Indian Prime Minister Modi under fire for bear-hugging ‘children killer’ Putin during Moscow summit

Russian President Vladimir Putin welcomes Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (L) before their official meeting in Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow, Russia, 8 July 2024. Narendra Modi is on his two-day official visit to Russia. [Kremlin pool/EPA/EFE]

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been criticised for greeting Vladimir Putin with his signature bear hug during their Moscow summit, even as he offered veiled criticism of Russia’s latest missile bombardment of civilians in Ukraine.

The Modi government’s carefully balanced policy on the Ukraine war – neither criticising nor condoning it, and increasing trade links with Russia while also courting stronger ties to the West – led some analysts to question just how warmly the two would interact during Mr Modi’s visit to Moscow.

Mr Modi arrived to a red-carpet welcome at Vnukovo International Airport in Moscow on Monday, and later the two leaders went for a hug after a brief handshake as the Indian prime minister arrrived at Mr Putin’s residence at Novo-Ogaryovo outside Moscow.

Mr Modi’s Russia trip coincided with one of the deadliest Russian aerial bombardments of Ukraine in months, including a strike on the country’s largest children’s hospital in Kyiv. Ukraine says Russian missiles there and in other regions across Ukraine killed at least 41 civilians.

Without mentioning Mr Modi by name, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky said: “It is a huge disappointment and a devastating blow to peace efforts to see the leader of the world’s largest democracy hug the world’s most bloody criminal in Moscow on such a day.”

Derek Grossman, an American defence analyst who had said he expected Mr Modi to “refuse to hug Putin, a war criminal” said he was wrong and he hoped India would still come round to take “the moral high ground on Ukraine”.

He said Mr Modi’s signals in Russia demonstrate that India, like the US, will “still prioritise national interests above all else”.

Images of the hug shared online sparked a strong reaction in the UK and Europe as well, with French author Nicolas Tenzer telling Mr Modi the photograph will “haunt you”, given Russia’s leader is to blame for “hundreds of thousands of deaths”.

“Modi is a disgrace. Here he is cuddling a mass murderer, with a smile on his face, to get cheap oil. Modi is no friend of democracy or the West,” wrote another Twitter user Ron Delnevo.

Mr Putin welcomed Mr Modi as his “dear friend” on Monday evening, and the pair held a total of around four hours of talks over the two days.

At the end of their meetings Mr Modi did offer some veiled criticism of what was happening in Ukraine, saying in a carefully-worded statement that it was “heart-wrenching” to see innocent children being murdered and dying, without directly referring to Kyiv.

“Be it war, conflicts, terror attacks – everyone who believes in humanity is pained when there is loss of lives,” Mr Modi said.

“But when innocent children are murdered, when we see innocent children dying, it is heart-wrenching. That pain is immense,” he said, adding that he had a “detailed discussion” with Mr Putin on this topic.

Russia has denied attacking the children’s hospital in Kyiv and claimed it was a Ukrainian air defence missile that hit the facility. Ukraine’s intelligence agencies say they have compelling evidence to show the hospital was hit by a Russian weapon, and the UN has said this is most likely to be the case.

Despite this, Mr Modi told Mr Putin that Russia-India relations will deepen further in the coming years. The two have enjoyed close ties since the Cold War, and India has purchased huge volumes of Russian oil at heavily discounted prices since the start of the Ukraine war, now accounting for around 40 per cent of all its imports.

Mr Modi defended these purchases on Tuesday, saying they had helped keep global oil prices from soaring as a result of Western-led sanctions. “The world will have to accept that the agreement regarding fuel between India and Russia indirectly gave market stability to the world in a way,” Mr Modi said.

Mr Putin said the two countries “enjoyed a special strategic partnership”, and claimed India was working towards “finding a peaceful solution” to the Ukraine war – which the Russian president euphamistically referred to as a “crisis”.

The US State Department spokesperson said Washington “made quite clear directly with India our concerns about their relationship with Russia”.

“India is a strategic partner with whom we engage in a full and frank dialogue. And that includes our concerns about their relationship with Russia,” Mathew Miller said.

“So we would hope India and any other country, when they engage with Russia, would make clear that Russia should respect the UN charter, should respect Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity”.

Mr Modi and Mr Putin have not had a bilateral summit since before the Ukraine war, and this was the Indian leader’s first visit to Moscow in five years.

Mr Modi met with members of the Indian diaspora during his visit, and was also shown around an exhibition of Russia’s state-owned nuclear energy industry in Moscow.

Russian state media reported that the leaders were expected to discuss Moscow helping India build more nuclear power plants. The two countries already are collaborating on the Kudankulam nuclear power project in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu.

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