Putin goes to India: Can he win over Modi?

Vladimir Putin will be seeking to keep India's Narendra Modi onside with cheap oil and diamond deals, as India diversifies its weapons purchases away from Russia.

Adnan Abidi/Reuters
Russian President Vladimir Putin disembarks from an aircraft upon his arrival at the airport in New Delhi December 10, 2014. Putin is on a two-day official visit to India.

Vladimir Putin will be hoping to demonstrate the irrelevance of Western sanctions as he arrives in India for a one-day summit with Prime Minister Narendra Modi that could see up to 20 large business deals inked.

Mr. Putin will be looking for signals of political solidarity amid Russian economic woes that stem in part from those sanctions. Analysts suggest he's likely to get what he wants – though he may have to pay for it in the form of discounted Russian oil, sweet deals on diamonds, and opening up Siberian oilfields to Indian investment. Economic concessions have factored in recent gas contracts announced on Putin visits to China and Turkey, and experts say the Indians are certain to press for advantages as well.

"Of course India will provide gestures of political support to Putin, and it will be genuine. Russia's an old friend, and we sympathize with its problems," says Nandan Unikrishnan, a Russia expert at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi. India accepts Russia's security interests in Ukraine, he says, and India itself briefly endured US-led sanctions in the wake of its 1998 nuclear weapon test, and rejects them as a tool of international policy.

But past allegiances and political affinities will not be enough, some Indian experts say. "The old Soviet friendship, though remembered with great fondness among Indians, needs to be replaced. India and Russia are very different countries from what they were 20 years ago. India is much more private sector and civil society than it used to be – and this sort of engagement is not Moscow's strength," says Pramit Pal Chaudhuri, foreign editor of the Hindustan Times, a leading Indian daily.

Putin's visit, the 15th Russia-India summit on his watch, comes as the old cold war alliance between Moscow and New Delhi is fraying and two-way trade has shriveled to less than $10 billion. India, under the popular Mr. Modi, is diversifying its relations away from Russia and even purchasing arms from others, including Rafale fighters from France and Apache helicopter gunships from the United States. Moscow too has broken its long-term fidelity to New Delhi and has reportedly contracted to sell Mi-35 attack helicopters to India's main foe, Pakistan.

President Barack Obama will be guest of honor at India's national Republic Day commemoration in January, and the Indian media are filled with optimistic commentary about the prospects for the long-neglected US-India relationship to take off.

"The internal discourse in India today is all about development, development, development," says Mr. Unikrishnan. "Putin needs to show that Russia can move beyond our traditional ties, and make real contributions to India's forward economic movement. With Russia so far, it's mostly same old."

But Russia – the leading supplier of arms to India – has lately moved from just delivering finished products to jointly developing new weapons such as the Brahmos cruise missile and the T-50 fifth generation fighter plane, Russia's answer to the US F-22 and F-35.

And among the business propositions on tap during Putin's visit are: a multibillion dollar contract to build up to 25 nuclear reactors in India; a long-term deal to provide liquified natural gas at low prices; sales of civilian aircraft; granting India's state petroleum corporation stakes in Russia's potential Arctic oil bonanza; and what could be a breakthrough deal to provide uncut Russian diamonds to India – a major center of gem polishing. 

Shared interests

In a lengthy interview with a leading Indian news agency Tuesday, Putin described Russo-Indian ties as a "privileged strategic partnership" and dismissed Russia's recent opening to Pakistan as a routine diplomatic move that's in everyone's interests.

He argued that India and Russia share interests, especially as the NATO mission in Afghanistan winds down, in fighting terrorism and combating drug trafficking. He pledged to step up economic cooperation and – of greatest interest to Indian ears – joint ventures that would transfer Russian space, military, and engineering technology to India.

Some Russian experts defend Putin's apparent price concessions on oil and gas to new Asian partners as smart long-term policy. "Asia is growing fast, and Putin finds it possible to nail down lasting deals with these countries," that are unlikely to be disrupted by future political disputes, says Felix Yurlov, an expert with the official Institute of Oriental Studies in Moscow. He says it's about locking down market share, even as prices of hydrocarbons plummet and Russia's relations sour with customers in the West.

But both Russian and Indian experts say they are dismayed by the brevity of Putin's visit, and also by his inexplicable decision not to address an Indian joint session of parliament. Instead of that, Putin and Modi will attend the opening of the World Diamond Conference in New Delhi Thursday.

"If Russia is serious about reaching out to non-Western countries, to compensate for its current bad relations with the US and Europe, it should walk extra miles to cement those relationships," says Dmitry Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center. 

"Putin has been doing that with China," Mr. Trenin says. "Many in Moscow seem to treat India like an afterthought, which is not wise with a country of that size and importance. Under Modi, India is re-evaluating its relationships, and seems ready to discard non-performing ones. The danger is that India may get fed up with old-style treatment from Moscow, and turn elsewhere." 

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