(This was originally posted in India Today by Geeta Mohan)
Indian Ambassador to Moscow D Bala Venkatesh Varma has said that India’s growing closeness to the US should not worry Russia as India’s relations with both countries stand on their own merits. Varma, who is completing his three-year term, spoke to Russian daily Kommersant about the developments made in the ties between the two countries during his tenure.
Speaking about growing Russian concerns over India’s policy shift towards the US, Varma said that India is too big a country to slide one way or the other. “India and Russia pursue similar strategies for strengthening the multi-polar system. We have an interest in engaging as widely as possible so that each pole is able to contribute to the overall equilibrium and strategic stability of the multi-polar system. Multi-polarity is not merely a slogan. It requires concrete action,” Varma told Kommersant.
Varma said India’s relationship with the US and Russia stands on its own merits and is a testament to India’s multi-polar system. He also said that even as India is a part of global alliances such as Quad and Aukus, which include the US, the country would continue to work independently in the future. “We have also sought partnership, difficult as it may seem, within the RIC (Russia-India-China). India will use its options wherever they exist, consistent with India’s security and foreign policy interests,” Varma said.
Changing ties with China
Varma also highlighted the tensions along the Indo-China border, claiming it was a unilateral attempt by China to alter the status quo. Varma said India wants a peaceful solution to the situation and has been holding dialogues with the Chinese side. “We are engaged with China bilaterally, and we are also engaged with China in various forums, including the Russia-India-China, which will possibly be holding its next Foreign Minister-level meeting, perhaps through video conference,” he said.
Varma also thanked the Russian Defence Ministry for maintaining regular arms supplies to India during the tense weeks and months of prolonged confrontation in the Ladakh sector between Indian and Chinese forces since the mid-2020.
Varma said while India and Russia further strengthened their cooperation in traditional fields such as defence, nuclear, space and energy, the cooperation was diversified with the partnership in geopolitical engagement. Varma said Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to India in October 2018 and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Vladivostok in September 2019 were the two main highlights of the relations between the countries. PM Modi’s visit in 2019 led to the announcement of India’s Act Far East Policy.
“Despite the disruptions in engagements due to the Covid situation over the last 18 months, the rhythm of high-level contacts has been maintained. The personal trust and confidence between the two leaders have been further strengthened,” Kommersant quoted him as saying.
Varma said in the last three years, the two countries saw increased cooperation in the field of oil, natural gas, energy, and petrochemicals. Varma said for the first time, India announced a $1 bn soft credit line to boost domestic business participation in Russia’s development, especially in the Far East. “We are promoting the Chennai-Vladivostok Eastern maritime corridor. This will supplement the North-South corridor through Iran. We are also engaging on the Northern Sea Route, including in the Arctic area, in which India and Russia have special consultations,” he said.
“So, if we look at the 3 big geopolitical tendencies in different parts of the large Eurasian Continent, India’s engagement is in line with Russia’s interests and is in line with India’s own interests; we have opened up new avenues of engagement whose impact will be measured not in terms of months or years but decades. That is the true chronological unit for measuring our strategic partnership,” he added.
Varma said in the last three years, Russia became India’s largest defence partner and played an active role in the ‘Make in India’ programme. In the defence field, Varma said the conclusion of the S-400 air defence system contract was the highlight. The first deliveries under the contract will be made this year. “The manufacture and co-production of four Project 1135.6 Frigates; manufacture in India of the world’s most advanced assault rifle – AK-203, through 100 per cent indigenization; additional supplies of Su-30 MKI, as well as the MiG-29s; additional supplies of the MANGO ammunition and VSHORAD systems, amongst others,” Varma said.
Varma said Russian President Putin might visit India by the end of the year to participate in the annual bilateral summit between the two countries, which did not occur in 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic. “In addition, we also expect Defence Minister Shoigu to visit India for the Intergovernmental Commission on Defence cooperation. We expect the first 2+2 meeting at the Ministerial meeting to take place on its sidelines,” Varma said.
On Afghanistan situation
Varma acknowledged that while India and Russia have taken different paths on the return of the Taliban government in Afghanistan, their destination is common. “The situation in Afghanistan poses similar problems in terms of instability, drug trafficking, terrorism threat, and also the instability that may radiate towards Central Asia. President Putin spoke to Prime Minister Modi in August, following which Secretary of the Russian Security Council Gen Patrushev visited India and had extensive discussions with Indian National Security Advisor Ajit Doval. Subsequently, we have had a series of engagements between India & Russia, not all in the public domain,” he said.
“This is prompted by the fact that both sides recognize common threats emanating from Afghanistan affect India & Russia – probably more than any other set of countries. India will be participating in the Moscow format meeting on October 20,” he added.