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India’s Modi Voices Concern Over Ukraine War at Meeting With Russia’s Putin

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi told Russian President Vladimir Putin that “today’s era is not one for war” at a meeting on Friday, in a rare public expression of Indian unhappiness over Russia’s war in Ukraine.

Their meeting on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, came a day after Mr. Putin met with China’s Xi Jinping at the meeting, and acknowledged that Beijing had raised concerns about the Ukraine war. Both countries have provided economic support to Russia as it weathers economic sanctions, in part by increasing oil imports and offsetting declines in Moscow’s exports to Europe. The concerns raised by the two countries, which have long had close ties with Russia, capped a week when Moscow has also faced battlefield setbacks in recent days.

“Democracy, diplomacy, and dialogue, these are things that can touch the entire world,” said Mr. Modi in opening remarks at the meeting, saying he had expressed the sentiments to Mr. Putin previously. “Today we will get a chance to discuss how we can progress on the path of peace in coming days.”

Mr. Putin told his Indian counterpart that he was aware of India’s concern over the conflict in Ukraine, and that Russia would do everything to end the conflict, state news agencies reported.

“We want all of this to end as soon as possible,” said Mr. Putin, according to a translation from the office of the Indian prime minister, but said that Kyiv isn’t willing to negotiate.

As the West scrambles to move away from Russian energy sources and imposes sanctions on Moscow, China and India have stepped in to fill the gap. WSJ examines how those countries have boosted Russia’s revenue from oil sales, supporting its economy. Photo illustration: Sharon Shi

Tanvi Madan, director of the India Project at the Brookings Institution in Washington said it was notable that Mr. Modi publicly expressed concern over the war. That wasn’t just a gesture to placate Western and Indo-Pacific countries, but an expression of genuine concern about the Russian invasion and its impact.

“Modi does not want to be seen as endorsing these actions,” she said.

The war has affected several Indian strategic and economic objectives, she added, by putting fresh pressure on India’s economy, impacting its arms supply chain, and in India’s view, diverting global attention from China.

Mr. Modi expressed worry over global food security and fertilizer supplies in remarks at the summit earlier in the day. The war has deepened supply chain issues, and raised prices of food and fuel. At the meeting, Mr. Putin noted that at the request of New Delhi, deliveries of Russian fertilizers to India increased by more than eight times, and expressed the hope this would help India’s agricultural situation.

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A farmer sprayed fertilizer in India’s northeastern state of Assam earlier this year. Mr. Putin said Moscow had increased deliveries of Russian fertilizers to India.

Photo: Xinhua/Getty Images

China, meanwhile, has faced damage to key relationships with Europe and Central Asian nations from its support for Moscow, analysts said.

Messrs. Modi and Xi appear to have skipped an informal dinner hosted by Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev on Thursday, at which Mr. Putin was present, according to a photo of leaders at the dinner. Attending the dinner would also have brought the Indian and Chinese leaders face to face for the first time since relations deteriorated sharply after a brutal Himalayan border conflict in 2020.

Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, India has had to carry out a difficult balancing act between Western allies, including the U.S., that it has drawn closer to in recent years, and its longstanding relationship with Russia. India had disappointed some Western countries by avoiding any denunciation of Moscow and taking a neutral stance on the war. The country subsequently significantly increased its purchases of Russian oil, taking advantage of discounts as global energy prices shot up. India has vigorously defended those purchases as vital for a nation dependent on energy imports.

“Our future lies with the U.S. and the Western countries. And we need to invest more there,” said retired diplomat Vishnu Prakash, a former spokesman for India’s foreign ministry. “But that does not mean that we should sacrifice our relations with Russia, in which we have invested a lot and Russia has invested also in us.”

At the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok, Russia, last week, Mr. Modi said during a virtual appearance that there is immense scope for Russia and India to cooperate on energy. India has increased imports of Russian oil by more than 25-fold since the start of the war, buying an average of around 1 million barrels a day in June, compared with 30,000 in February, according to Kpler data.

In early September, India also participated in the Vostok 2022 military drills, hosted by Russia, but didn’t join in the maritime exercises because of concerns from Japan, which is a member of the Quad, a security partnership that also includes the U.S., Australia and India. Tokyo protested over the military games, especially the drills conducted in waters disputed by Russia and Japan.

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A gas station in Mumbai. India has increased its purchases of Russian oil since the start of the war in Ukraine.

Photo: Rajanish Kakade/Associated Press

New Delhi has so far managed to relay to Western countries why it has remained neutral on Ukraine, and the country has even benefited from a flurry of new investments by Australia and Japan in recent months, analysts said. India is a critical ally for many countries like the U.S. which are concerned with countering an increasingly aggressive China.

But political experts have said that India’s approach won’t be entirely cost-free. New Delhi’s largely neutral stance on Ukraine has likely dampened some enthusiasm in parts of Western countries to bolster closer ties with India.

“For India, the balancing act will be high maintenance, but it believes it is worth the effort,” said Ms. Madan of the Brookings Institution.

Political analysts were also watching closely for signs of any warming of ties between India and China at the summit, after an announcement in recent days by the two countries that their troops were disengaging from the Gogra-Hot Springs area in the western Himalayas. It marked the first sign of progress after multiple rounds of high-level military talks since 2020 failed to ease tensions. Beijing and New Delhi have amassed tens of thousands of soldiers at points along their shared 2,000-mile border.

Ms. Madan said a drastic improvement in relations is unlikely. The situation at the border now more closely resembles the border India shares with Pakistan, with more forward deployed and armed troops.

“This is a fundamentally different China-India relationship than it was in January 2020,” she said.

Write to Shan Li at shan.li@wsj.com

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