By YP Rajesh

NEW DELHI (Reuters) – Fixing India’s trade imbalance with Russia and securing the discharge of Indians misled into fighting in the Ukraine war will be among Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s priorities during talks in Moscow next week, a top official said on Friday.

Modi will visit Russia on July 8-9 for talks with President Vladimir Putin as part of annual summits between New Delhi and Moscow, launched in 2000.

Modi’s visit coincides with the July 9-11 NATO summit in Washington at which the Ukraine war will hold centre stage, and the timing has raised questions about the signal India could be sending.

But Indian Foreign Secretary Vinay Kwatra, the most senior diplomat in the foreign ministry, rejected any connection and said Modi’s visit was part of the calendar of summits between the two countries.

“The bilateral visit this time is just a scheduling priority that we have undertaken and that’s what it is,” he told reporters in response to a question at a briefing on Modi’s visit.

New Delhi shares historic bonds with Moscow going back to the days of the Soviet Union but has moved closer to the West, especially Washington, in recent decades as it liberalised its economy and expanded its geopolitical ties.

At the same time, it has sought to maintain what is seen as strategic autonomy in its self interest.

India has refrained from criticising Russia over its war in Ukraine and urged the neighbours to resolve their conflict through dialogue and diplomacy, while increasing purchases of cheap Russian oil to record levels.

PUSHING EXPORTS

Kwatra said India-Russia trade had seen a sharp increase in 2023-24 and touched close to $65 billion “primarily due to strong energy cooperation”, but Indian exports accounted for just $4 billion.

“Trade remains imbalanced, which is a matter of priority in our discussions with the Russian side,” he said, adding that India hopes to “correct” this by pushing exports across sectors including farm, technology, pharmaceuticals and services.

Asked how India would deal with the sanctions imposed by G7 countries on Russia for its invasion of Ukraine, Kwatra said New Delhi had been holding talks with the bloc on the issue.

“We have been in very regular touch with G7 essentially to protect and progress our national interest and our national needs … whether it relates to diamonds or it relates to other sectors of industry and economy,” he said.

Modi will also take up the early discharge of Indian nationals who have been “misled” into serving in the Russian army, Kwatra said.

Several cases of Indians who were lured to Russia with the promise of lucrative jobs or education and ended up fighting against Ukraine have emerged this year and at least four Indian nationals have been killed in the war.

Modi’s visit, analysts say, is a good opportunity for Moscow to project the image of Putin receiving a leader of a country of India’s standing.

For Modi, it helps ensure Russia is not entirely in China’s corner and also arrest the impression that there is some drift in India-Russia ties, they say.

(Reporting by YP Rajesh; Editing by Alex Richardson)

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