on the campaign trail that he has a 56-inch chest.
“They’ve both been impressed by each other, let’s put it like that,” said Nandan Unnikrishnan, a senior fellow at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi. “At this point, Modi’s primary driver is development, development, development. He doesn’t possibly see any contradiction between working with the United States and working with Russia. At least in the short term, it’s a win-win for everybody.”
Birnbaum reported from Moscow.