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What the meeting of India and Russia's foreign ministers means for the United States

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

India's top diplomat is in the middle of a five-day visit to Russia. Indian Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar met today with his Russian counterpart and President Vladimir Putin to discuss their economic ties and security. And this meeting comes at a delicate time. India, a major power that the U.S. has been courting, has maintained friendly relations with Russia even after their full-scale invasion of Ukraine last year. And India has propped up Russia's economy by being a major consumer of their oil. So what could closer relations between the two mean for the U.S.? To unpack all of this, we're joined by Rajan Menon. He's the director of the Grand Strategy program at Defense Priorities, which is an American foreign policy think tank. Welcome.

RAJAN MENON: Hi.

SUMMERS: I want to start with a big-picture question if we can. India and the United States are close partners, but India is also working closely with Russia. Help us understand this dynamic.

MENON: So during the Cold War, India's true and tested friend was Russia and that was for two reasons. The main Indian threat came from two countries, Pakistan, which was an ally of the United States, and from China, which for most of the Cold War was odds - at odds with Russia. So there was almost a natural alignment between the two. In the post-Cold War period, that has changed. Gradually, India has shifted toward deepening its economic and security ties with the West not at the expense of Russia, but Russia certainly has become somewhat less important to India and is very much aware of that.

Just to give you one data point - so in the Cold War, 90% of Indian weapons in dollar value came from Russia. Now it's about 45%, but that's down from 65% about seven years ago. Meanwhile, arms imports from the United States, but especially France, are up significantly. And the Russians sense that competition. Arms exports are very important to them. So that's just one dimension.

SUMMERS: Let's talk about this trip and these meetings. India's foreign minister has met with his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, as well as Russian President Vladimir Putin. What is the significance of these meetings?

MENON: I think it's to reassure the Russians that there is no pivot away from Russia. By the way, India has a strong reason not to do that because Russia and China are in an ever-closer relationship. And the last thing India wants to do in any way is to alienate Russia. So one is to reassure and the other is to consolidate in areas that are important, the key one is the military one because that is where the strongest ties are. So the centerpiece is political and security ties.

SUMMERS: What has the reaction in Washington been to this visit? I mean, to date, Biden administration officials have not been openly critical of India despite Washington's posture, as we were talking about, toward Russia.

MENON: Well, the United States' main interest and India's main interest, by the way, is to forge a kind of partnership because both of them see the big challenger to both of their security interests down the line is China. And the U.S., I think, is well aware that the Indians are not about to forsake their relationship with Russia for the reasons that I've explained. And so the U.S. understands this and is playing it fairly coolly and calmly. I don't think there's a great deal of consternation about the fact that Jaishankar is visiting Moscow. I think it would be unusual were he not doing that.

SUMMERS: When you think about this five-day trip in its totality as someone who watches and understands these relationships well, is there one or two things you think we might look for at the end of the trip to understand its significance and what it might mean for the future of these relations?

MENON: Yeah, I'll tell you one future thing that I have on my mind about this relationship. The Indians have got to be looking with some concern about the performance of Russian weapons. It would not surprise me, were the Indians to continue their diversification and to build stronger military ties for defense production and arms imports with the United States, with Israel, with France, with Germany - all of which they've been doing - that, of course, would not be to Russia's liking. Arms exports are a very important source of revenue for Russia and India is, I think, the No. 2 now arms importer in the world. So it is a big market with a lot of stake for Russia.

SUMMERS: We've been speaking with Rajan Menon. He's the director of the Grand Strategy program at Defense Priorities, an American foreign policy think tank. Thank you.

MENON: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.