Anindito Mukherjee / Reuters

Crimea leader makes a surprise visit to India

Analysis: Sergei Aksyonov's unofficial trip during India-Russia summit highlights complicated friendship

Russian President Vladimir Putin held a summit with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in New Delhi on Wednesday, but the meeting between the two long-standing allies was overshadowed by an unannounced guest: Crimean leader Sergei Aksyonov.

Aksyonov, the Moscow-backed leader of a region that Russian forces annexed from Ukraine in February, tagged along on Putin’s trip, holding unofficial trade talks in Mumbai and New Delhi. Aksyonov did not meet with any Indian officials, but Russian diplomats in India joined him for the meetings. An Indian Foreign Ministry spokesman said he was “not officially aware” of Aksyonov’s trip, but it is unlikely that a foreign elected official could have arrived in India without official knowledge.

The bizarre episode reveals the subtext of an otherwise anodyne visit: a Russian leader looking to provoke his adversaries at any opportunity and an Indian prime minister playing both sides of the standoff between Russia and the West.

Putin arrived in India less than a week after delivering a fiery speech accusing the West of trying to destroy the Russian economy. The United States and Europe imposed sanctions on Russia in March, restricting the travel of prominent Russian businessmen and officials, to protest Moscow’s aggression in Ukraine. The European Union estimates that the economic impact so far has been modest. But Putin says the sanctions, rather than falling oil prices, are to blame for Russia’s downturn. "Whenever anyone thinks Russia has become strong, they resort to this instrument," Putin said in his address.

By signing a host of energy and defense agreements, Putin proved that Russia still has some friends — and not just China. The Russian state-owned company Rosatom will build at least 12 nuclear reactors in India over the next 20 years. And Rosneft, Russia’s top oil producer, signed a 10-year agreement to supply crude oil to Essar, an Indian conglomerate. India also agreed to assemble 400 Russian multi-role helicopters a year. That deal is dwarfed by India’s $22 billion fighter-jet deal with the French, but Modi emphasized the long history of military cooperation. “Even if India's options have increased, Russia remains our most important defense partner," Modi said.

Moscow also used the India visit to bolster the profile of Aksyonov, a former cigarette trader with little experience in politics. Russia’s Interfax news agency called it Aksyonov’s “first international visit,” while Russian diplomatic aides were at his side during meetings and, at one point, Russian officials announced a “signing ceremony” (later cancelled) for the business group dubbed the India-Crimean Partnership. Gul Kripalani, the Mumbai merchant behind the India-Crimean Partnership, told Reuters that Aksyonov “happened to be on the flight with his excellency President Putin.”

India has taken an officially neutral position on Russia’s actions in Crimea but stopped short of joining the Western sanctions, as Japan did. India may have developed strong economic ties with the U.S. over the past decade, but its connection to Russia is deeper. India’s policy of “non-alignment” during the Cold War meant that it maintained close diplomatic and cultural ties with the Soviet Union while it was isolated from the West, and Russian equipment forms the backbone of India’s military. "All of our long-term defense projects, the weapons are from Russia," political commentator Mohan Guruswamy told Al Jazeera. 

Still, India will not publicly support Moscow’s power play in Ukraine. Russia sent in troops to Crimea and then held a referendum (introduced by Aksyonov) to legitimize it. That move echoes Pakistan’s call for a plebiscite in Kashmir— a territory that both India and Pakistan claim and have fought over bitterly for decades, political analyst C. Raja Mohan observed in the Indian Express. India will not endorse Russia’s moves in Crimea but won’t condemn them either. “You don’t want to reproach your friends in public,” Mohan writes.

Modi is also setting the stage for a more significant visit, when U.S. President Barack Obama comes to New Delhi in late January. Obama will attend India’s Republic Day celebration, which marks the day that India’s constitution came into effect and officially turned India into a democracy. U.S. diplomats like to emphasize the natural friendship between “the world’s largest and the world’s oldest democracies.” But within India's foreign policy establishment, the U.S. is "not considered reliable," Guruswamy said. "America was hostile to us for a long time." As this mini-drama reveals, India does not want any of its allies to take its friendship for granted.

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