Modi’s outreach to Putin risks putting India in US crosshairs

NEW DELHI – As India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi meets Russian President Vladimir Putin and attends a summit with China’s Xi Jinping on Friday, he will need to avoid looking too chummy with the United States’ two top adversaries.

Mr Modi’s face-to-face meeting with Mr Putin will take place on Friday in Uzbekistan, where a host of leaders are gathering for a summit of the China-founded Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), a group intended to counter the US-led global system.

At that event, Mr Modi will also rub shoulders with President Xi, whom Mr Modi has not met in person since late 2019.

With Russia’s war in Ukraine in its seventh month, India has emerged as one of the biggest swing nations.

The US and its allies have so far largely avoided pressuring New Delhi over its close ties with Russia, a key supplier of weapons and energy.

That is partly to keep Mr Modi on its side against China in part through the Quad, a grouping that also includes Japan and Australia.

Mr Modi so far has managed to thread the needle between the two sides while advancing India’s own interests.

He has sought cheaper oil and much-needed weapons, to counter Beijing’s aggression along their disputed Himalayan border and more investments from the US and its allies seeking to diversify supply chains away from China.

But whether he can keep that up is another question. The early tolerance for India’s position, along with its insistence that it would take time to unwind its deep security relationship with Russia, is beginning to run into greater resistance as the US and its allies ramp up efforts to impose a cap on the price for Russian oil to cut Mr Putin’s income.

“India’s neutral public positioning on the invasion has raised difficult questions in Washington about our alignment of values and interests,” said Mr Richard Rossow, a senior adviser on India policy at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies.

“Such engagements – especially if they trigger new or expanded areas of cooperation that benefit Russia – will further erode interest among Washington policy makers for providing India a ‘pass’ on tough sanctions decision.”

So far, the Biden administration has signalled that it is not interested in sanctioning New Delhi over its recent decision to buy the S-400 missile defence system from Russia.

Turkey’s purchase of the same system deeply damaged US ties with the Nato ally.

Yet friction points are emerging. India has been pushing back on a price cap on Russian oil suggested by the US as its crude imports surged five times to cross US$5 billion (S$7 billion) in the three months to the end of May.