Russian President Vladimir Putin visited India on Thursday in a 24-hour trip designed to strengthen ties in the arenas of defense, oil, nuclear energy and customs and banking. The visit comes nearly two weeks after the Russian leader traveled to Turkey on a similar mission, continuing a charm offensive launched amidst cooling relations with the West.
Despite the so-called diplomatic nature of the trip, however, it is sure to ignite controversy – at least among Russia’s Western critics. The Russian delegation to New Delhi includes a controversial figure: Sergey Aksyonov, a.k.a. the governor of the contested Crimean peninsula in Ukraine and architect of the widely-challenged referendum that transferred control of the region to Russia. Sure, Aksyonov claims to be traveling in an unofficial capacity, at least to reporters. But Reuters reports that the Crimean pol tweeted that he was in India as “a member of the delegation under the leadership of the president of the Russian federation, Vladimir Putin.”
It’s not hard to see a small jab at the West in Aksyonov’s presence. Not that Russia should be poking the bear at this point. Western sanctions are beginning to bear fruit and Russia’s economy is stumbling as a result. (The ruble hit a new low this week.) Hence the charm offensive that has Putin courting Ankara, New Delhi and Beijing in search of renewed partnerships – and in particular ways to offset the economic burden of western sanctions, for example by exporting Russian gas to Asia instead of Europe in exchange for boosted security pacts.
India, for one, is interested. Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced Thursday that “Russia remains our most important defense partner” and the two countries signed billions of dollars in deals on Thursday. At the same time, India has maintained a largely neutral stance when it comes to Russia’s current wrangling with the West, and notably the United States. (On Thursday, for example, Indian officials claimed that they were unaware of Aksyonov’s visit.) Here, New Delhi is no doubt eager to counter growing Russian cooperation with its longtime rival Pakistan via augmented defense agreements with Moscow.
It’s important to note however that Modi has a launched his own charm offensive since taking office this May with the aim of cultivating new allies – and new business. Starting with the United States, with which he has had a fraught relationship. (Until recently, the Indian leader was barred from entering the U.S. as a result of his alleged involvement in deadly riots in his home state of Gujarat in 2002). In January, however, the Indian leader is set to welcome U.S. President Barack Obama for his country’s Republic Day festivities — a reported stepping stone to strengthened defense ties with Washington. So while Modi may be welcoming Putin with open arms now, a burgeoning India-U.S. rapprochement could complicate the premier’s avowed neutrality. Which raises the question: how long can India stay on the fence?