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Interview of Foreign Secretary Harsh Shringla with Kommersant newspaper on 18th February, 2021

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Q. Mr. Shringla, this is not your first visit to Russia, which this time bears double significance and has a special symbolic meaning as it comes shortly after two sides marked 20th anniversary of the historic “Declaration on the India-Russia Strategic Partnership” that 10 years later evolved into “very privileged strategic partnership”.

How is this concept perceived in New Delhi, as it has no parallel in international diplomacy and what practical meaning does it have for both sides?

Ans. Our strategic partnership is unique in the annals of diplomatic practice. Historically, India has enjoyed very friendly relations with the erstwhile Soviet Union. Despite significant global challenges following the end of Cold War, this tradition of friendship has continued with the Russian Federation. This is now reflected in our Special & Privileged Strategic Partnership whose 20th anniversary we marked last year. Foreign Minister Lavrov, in a recent press conference, referred to this partnership as “very close, very special, very privileged and very strategic”. We have a convergence of core national interests. High levels of trust and confidence at our leadership levels, mutual respect and sensitivity and strong support of public opinion in both countries for our relations are key factors.

My discussions in Moscow confirmed the vitality of our relations with Russia. We have an active agenda to carry forward the decisions of the last Summit during Prime Minister Modi’s highly successful visit to Vladivostok in September 2019 at the Eastern Economic Forum where he was also the Chief Guest. Annual Summits, regular consultations between the Foreign Ministries, cooperation in Defence, Nuclear and Space sectors, Energy, Science & Technology are key facets of our relationship. We are looking at substantial investments in each other’s Energy sectors including looking at new opportunities for supply of Russian Coking Coal for Indian steel sector. We are also looking forward to major substantial Russian investments in the Make-in-India projects in India including in Defence, Railways, Inland Waterways, Highways, Petrochemical sector. Our people-to-people contacts are also evolving. We intend to have a special program for cooperation with the Buddhist regions of Russia. We would be opening an Indian Energy Center in Moscow and a Tourism Office by summer this year. We are also happy that Aeroflot and Air India will commence flights between our two countries which will facilitate the return of a large section of Indian students who study here in Russian universities.

Most importantly, we look forward to an active bilateral schedule of meetings including a Bilateral Summit during the course of this year.

Q. The India-Russia Annual Summit did not take place in 2020 because of the COVID Pandemic, according to official statements by two sides which however were later interpreted by and parts of Indian media as alleged signs of growing uneasiness between the two countries over certain sensitive diplomatic and security issues, like India’s ties with US. Is there any room for such speculation and is there any decision on a new Indo-Russian summit to be held this year? Have you discussed it with Russian side?

Ans . It is a unique feature of the India-Russia relations that we have an Annual Bilateral Summit since year 2000. PM Modi and President Putin have met 19 times since 2014 during Bilateral Summits and on the sidelines of multilateral fora. They spoke with each other four times last year and enjoy unique personal rapport. The only reason for not holding the Annual Summit last year was the Covid pandemic. However, we did have very high level interactions including visit by our External Affairs Minister and two visits by Defence Minister to Moscow, one of which was for the 75th Anniversary of the Victory Day. I was in touch with my counterpart DFM Mogulov on telephone. A number of bilateral meetings over video-Conference format took place at senior official levels during the year. India and Russia have worked together to overcome the difficulties of the Covid pandemic and I am sure bilateral relations will emerge even stronger as a result of our planned meetings this year.

Q. In one of his recent comments Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov stated that India finds itself under enormous pressure from the US which wants to drag it into its own anti-Chinese games and make it abandoning military-technical cooperation with Russia.

Is it the US administration generates tension between New Delhi and Beijing?

And would India bow to US pressure and give up S-400 systems deal with Russia?

Ans . Our Strategic Partnership with Russia has very deep historic roots which provide stability, trust and confidence strong enough to navigate the complexities of the current world. We have a global strategic partnership with the United States. Each of these relations stand on their own merits. All the major powers recognize fully India’s tradition of an independent foreign policy.

I do not wish to comment on specific defence contracts but let me state clearly that all the contracts concluded with Russia are being implemented according to schedule. These are consistent with India’s defence and security needs and interests.

Q. With new US administration in office one of the hot-button issues is the much-disputed concept of Indo-Pacific which raises questions in Moscow, including its unease with Quad — a group of US, Japan, Australia and India, seen as a newly-emerging alliance to raise against growing assertiveness of China. Some go as far as labeling Quad a would-be “Indo-Pacific NATO”. What is the real purpose of QUAD and what can Russia do to ease tensions and security concerns of major regional powers which see China as a threat?

Ans . India’s concept of Indo-Pacific was spelt out by Prime Minister Modi’s seminal speech at the Shangri-La Dialogue in 2018. India’s approach focuses on a free, open, inclusive and rules-based Indo-Pacific. We emphasize respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity of all nations in the region, peaceful resolution of disputes, avoidance of use or threat of use of force, and adherence to international laws, rules and regulations.

India does not see the Indo-Pacific Region as a club of limited members nor as a new theatre for geostrategic contestation. It includes all nations in this geography as also others beyond who have a stake in it aimed at Security and Growth for All in the Region (SAGAR).

As such, we see this concept as a framework for engagement with Russia. Russia is an important Pacific power. During his speech in Vladivostok in September 2019, Prime Minister Modi referred to Vladivostok as a junction between Eurasia and the Indo-Pacific. The Chennai-Vladivostok Maritime Corridor which will further link to the Northern Sea Route and the Pacific will create a connectivity continuum that will bind India and Russia together from the Arctic to the Indian Ocean. Therefore, contrary to certain speculation, we feel that in reality, India and Russia have more in common on the concept of Indo-Pacific. A multi-polar world, and multi-polar Asia has to recognize the indispensable role of India and Russia.

