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Biden administration disturbed by Modi-Putin visit during NATO summit

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Senior Biden administration officials are frustrated that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow as President Biden was kicking off a major NATO summit in Washington this week, underscoring the challenges the United States faces in a relationship it considers one of its most consequential.

The Moscow meeting came despite concerns conveyed to New Delhi by several senior administration officials earlier this month that the timing would complicate the “optics” for Washington, according to several U.S. officials familiar with the matter.

Among those officials was Deputy Secretary of State Kurt Campbell, who spoke with Foreign Secretary Vinay Kwatra in early July in hopes that the Modi-Putin encounter might be rescheduled to avoid coinciding with this week’s summit, according to the officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe sensitive conversations. The summit is commemorating the 75th anniversary of the alliance’s founding, and its members are seeking to signal strong support for Ukraine in the face of Russia’s aggression.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi said India’s relationship with Russia is based on “mutual trust and mutual respect,” on his first visit in five years. (Video: Reuters)

Despite U.S. reservations, Modi arrived Monday in Moscow and embraced Putin in a warm bear hug — an image that was criticized by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky — just hours after Russian bombs killed several dozen people in strikes across Ukraine, including at a children’s hospital in Kyiv. Modi called Putin “my dear friend.”

The episode highlights the complexities for the Biden administration as it seeks to deepen its strategic relationship with a rising Asian power that is willing to partner with the United States against China — but is also determined to remain independent of Washington and maintain ties with Moscow.

This week, there was broad concern within the Biden administration about the meeting and its timing, the people said. The optics were “terrible,” said one official.

“Deeply inappropriate,” said another.

State Department spokesman Matthew Miller told reporters on Monday, “We have made quite clear directly with India our concerns about their relationship with Russia.”

At a news conference Thursday in New Delhi, U.S. Ambassador Eric Garcetti offered a veiled criticism of the Moscow meeting and warned India that it should not take the U.S. friendship “for granted.”

“I’ll have to fight a lot of defensive battles trying to help this relationship ahead,” he said. “I respect that India likes its strategic autonomy. But in times of conflict, there is no such thing as strategic autonomy.”

The Indian Foreign Ministry did not respond to a request for comment.

Indian officials say they are deeply concerned about the growing closeness between Beijing and Moscow and contend that their diplomacy with Moscow acts as a brake on unbridled cooperation. They say they have no choice but to cultivate ties with both the United States and Russia and balance the two relationships.

During the Cold War, Indian leaders maintained a policy of “nonalignment” that in practice resulted in a close military relationship with the Soviet Union and distrust toward the United States. The country is determined to remain independent, seeking to avoid being seen as aligned too closely with Moscow or Washington and positioning itself as a leader of Global South nations.

India has turned to America for help countering China, a giant neighbor with which it shares a tense and contested border. It is also eager for investment and sharing of technology from the U.S. defense, space and semiconductor industries to strengthen its manufacturing base and expand its high-tech capacity. The United States is one of India’s largest sources of foreign direct investment, and the government has courted Western tech companies such as Apple that are seeking to diversify their supply chains.

But India relies heavily on Moscow to provide cheap energy for an economy growing at 7 percent a year, and officials in New Delhi say they need Russian ammunition and parts to maintain their military.

“I think there is an understanding within the [Biden] administration that India’s continued relationship with Russia is driven partly by self-preservation, partly by self-interest, but also by a strategic assessment focused on China,” said Sameer Lalwani, a senior expert on South Asia at the U.S. Institute of Peace.

India needs to maintain access to supplies, spare parts and technical support to sustain its vast arsenal of Russian weapons, Lalwani said. It also has an interest in taking advantage of cheap Russian oil — it is now the largest such buyer — to fuel its developing economy.

Indian and Russian officials announced this week that they were in talks over a long-term deal for Russia to supply crude oil, natural gas and uranium nuclear fuel to India. The Russian state atomic energy company said it was offering to build more nuclear reactors in India.

Campbell, according to officials familiar with the matter, told Kwatra the administration understands that New Delhi has a long relationship with Moscow and that it is trying to ensure that the Russia-China relationship does not further deepen. The main concern, though, was that Modi meeting with Putin as the leaders of NATO’s 32 countries were converging on Washington would complicate the alliance’s effort to isolate Putin and raise questions about ambitious plans to further deepen the U.S.-India relationship and regional dialogue.

NATO has invited four Indo-Pacific countries and long-standing NATO partners — Australia, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea — to attend the summit, and will hold a working session Thursday. India, which has refrained from condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, is not a NATO partner nor a member of this group, called the “Indo-Pacific 4.”

On Wednesday, H.R. McMaster, Donald Trump’s former national security adviser, posted on X: “It is time to reassess the relationship with India based on much lower expectations.”

Campbell, a staunch advocate of the U.S.-India relationship, assured Kwatra that the Biden administration will continue to work with Modi’s government to push ahead projects in advanced technology, defense cooperation and clean energy. He told Kwatra the administration supports his appointment, expected soon, as India’s next ambassador to the United States.

The United States sees India as a strategic counterweight to China in the Indo-Pacific region. National security adviser Jake Sullivan and Campbell traveled to New Delhi last month to advance U.S.-India partnerships in technology and discuss stepping up India’s role in multilateral engagements with other key regional partners.

In February 2022, Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping pledged a “no-limits” partnership just days before Putin sent tens of thousands of troops over the border into Ukraine. This week, NATO’s members issued a joint communiqué declaring that China “has become a decisive enabler of Russia’s war against Ukraine through its so-called ‘no limits’ partnership and its large-scale support for Russia’s defense industrial base.”

The “deepening strategic partnership between Russia and the PRC [People’s Republic of China] and their mutually reinforcing attempts to undercut and reshape the rules-based international order, are a cause for profound concern,” the document said.

This week, Russian officials and state media appeared to revel in Modi’s visit. Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, said Western governments were “jealous — that is why they are closely monitoring it.”

The Biden administration “assesses that India is far too important to their goals with China to sacrifice the relationship based on this unhelpful visit,” said Lisa Curtis, director of Indo-Pacific security at the Center for a New American Security and a former senior White House official in the Trump administration.

But, she added, while India “certainly has good reasons to try to drive a wedge between China and Russia, the reality is they will not be able to do this. I think it’s wishful thinking.”

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