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

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They hugged and strolled under the trees. They sipped tea and exchanged thoughts for hours. They petted horses together at the stables.

The jovial scenes between President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia and Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India, captured during the Indian leader’s first visit to Russia in five years, illustrated a sobering reality.

Despite the West’s campaign to isolate Russia over its 2022 invasion of Ukraine, other nations have pursued their own interests with regard to Moscow, helping Mr. Putin shore up the Russian economy and continue to wage his war. India, which has close ties to the United States, has emerged as the second-biggest importer of Russian oil after China in the years since the invasion.

Mr. Modi’s state visit, which began late Monday with a trip to Mr. Putin’s residence outside Moscow, underscored the point. At the Kremlin on Tuesday, Mr. Putin awarded Mr. Modi the Order of St. Andrew, the Russian government’s highest civilian honor, expressing “sincere gratitude” for his contribution to relations between their states.

“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.”

While Mr. Modi was hugging the Russian leader late Monday, rescue workers and volunteers in Kyiv were clearing away rubble from a Russian strike on Ukraine’s biggest 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,” Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, wrote on X.

The state visit was also juxtaposed against the gathering of NATO countries on Tuesday in Washington, where they discussed continued support for Ukraine.

Western governments have failed to persuade India and many other governments around the world to take a public position against Mr. Putin’s war. Mr. Modi has avoided condemning Russia’s invasion and instead issued general calls for peace, maintaining the warm relations with Moscow that India has cultivated since the days of the Cold War.

The Indian leader said he had discussed Ukraine with Mr. Putin at his residence, agreeing on the need for peace as soon as possible.

“Any person who believes in humanity feels pain when people die, and especially when innocent children die,” Mr. Modi said Tuesday, a possible implicit reference to the hospital attack. “When we feel such pain, the heart simply explodes, and I had the opportunity to talk about these issues with you yesterday.”

The state visit offered still more evidence that Mr. Putin has managed to avoid the pariah status Western leaders tried to force on him after the invasion. Mr. Putin has maintained a robust diplomatic schedule holding 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,

On Tuesday, Indian officials said that the two countries had struck various agreements to strengthen economic ties, with the goal of reaching $100 billion in bilateral trade by 2030.

Russia and India also said they would strengthen their military cooperation, including manufacturing more weapon spare parts and units in India. They pledged to continue developing national payment systems, which allow Russia to conduct trade outside U.S. dollars and away from platforms impacted by Western sanctions.

Mr. Modi, who said he had met Mr. Putin 17 times over the course of the past decade, invited Mr. Putin to visit India next year.

“Russia is India’s true friend,” Mr. Modi said at a meeting with members of the Indian community in Moscow, according to the Russian state news agency Tass.

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 it a lucrative middleman role .

Matthew Miller, the State Department spokesman, told reporters on Tuesday that the U.S. has “been quite clear about our concerns” about India’s relationship with Russia, and has related them “privately, directly to the Indian government” — including within the past 24 hours. “We continue to urge India to support efforts to realize an enduring and just peace in Ukraine,” he said.

Mr. Modi said Tuesday that as a friend, he had always told Mr. Putin that peace was a prerequisite for future generations to have a bright future.

“That is why we believe that war is not a solution,” he said. “There can be no solution through war. Bombs, missiles and rifles cannot ensure peace. That is why we emphasize dialogue.”

India has a long history of friendly relations with Moscow. 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 because of 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, 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 message has resonated in parts of the developing world that once lived under Western colonialism. According to a Pew Research Center poll conducted this year, just 16 percent of respondents in India expressed unfavorable views of Russia, compared with 46 percent who voiced positive associations.

During his talks with Mr. Putin, Mr. Modi sought the early discharge of all Indian nationals who were recruited by the Russian army under “false pretenses,” according to government officials. The contentious issue had introduced a sour note in the countries’ friendly relations. Mr. Putin agreed to the discharge of those citizens, who India has said number between 35 and 50.

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?”

Michael Crowley contributed reporting.

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