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Putin can’t help India with China, nor is he likely to heed advice on Ukraine

As PM Modi sat down today with Russia’s Putin for a bilateral summit, several issues cropped up. First, it’s clear that this visit helps Putin more because it counters the perception of isolation. In fact, Modi’s visit comes on the heels of Hungary’s Viktor Orban’s visit to Moscow last week. So, within days, Putin is meeting two leaders of democracies – one European and the other the largest in the world. Therefore, this is really a PR coup for Putin.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi meets Indian diaspora, in Moscow

However, from the Indian perspective, the gains are as yet unclear. Even as Modi was in the air on his way to Moscow, Russia carried out a massive strike across Ukrainian cities. At the time of writing, at least 41 had died in those strikes with scores other injured. But most horrific was the targeting of the largest Ukrainian children’s hospital in Kyiv, Okhmatdyt Hospital, that flattened an entire wing, severely damaged the main building, and sent parents and their ill children scurrying for cover. Gut-wrenching scenes have emerged of mothers holding their babies outside the damaged hospital with many of the children being given treatment in the open streets. Okhmatdyt carries out some 10,000 surgeries each year with around 600 children being treated at any given time. Many of those children come to the hospital for cancer treatment.

Of course, Russia has denied targeting the hospital. But the fact that the strikes were carried out even as Modi was on his way to Moscow shows that Putin’s mind is not going to be changed on the war. So, Modi might repeat what his told Putin in Samarkand in 2022, that this isn’t an era of war, but it is unlikely to have an impact.

A woman carries a girl next to a heavily damaged building of the Ohmatdyt Children’s Hospital following a Russian missile attack

Second, India’s pragmatic strategic concern here is Russia’s no-limits ties with China. This is something that rightly perturbs New Delhi, despite Moscow providing assurances. But again, there is very little that New Delhi can do here. China is the bigger economy, has openly provided diplomatic cover to Russia during the Ukraine war, and has considerably helped sustain the Russian economy and its military-industrial capacities. Therefore, Beijing has acquire considerable leverage over Moscow, something that New Delhi simply can’t emulate.

Third, can Putin influence Xi Jinping to drop China’s aggressive posture against India? Highly unlikely. In fact, near impossible. Xi is now far more powerful than Putin. And Putin needs Xi more than Xi needs Putin. Thus, Moscow is in no position to dictate things to Beijing. Plus, as long as Xi is in charge, India-China relations won’t improve. Modi tried. He had informal summits with Xi to foster some kind of understanding between the two sides. But it’s clear that Xi has other ideas. His politics within the Chinese Communist Party makes him adhere to a hard nationalistic line. This is the ideological basis of his centralisation programme to reassert the authority of the party on all levers of the Chinese state. And that he feels is necessary to root out divisions within the party and prevent the party from splitting and collapsing.

In Xi’s politics, India has to be periodically reminded its place because it keeps the nationalist narrative in China going. And Putin can hardly influence this process.

Ukrainian families take shelter during an alarm in the basement of a heavily damaged building at Ohmatdyt Children’s Hospital following a Russian missile attack

Fourth, yes, India is reliant on Russian military hardware in many segments of the armed forces. But we have also been diversifying our defence imports and, rightly, pushing indigenisation of platforms. Western nations are increasingly supplying us defence tech and equipment, be it the French with Rafale fighters or the US with critical jet engine technology. Plus, given sanctions on Russia, the supply of parts and equipment from Moscow has become increasingly difficult.

Five, welcomingly, Modi did take up the matter of Indians duped into fighting for the Russian army in Ukraine. And according to reports, Moscow has agreed to release all such Indians. This is good. But the proof of the pudding is in the eating. Moscow had made similar promises vis-à-vis Nepali citizens fighting for the Russian army. But most of those Nepali citizens haven’t been able to return home.

Patients wait to be evacuated following Russian missile strikes on Ohmatdyt Children’s Hospital in Kyiv

Thus, taken together, the whole India-Russia dynamic presents a very complicated picture. Putin can’t help us with China. He is unlikely to heed Modi’s appeal for peace in Ukraine. Defence ties have a legacy but the future is uncertain. Russian economy has withstood sanctions for now, but again its future prospects remain bleak. Moreover, in addition to the Putin-Xi bonhomie, Putin’s recent visit to North Korea is also worrisome given past clandestine collaboration between Pyongyang and Pakistan on nuclear and missile technology.

Yes, there might be some value in thinking that Modi’s visit may help dilute the solidifying of a revisionist China-Russia-North Korea bloc that could be dangerous for the world. But that is assuming that the process can be reversed and the leaders of the three countries haven’t totally set their minds on forming such a bloc. There is no evidence of this as Beijing, Moscow and Pyongyang seem set on rewriting the rules-based global order. India, which has benefited from such a global order, may want reforms but certainly doesn’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Therefore, we must choose a side carefully, while being on the right side of history.



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Disclaimer

Views expressed above are the author’s own.



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