Just hours after the PM’s remarks, India dealt another blow to Putin as it voted in favour of allowing Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to address the United Nations virtually next week.
Some media reports suggested that the recent developments may finally signal a shift in India’s response, which has so far been careful of criticising Russia.
Since the Russia-Ukraine war began over seven months ago, India has managed to walk a tightrope between Moscow and Washington while advancing its own interests.
PM Modi has sought cheaper oil and much-needed weapons from Russia, to counter Beijing’s aggression along their disputed Himalayan border; and more investments from the US and its allies that are seeking to diversify supply chains and bypass China.
New ‘international order’
However, the “no limits” friendship reached by Chinese leader Xi Jinping and Putin earlier this year may factor into India’s long-term strategic planning as tensions with China continue to simmer despite a recent pull-back of troops from the border.
In fact, PM Modi’s remarks may have thrown a wrench in Putin’s plan to rally Asian leaders behind a new “international order”, aimed at challenging Western influence.
The SCO summit in ex-Soviet Uzbekistan brought Putin and Xi together with the leaders of India, Pakistan, and four Central Asian nations, as well as the presidents of Iran and Turkey. The summit was put forward by the Kremlin as an alternative to “Western-centric organisations”, at a time of increasing pressure on Moscow over Ukraine and growing anger in Beijing over US support for Taiwan.
While Xi told the gathered leaders it was time to reshape the international system and “abandon zero-sum games and bloc politics”, Putin hailed the increasing influence of countries outside the West, slamming what he called “instruments of protectionism, illegal sanctions and economic selfishness”.
“The growing role of new centres of power who cooperate with each other… is becoming more and more clear,” Putin said.
However, the rhetoric hit a wall during Putin’s talk with PM Modi.
“I know that today’s era is not of war and we have spoken to you many times on the phone that democracy, diplomacy and dialogue are such things that touch the world,” said PM Modi as Putin pursed his lips, glanced at the PM and then looked down before touching the hair on the back of his head.
Reverting to a line that the Russian leader has repeatedly used as a stopgap whenever a country’s leader raises concerns over the continuing war, Putin said he understood the Indian leader had concerns about Ukraine, but that Moscow was doing everything it could to end the conflict.
For Putin, the summit was an attempt to show that he is not fully isolated on the global scene, at a time when his forces in Ukraine are facing major battlefield setbacks. PM Modi’s remarks severely dented that image.
Even before the summit started, India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan Manish Prabhat said: “India is very clear that the SCO is not an organisation which is against any other bloc of countries or any other country. The SCO is a venture for constructive cooperation and peace and stability in the world.”
Many experts agree that the challenge for India in the coming months will be to manage a declining relationship with Russia, nurture its growing ties with the US, while securing its own interests from all sides. A challenge that will require some deft diplomacy indeed.
(With inputs from agencies)