Putin hosts India's prime minister to deepen ties, but Ukraine looms over their relationship

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi met President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on Tuesday, seeking to deepen the relationship between the two nuclear powers at a time when NATO leaders gathered in Washington and Russia launched deadly missile attacks in Ukraine that hit a children's hospital.

“Our relationship is one of a particularly privileged strategic partnership,” Putin told Modi, who made his first trip to Russia since the full-scale invasion of Ukraine by the Kremlin's forces in 2022.

Modi has avoided condemning Russia while emphasizing a peaceful settlement. Their partnership has become more complicated, however, as Russia has moved closer to China amid international isolation of Moscow over Ukraine. Modi did not attend last week's summit in Kazakhstan of a security organization founded by Moscow and Beijing.

Modi arrived Monday, shortly after Russian missiles struck across Ukraine, severely damaging the largest children’s hospital in Kyiv and killing at least 42 people nationwide, including some children, officials said.

After their leaders met, India said its nationals who were “misled” into joining the Russian army will be discharged.

New Delhi had raised this issue in March, when its federal investigation agency said it had broken up a network that lured people to Russia under the pretext of giving them jobs, with at least 35 Indians being sent. It said the men were trained in combat roles and deployed to Ukraine against their wishes, with some of them "grievously injured."

On Monday, Putin greeted Modi at his residence near Moscow, and the two leaders shook hands and embraced

Noting the warm welcome after the attack in Kyiv, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy posted on X: “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.”

Modi on Tuesday alluded to the bloodshed while speaking about his meeting with Putin, which included over four hours of talks.

“Be it war, a struggle or a terrorist attack, every person who believes in humanity, when there is loss of life, he is pained," the Indian prime minister said. "When innocent children are killed, when we see innocent children dying, then the heart pains. And that pain is very horrible.”

Modi said the two leaders shared “our opinions on Ukraine with an open heart and in detail. We respectfully listened to each other.”

Modi added that “a solution is not possible on the battlefield. Between bombs, guns and bullets, a solution and peace talks cannot be successful. And we have to adopt the path of peace only through talks.”

U.S. State Department spokesman Matthew Miller noted the Modi visit at a briefing in Washington, saying, "We made quite clear directly with India our concerns about their relationship with Russia. And so we would hope India and any other country, when they engage with Russia, would make clear that Russia should respect the U.N. Charter, should respect Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

In televised comments, Putin said “all issues” were discussed with Modi.

Modi’s trip received extensive coverage at home, including his laying a wreath at the tomb of the unknown soldier at the Kremlin wall. Regarding the issue of Indian recruits into the Russian military, Indian Foreign Secretary Vinay Kwatra said that Modi had “strongly” raised the issue with Putin. But coverage of Russia’s deadly attack Monday in Ukraine was muted.

At the NATO summit in Washington, Western leaders marked the military alliance’s 75th anniversary and sought to reassure Ukraine of their support.

While Western countries have hit Russia with sanctions, Putin pointed out that trade between Russia and India increased by 66% last year, adding that it’s a key focus of Modi’s trip.

Energy purchases by India account for part of the increase in trade and Modi said that because of Russia’s support, “we were able to save Indian citizens from difficulties related to requirements of petrol and diesel.” He added that the nations’ agreements on energy “helped provide market stability to the world indirectly.”

After the meeting, the Indian foreign secretary said that Modi and Putin set a goal to reach $100 billion in bilateral trade by 2030 — up from nearly $65 billion last year.

A significant proportion of that is in the energy and defense industries. Analysts suggest that 60% of India’s military equipment and systems are of Russian origin. But with Russia’s factories now predominantly pumping out arms for its war in Ukraine, India has faced delays in the supply of spare parts, prompting it to buy more from the U.S., Israel, France and Italy.

Modi raised the delay with Putin and both sides agreed to address it, Kwatra said.

Russian state media reported that the two leaders would also discuss Moscow helping India build more nuclear power plants. The two countries already are collaborating on the Kudankulam nuclear power project in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu.

Russia had strong ties with India during the Cold War, and New Delhi's importance as a key trading partner with Moscow has grown since the war in Ukraine.

China and India are key buyers of Russian oil following sanctions imposed by the United States and its allies that shut most Western markets off to Russian exports. India now gets more than 40% of its oil imports from Russia, according to analysts.

Modi last traveled to Russia in 2019, when he attended a forum in the far eastern port of Vladivostok and met with Putin. They also saw each other in September 2022 in Uzbekistan, at a summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization bloc.

A confrontation in June 2020 along the disputed China-India border dramatically altered the already touchy relationship between Beijing and New Delhi as rival troops fought with rocks, clubs and fists. At least 20 Indian soldiers and four Chinese soldiers were killed.

Meanwhile, India-Russia trade has seen a sharp increase, touching close to $65 billion in the 2023-24 financial year, due to strong energy cooperation, Kwatra said Friday. Russian imports touched $60 billion and exports from India $4 billion in the 2023-24 financial year. India’s financial year runs from April to March.


Burrows reported from London and Pathi from New Delhi.

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