With Russia, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi gets exactly what he wants

As NATO heads of state gather in Washington for two days of talks and a 75th anniversary celebration of the trans-Atlantic alliance, another summit is occurring thousands of miles to the east that could be just as significant for the United States.

On Monday, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi flew to Moscow to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin, marking his first trip to Russia since 2019. Modi’s foray couldn’t have come at a worse time in terms of optics — on the day of his trip, Russian bombs hit Ukraine’s largest children’s hospital in Kyiv, killing dozens of people and flattening the structure into a pile of rubble. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was beside himself that Modi, a seasoned statesman after a decade in India’s top job, went ahead with the trip anyway.

“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,” Zelensky posted to his 7.4 million followers.

The Biden administration wasn’t thrilled about it either: “We made quite clear directly with India our concerns about their relationship with Russia,” a State Department spokesman told reporters on Monday.

Modi, as one might assume, didn’t take the words to heart. He not only flew to Russia to meet a man wanted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes but made a show of it by hugging Putin, riding in a golf cart with him, and tweeting that stronger relations with Russia “will greatly benefit our people.”

Modi’s chumminess with Putin was of concern to Washington even before Russian forces invaded Ukraine in February 2022, yet it’s of special irritation now, when Ukrainians are killed by Russian munitions every day and the Biden administration has made isolating Moscow economically and diplomatically one of its key foreign policy priorities. Indeed, it was only two years ago when U.S. lawmakers were openly broaching the idea of sanctioning India for buying Russian crude oil, providing money that arguably goes into the Russian treasury to maintain the war effort in Ukraine.

U.S. officials, however, were never enthusiastic about that option. The relationship with India is now commonly viewed as too big to fail. Four successive U.S. presidents, going back to George W. Bush, have devoted extensive time, energy, and diplomatic capital to building U.S.-India relations across the board, from bolstering trade and conducting military exercises together to cooperating in various diplomatic forums. Barack Obama went so far as to endorse giving India a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council.

Last September, after President Joe Biden hosted Modi at the White House, the two agreed to accelerate partnerships in the military-industrial sphere, including collaborating on artificial intelligence, space, and the production of jet engines in India. The last item on this list is more significant than it may sound — traditionally, the U.S. has been extremely hesitant to share this type of military technology with other countries, let alone with countries that aren’t traditional allies.

India’s importance to U.S. grand strategy in Asia has only grown with time. As China’s wealth has ballooned and the People’s Liberation Army has modernized over the last decade, Washington has looked to India as a vital counterweight to Chinese power. India is an original member of the Quad, a grouping that was crafted to be a multilateral mechanism for disaster response but is now a defense partnership of sorts. The Indian military is undergoing its own modernization process, albeit at a much slower pace than the Chinese, a move motivated by what the Indian defense establishment increasingly views as a predatory, opportunistic China keen to press its territorial claims along its shared Himalayan border.


Modi, of course, isn’t stupid. He knows India’s value to the U.S. and long ago concluded that New Delhi could pretty much do anything it wanted — buy copious amounts of crude oil from the Russians (more than $93 billion over the last two years alone), buy Russian S-400 missiles, order assassinations of dissidents in the West — without any repercussions. The most the U.S. will do is make a generalized public statement of concern. The U.S., frankly, isn’t interested in undermining a strategic relationship with a country it regards as a key component of its China containment strategy in Asia.

No wonder Modi was smiling in Russia. His foreign policy is working quite well right now. If it ain’t broke, why fix it?

Daniel DePetris (@DanDePetris) is a contributor to the Washington Examiner’s Beltway Confidential blog. His opinions are his own.

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