With respect to Quad, as vibrant and pluralistic democracies with shared values, India, US, Japan and Australia have collectively affirmed the importance of maintaining a free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific. We remain committed to upholding the rules-based international order, underpinned by the rule of law, transparency, freedom of navigation in the international seas, respect for territorial integrity and sovereignty and peaceful resolution of disputes. They are aimed at advancing the security and the economic interests of all countries having legitimate and vital interests in the region.

Q. Mr. Shringla, one of the major regional security crises is Afghanistan which finds itself at another crossroads after the prospects of US-Taliban peace deal, initiated by previous US administration are becoming more and more uncertain while the scenario of crippled Talibanisation or Islamisation of Afghanistan looks no more a remote perspective. What are the challenges to India’s security stemming from troubled Afghan settlement and is there any way to achieve peace with no outside influence?

Ans . Afghanistan is passing through a critical phase. Peace process between the two sides began last September in Doha. India participated at the level of External Affairs Minister in the inaugural session of the Intra-Afghan Negotiations (IAN). We are of the view that any peace initiative which can bring peace and prosperity to the people of Afghanistan must be welcomed. India, as an important stakeholder, has been playing its role. However, we are equally concerned about the rise in violence as well as targeted attacks on civil society activists and media persons in Afghanistan. Violence and talks cannot proceed simultaneously; it is not sustainable. There is a need to call for a comprehensive ceasefire in Afghanistan.

We are actively following the developments in Afghanistan and we remain engaged with other regional countries, and Russia. Russia is an important ally as well as an important stakeholder in the region. India, Russia and Iran recently had a trilateral meeting in Moscow on Afghan situation. Any destability in Afghanistan is a cause of concern to all of us. All efforts must be made to preserve the gains Afghanistan has made in the past two decades. It is for this reason, we have always supported an Afghan-led, Afghan-owned and Afghan-controlled peace process. India has committed over USD 3 billion as part of its development assistance to Afghanistan. A few days back, India and Afghanistan signed an agreement on the construction of Shatoot Dam which will bring drinking water to the residents of Kabul city, an expression of our commitment to the people of Afghanistan and their well being.

Q. India and Russia in their own way have had active role in the fight against Covid-19. Russia produced Sputnik-V and other vaccines. India’s vaccine production capacity is one of the largest in the world. Both, Russia and India are active in vaccine diplomacy. What are your thoughts on India-Russia cooperation in this regard?

Ans . India-Russia cooperation in the fight against Covid-19 has reinforced the traditional bonds of friendship between our two countries. During the peak of Covid last spring, India supplied a consignment of Hydroxychloroquine (HCQS) tablets which was highly appreciated by the Russian leadership.

Russia was the first country to register a vaccine against Covid-19. Of the 500 million doses of the Sputnik V vaccine that Russia plans to produce in 2021, a significant portion is expected to be produced in India. So far, Russian Direct Investment Fund has signed a distribution contract for 100 million doses with a prominent Indian company and a (separate) production agreement for 100 million doses with other companies. In addition, RDIF is in negotiations with several other Indian producers to manufacture higher doses of vaccines in India for use in Russia, India and other countries as well. The phase-3 trials of Sputnik V are ongoing in India and we expect regulatory approvals for emergency use authorization in India in due course. In the International Scientific Advisory Board, an informal grouping of scientific experts cratered by RDIF to discuss use of Sputnik V, an Indian scientist is also a participant among scientists from eight other countries.

India has launched the most ambitious mass vaccination program in the world since 16 January. So far, more than 7 million people have been vaccinated. As the pharmacy of the world, India is making efforts to supply vaccines to different countries of the world, such as Bhutan, Maldives, Bangladesh, Nepal, Myanmar, Seychelles, Sri Lanka, Mauritius among many others as part of our “Vaccine Maitri” or “Vaccine Friendship” program. I have every confidence that India and Russia partnership will play a significant role in combating the pandemic.

Q. You are India’s one of the most Senior Diplomats with decades of experience. How do you think has diplomacy changed following the pandemic? Will all diplomacy be transferred to Zoom? Is old diplomacy dead?

Ans . Regarding the change in the way diplomacy is being conducted, I believe that meetings via video-conference have provided an effective solution to the challenges posed by the pandemic which forced us to maintain physical distance from each other. More and more people and organizations are moving towards remote meetings and conferences. However, as far as diplomacy is concerned, I believe that there is no replacement for the physical human contact and in-person communication. I am convinced that the traditional methods of diplomacy, both bilaterally as well as multilaterally, will be resumed as soon as the situation normalizes.

As elaborated by our External Affairs Minister Dr.S.Jaishankar in his recent Article in Newsweek, in the post-pandemic world, global diplomacy would focus more on common concerns and shared lessons. The nature of globalization would be expanded to include challenges such as pandemics, climate change and terrorism. In the post-pandemic world, we would see a redefining of our understanding in a number of areas, including our understanding of security, which until now, was thought largely in military, intelligence and economic terms. Today, greater weight is being assigned to health security and resilience of supply chains. Likewise, we will have to focus on reform of multilateral institutions and recalibrate our approach to address global challenges such as Climate Change, terrorism, etc. In all these areas, India and Russia can work together for the common good.