Modi’s Moscow Visit Showcases a Less Isolated Putin, Angering Ukraine

Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India strolled alongside President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia under the trees at the Russian leader’s suburban residence as the sun set. He rode a golf cart along the paths, sipped tea during an hourslong chat and petted a horse on a visit to Mr. Putin’s stables, breathing in the calm of an estate that once belonged to the Romanov dynasty.

The scene, on Monday evening, opened the Indian leader’s two-day trip to Russia and illustrated a sobering reality: Despite the West’s intended isolation of Russia over its 2022 invasion of Ukraine, other nations have pursued their own interests with regard to Moscow, helping Mr. Putin shore up Russia’s economy and wage its war.

While Mr. Modi was hugging the Russian leader, rescue workers in Kyiv were searching for survivors under the rubble of Ukraine’s largest pediatric hospital in the wake of a Russian missile attack. President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine called Mr. Modi’s embrace a “huge disappointment” and a “devastating blow to peace efforts.”

The arrival in Russia of the leader of the world’s largest democracy has given Mr. Putin further evidence that he has avoided the pariah status Western leaders tried to force on him after the invasion. Mr. Putin has held two meetings with China’s leader, Xi Jinping, in two months, along with meeting the leaders of Vietnam, Hungary, Belarus and the nations of Central Asia, keeping a robust diplomatic schedule.

Mr. Modi’s trip to Russia, his first in five years, also coincided with the start of the annual summit of NATO heads of state, taking place this year in Washington.

Western officials — who immediately condemned the attack on the Ukrainian pediatric hospital, which Moscow denied being responsible for — have failed to persuade India to take a public position against Mr. Putin’s war. Despite deepening ties with the United States, Mr. Modi has avoided condemning Russia’s invasion and called for “collective dialogue,” choosing instead to maintain warm relations with Moscow that India has cultivated since the Cold War.

“We have had two and a half years now of endless Russian atrocities, and most of the world is not daunted or uncomfortable maintaining some kind of business as usual with Moscow,” said Andrew S. Weiss, the vice president for studies at the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “That’s a really sad commentary on Russia’s continued geopolitical weight.”

A video clip of Mr. Putin sharing a warm embrace with Mr. Modi circulated widely on Indian news channels and social media. Mr. Putin referred to Mr. Modi as his “best friend” during their informal sit-down on Monday, which India’s leader essentially described as a gossip session, or chitchat, between friends. The Kremlin said it had lasted three hours.

“Hearing the word Russia, the first word that comes to the mind of every Indian is India’s companion in happiness and sorrow,” Mr. Modi said in a meeting with the Indian community in Moscow, according to the Russian state news agency Tass. “Russia is India’s true friend.”

Mr. Modi’s warm words for Mr. Putin were noted in Kyiv, where Ukrainians reeled from Monday’s devastating attack on the pediatric hospital. Images of children outside the destroyed medical facility with their IVs still attached, or in some cases covered in blood, wrenched a nation that has been exhausted by more than two years of Russian bombardment.

“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,” Mr. Zelensky of Ukraine wrote on X.

New Delhi’s stance toward Moscow has been beneficial for both India and Russia. While India imported little Russian crude before the invasion of Ukraine, the nation has since risen to become the No. 2 importer of Russian oil after China, helping fill the Kremlin’s coffers despite a Western ban on most Russian oil imports. In many cases, India has been refining Russian crude and re-exporting it to European nations that are subject to the ban — giving the South Asian nation a lucrative middleman role.

The United States, which has been seeking to deepen ties with India amid growing tension with China, has not forced New Delhi to choose between Washington and Moscow.

In response to questions about Mr. Modi’s visit, Matthew Miller, a State Department spokesman, told a Monday press briefing that he was not aware of any specific conversations between American and Indian officials about Mr. Modi’s trip to Russia.

Mr. Miller said the United States has “made quite clear directly with India our concerns about their relationship with Russia” and that he would “look to Prime Minister Modi’s public remarks to see what he talked about” with Mr. Putin on the visit. He added that Washington would hope that any country engaging with Moscow would make clear that Russia should respect the United Nations Charter, as well as Ukraine’s sovereignty and borders.

There was no indication that Mr. Modi planned to deliver such a message to Mr. Putin.

India has a long history of friendly relations with Moscow, dating back to the days of the Cold War. The Soviet Union and later Russia for decades supplied much of India’s arms and military equipment, though that reliance has decreased in recent years — in part due to pressure from the United States.

“This has been a time-tested relationship, and there is a consensus in India, regardless of political orientation, that the relationship with Russia is one to be preserved and not squandered,” said Rajan Menon, an international affairs expert and professor emeritus of political science at City College.

Mr. Putin has cast his invasion of Ukraine as an anti-imperial struggle against an encroaching West, and that messaging has resonated in parts of the developing world that once faced Western colonialism.

Unlike in the West, where views of Russia are largely negative, many Indians have a positive opinion of the country, according to a Pew Research Center poll conducted this year. In the poll, just 16 percent of respondents in Indian expressed unfavorable views of Russia, compared with 46 percent who said they had a positive association with the country.

Mr. Menon predicted that India would continue to cultivate deeper ties with the United States over the long term, but not at a cost of having to choose sides.

“Anyone who expects you can peel India off and put it in the U.S. column, that is not going to happen,” he said. “Would you rather be completely dependent on the United States or Russia, or have a position of maneuverability between the two?”

Back home in India, representatives of Mr. Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party were trading barbs with leaders of the Indian National Congress, its main opponent in Parliament. Jairam Ramesh, a top Congress official, denounced Mr. Modi’s decision to embark on the two-day visit to Russia instead of visiting relief camps in the northeastern state of Assam, where floods have taken a heavy toll and where Rahul Gandhi, the opposition leader, was visiting the victims. But the Kremlin’s war against Ukraine did not come up.

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