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Modi's visit to Moscow and what it could mean for the world

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is hugging Russian President Vladimir Putin tightly - literally. The two men embraced in front of cameras during a two-day visit of meetings that touched on defense and economic ties, among other topics. But perhaps more important than what was discussed was the context in which the visit took place. Just hours before Modi landed, Russian rockets struck cities across Ukraine, killing at least 36 people. And the talks occurred as Putin tries to show that Russia is not isolated on the world stage despite crippling sanctions. For more, we have called Daniel Markey. He's a senior adviser on South Asia for the United States Institute of Peace. Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

DANIEL MARKEY: Thanks, happy to be with you.

DETROW: What did you make of this visit?

MARKEY: Well, the timing wasn't great, certainly from Washington's perspective. You know, I'm sitting here in Washington, D.C. We have the NATO summit going on. And here's Narendra Modi, prime minister of India, someone who Washington has characterized as an increasingly close friend, in Moscow literally, as you said, hugging Vladimir Putin - in a way, endorsing a Russian position that Russia is not as isolated as Washington or its Western allies would like to believe, so problematic.

DETROW: President Biden, and like you said, all of the NATO leaders he is meeting with this week in D.C. have organized a big part of their strategies for the Ukraine War on making Russia isolated, on saying Russia is alone on the world stage - nobody stands with Russia. Does this visit show that that strategy just isn't working?

MARKEY: Well, it's always been problematic with India. From the start, India has been pretty clear that they intended to be, might say, opportunistic, certainly, in terms of their purchasing of oil from Russia, that they weren't going to let off. As the Indian government has been at pains to explain to Washington now for a couple of years, you know, India needs oil, India can't afford higher oil prices, India's economy needs to grow, and Russia is willing to sell at cut-rate prices. So Washington's had to deal with that reality from the start. I think, though, this was more symbolic in terms of its timing and will still come at something of kind of a shock here in Washington. It really sends ripples through the scenes here because, you know, seeing Modi do that now just looks even worse.

DETROW: What's the best way to describe how Modi and how other Indian leaders have approached the war in Ukraine?

MARKEY: They don't see it through the same lens as certainly the Biden administration has wanted to suggest. It's not a war between right and wrong, democracy and autocracy and so on. It's a European conflict with particular historical background to it, one that has a lot to do with Russia and formerly the Soviet Union and the rise of NATO, the growth of NATO. India doesn't see it as its conflict and wants to be clear that it would prefer to take a more neutral stance, that its relationship with Russia continues to be quite important and that that's not going to change.

DETROW: You mentioned that the U.S. is increasingly closely aligning with India on a lot of fronts, particularly when it comes to countering China. India is a key part of that for the U.S. and kind of setting up India and other countries aligned against China. Does the fact that Modi is defying the U.S. and portraying himself as so close to Russia - does that undermine those other efforts?

MARKEY: So far, Washington has had to basically accept that for exactly the reason that you suggest, which is that, you know, India continues to be important in the narrow context, or the other context, of strategic competition with China. And there, U.S. and Indian concerns are, not identical, but quite similar. So, so far, Washington has really had to accept that India could be a partner in one area if not in the other and has been working along, you know, with that assumption. And that's likely to hold, but this is just a harder pill to swallow.

DETROW: I want to end on that first image that I mentioned, that hug between the two of them. Even given all of the trends that you're talking about in recent years and the relationship between India and Russia, were you surprised to see these two leaders hug, especially during a week in which Russia brutally attacked cities across Ukraine?

MARKEY: I think many people in Washington will be surprised. People who follow Narendra Modi knows that he likes to hug world leaders, but the timing was terrible. And I do think that it's a reflection of the gap between how India sees the world, how Narendra Modi sees the world and India's place within it and where the United States sees India, or would like to see India, as an increasingly close partner. And so that hug has great weight to it.

DETROW: That's Dan Markey, senior adviser for South Asia at the United States Institute of Peace. Thank you so much.

MARKEY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Kai McNamee
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Tinbete Ermyas
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Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.