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By John Helmer, Moscow

For the second time in as many months President Vladimir Putin has publicly endorsed India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi to win the Indian national election now under way.

On April 12, in a four-and-a-half-line posting,  the Kremlin announced that Modi had been awarded the Order of St. Andrew the Apostle the First-Called “for outstanding achievements in the development of a particularly privileged strategic partnership between Russia and India and friendly relations between the Russian and Indian peoples.”  That day the President also met with the chief executive of Volkswagen, Herbert Diess, which was reported in English. The  Kremlin communiqué of the Modi award has not been translated into English.

The announcement went almost unremarked in the Russian press except for Vzglyad, the only independent publication on Russian strategy and security.  A report by regular analyst Pyotr Akopov acknowledged “this is the first time that the head of the Indian government was awarded our highest award – none of the Nehru dynasty was awarded the title of Hero of the Soviet Union.” The significance of the award to Modi, he added, is not the timing of the Indian elections. “Forecasts mostly agree that Modi will hold power… It is clear that in the choice of 600 million Indian voters, the Russian award for Modi will have almost no impact.”

The Russian significance is personal and strategic. It is recognition by Putin that Modi has stood up to the US threat to sanction India for buying the S-400 missile system. “Despite the fact that Washington continues actively courting Delhi, Narendra Modi is not going to exchange Russia for the United States. Yes, the number of India’s military contracts with the US has increased over the past decade – but Russian-Indian military ties are not disappearing and are becoming more diverse (for example, India bought the S-400).”

The St. Andrew Order was first established to reward royal retainers by Peter the Great in the late 17th century in imitation of the English monarch’s Order of the Garter and the Bourbon  dynasty’s Order of the Golden Fleece. It was then abolished after the 1917 Revolution. Resurrected as an award of the Russian Orthodox Church by Patriarch Alexei II in 1988, it was then formalized as a state award by President Boris Yeltsin in June 1998. Academician Dmitry Likhachev and armourer Mikhail Kalashnikov were the first of Yeltsin’s picks; Alexei II followed shortly afterwards.

Left: the April 12, 2019, presidential award decree  published by the Kremlin. Right: Putin and Modi at their last meeting, New Delhi October 4, 2018.

The Indian press, alerted by tweets from the Prime Ministry and the Russian Embassy, noted Modi’s gratitude for the award. “Foundations of India-Russia friendship are deep,” he tweeted, “& the future of our partnership is bright. Extensive cooperation between our nations has led to extraordinary outcomes for our citizens.”

The Times of India reported that Modi has also just received the highest award of the United Arab Emirates.   The Statesman reported almost identically.  

The claim by an Indian commentator that “Modi is the first leader from the democratic world to receive the Order of St Andrew the Apostle the First-Called” is mistaken. The official listing of  the Order since it was resumed identifies four foreign awards out of a total of twenty.  Nursultan Nazarbayev, the first elected President of Kazakhstan, was appointed in 1998; Gaidar Aliyev, the first elected President of Azerbaijan, in March 2003, months before he died; and China’s President Xi Jinping in July 2017.

Of the 20,  thirteen are now dead, so the Order counts only seven alive; three foreign politicians including Modi; three  Russian politicians – Mikhail Gorbachev, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, Federation Council Speaker Valentina Matvienko — and Yury Grigorovich, a dancer, choreographer of ballet,  and the collector of 43 state honours and medals.

Left: Yury Grigorovich directing at the Bolshoi Theatre, Moscow; his medals listed in his official Russian Wikipedia entry; he ranks his St. Andrew medal second in precedence after the Soviet award of his Hero of Socialist Labour.  

Putin first backed Modi for re-election in a Kremlin communiqué on February 28. That followed a telephone conversation between the two following the lethal attack on Indian security forces by a Pakistan-backed group in Kashmir. The Kremlin reported that “Vladimir Putin invited Narendra Modi to take part in the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok in September 2019 [sic] as the main guest. The two leaders agreed to continue personal contact.”

At that time,  the Russian Foreign Ministry was signalling an  unusual degree of equivocation between the Indian and Pakistani governments, while to the surprise of officials in Delhi, Russian state media published attacks on Modi by Pakistan’s supporters. For the full story, click to read


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