Sanctions on Russian oil brought Putin and Modi closer. Now they’re in a nuclear embrace

Analysis by Angela Dewan, CNN International Climate Editor

CNN  — 

The optics of Vladimir Putin personally driving Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi around in a mini electric car at his residence show just how chummy the two leaders have become.

Modi’s controversial visit to Moscow — which coincided with Russia raining missiles down on a children’s hospital in Ukraine — is a sign that the West’s sanctions and attempts to isolate Putin over his war are having limited effect.

But the choice of an electric car to get around in petroleum-rich Russia has other connotations, too: The Modi-Putin relationship, which strengthened under US and European sanctions on Russian oil and gas, has now gone green. And nuclear.

Modi, who leads the world’s biggest democracy, has propped Putin up by making India one of a few loyal customers of Russian oil and gas throughout the two-year war in Ukraine. On Tuesday during Modi’s visit, Russian state news agency TASS reported that the countries were in talks for Russia to build six new high-powered nuclear reactors in India, as well as next-generation small nuclear power plants.

For all the controversies over nuclear power, it’s a zero-carbon form of energy when generated and it’s fast becoming part of many countries’ answer to the climate crisis. A global race to supply nuclear plants and fuel to other parts of the world is on, and Russia is winning by many counts.

“Commercially speaking, Russia isn’t good at making many things, but it does have natural resources, and it does have a strong nuclear tradition dating back to Soviet times, and that’s something it can take advantage of now,” Elisabeth Braw, a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Transatlantic Security Initiative, told CNN. “Clearly the Kremlin has decided that would be a good idea, and some countries are keen to expand their own nuclear power production. And as with oil exports, India is one of those countries.”

That dominance in nuclear power is helping Putin retain his position on the world stage, even as the US and Europe shun him over the war. And Modi is clearly sticking with India’s tradition of a non-aligned foreign policy that allows it to trade with Russia while remaining a friend of the West.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi ride on a golf cart during an informal meeting at the Novo-Ogaryovo state residence, outside Moscow, on July 8, 2024.

That friendship appears here to stay. Deepening nuclear cooperation with six more plants will only bind the two nations for decades to come. The plants themselves can take years to build, but they also require regular maintenance, technological upgrades and continual refueling with uranium, which Russia has plenty of.

US ban on Russian uranium

Russia lost the race in renewable tech to China and is lagging far behind the United States in its own energy transition, having developed very little wind and solar capacity. So, it’s betting big on selling nuclear abroad for income and influence, offering everything from conventional nuclear reactors, next-generation small modular reactors and an enriched uranium fuel known as HALEU, which no other country makes at any meaningful level as yet.

The United States is aware of how big a problem this is. The Biden administration, which is trying to compete with Russia to sell nuclear tech abroad, initially resisted targeting uranium in its Russian sanctions as the US was so reliant on it for its own nuclear power production. It changed its tune in May, when it banned Russian uranium imports, and is on a quest to rapidly develop its own industry to produce HALEU to fuel its own next-generation reactors.

“Russia leads the world in the number of nuclear plant construction projects in other countries and the Russian government has been very aggressive in engaging international partners on civil nuclear cooperation,” said Alan Ahn, deputy director for the Nuclear, Climate and Energy Program with Third Way, a Washington DC-based climate and energy research organization.

“It is challenging for other countries to simply break away from the market position that Russia has built over decades,” he said, adding that to reduce Russia’s global influence through nuclear power, the US needs to “develop commercially competitive products.”

A cruise around in an electric vehicle and a deal to boost nuclear power as clean energy, however, aren’t signs that Russia or India plan to give up on fossil fuels any time soon, or that either are climate leaders.

India is the world’s third-biggest emitter of planet-heating greenhouse gases, and Russia is the fourth. They are likely not only to keep oil and gas trade going, but they are also looking to take advantage of the Arctic’s rapidly melting ice, deteriorating because of global heating.

Russian and Indian delegates on Tuesday discussed further exploiting the Northern Sea Route, a shipping passage that is becoming more feasible because of the Arctic ice melt. It’s a quicker way to get from western Russia to India than going the other way round, and the whole stretch is projected to be ice free by 2050. Ironically, the type of energy being transported along this route between the two nations — fossil fuels — is the main cause of climate change.

“India is being very pragmatic and, frankly, a little bit opportunistic,” Braw said. “Here, if you can enhance relations with Russia in an area where it doesn’t cost you anything, there’s no harm in doing that. It can only benefit India being part of closer collaboration in the Arctic.”

She added that India was also benefiting from processing Russian crude oil.

“That’s a nice additional income for India they didn’t have before,” Braw said. “So, the Indian approach is, why not?”

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