Indian envoy to Russia, Ambassador D. Bala Venkatesh Varma, discusses Indo-Russia ties and the recently concluded Modi-Putin Summit in Vladivostok. This conversation with ORF President Samir Saran lays special focus on the status of Jammu and Kashmir — after the abrogation of Article 370 — as well as on the Indo-Pacific region. Here is the edited transcript.
Samir Saran: The Joint India-Russia Statement issued at the end of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Vladivostok is an extremely comprehensive one. The 81 paragraph statement looks at virtually every aspect of the relationship and reaffirms the commitment of both sides to strengthening ties. What would you consider the most significant aspect of the trip?
Venkatesh Verma: This was Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s first visit to Vladivostok — at the invitation of President Putin to be the chief guest at the 5th Eastern Economic Forum (EEF). The 20th Annual Summit was also held a day prior to the EEF meeting. Since leaders of both countries meet frequently, the most important aspect of the Vladivostok visit was continuation of the conversation between Prime Minister Modi and President Putin on bilateral issues as well as on regional and international affairs. This is a relationship based on trust and confidence and is the guiding spirit of our strategic partnership. The Joint Statement sets out common position for both countries on a range of issues. It also includes key pointers towards an ongoing transformation underway in the India-Russia relationship.
India has historical relations with a number of countries; over time, India has built newer relations with yet more countries. India-Russia relations are unique in terms of a very old relationship, and that is undergoing a fundamental renewal. We are strengthening our roots and at the same time developing new branches. The evergreen nature of India-Russia relations is there for all to see. Prime Minister Modi’s visit to Vladivostok was unlike any other as it combined the strength of history, determined will of our leaders, vision of an economic growth trajectory, and a common determination to grasp emerging geopolitical opportunities. India and Russia are uniquely placed to grasp all these at the same time.
The primary focus of the Eastern Economic Forum, at which Prime Minister Modi was the chief guest, was economic cooperation and opportunities that the Russian Far East offers. Over the last year, both sides have worked towards diversification of this bilateral strategic partnership. PM Modi’s visit to Vladivostok was preceded by the most intensive preparatory phase. In the three months period preceding PM’s visit, two deputy prime ministers from Russia and the Russian Minister of Trade visited New Delhi. So did the director of ROSCOSMOS and the head of ROSOBORONEXPORT. The Indian NSA, External Affairs Minister, Minister of Petroleum & Natural Gas, Minister of State for Defence, Minister of Skill Development visited Russia — joined in by the Chief of Air Staff. Our Commerce & Industry and Railways Minister accompanied by chief ministers of four important States, and 140 strong business delegation, visited Vladivostok in early August to prepare for Prime Minister Modi’s visit in September. It is difficult to find a comparable preparatory exercise in the past.
The primary focus of the Eastern Economic Forum was economic cooperation and opportunities that the Russian Far East offers.
SS: It is repeatedly stressed that the Indo-Russian economic ties are not commensurate with the potentiality of its relationship. The focus of the Joint Statement on economic ties appears to support this contention. How do you think the summit meeting has contributed to giving a qualitative boost to improving the situation?
VV: During the summit, 15 important documents were announced and exchanged at the joint media appearance of Prime Minister Modi and President Putin. In addition, 35 commercial documents were signed by Russian and Indian entities on the sidelines, resulting in 50 documents that are both governmental and commercial in nature. Of these, 12 documents pertain to cooperation in mining, minerals and rare earth, 10 pertain to education, culture, entrepreneurship and innovation and five in the energy sector. We also have cooperation proposals in IT, agriculture, investment funding, timber, healthcare, diamonds, media, chemicals and manpower. If this list is added onto our traditional areas of cooperation with Russia, namely — defence, energy, nuclear and space — the unmistakable emerging picture is one of broad-based diversification.
The Prime Minister announced a credit line of USD 1 billion for Indian businesses to explore and exploit business and commercial opportunities in the Russian Far East. This is a new innovation as per our Lines of Credit policy, as it focuses on one region of a country. In Russia’s case, the Far East, for which this credit line is intended, is two times the size of India. As I mentioned earlier, India has strong historical relationships. We are now evolving new branches that will carry forward our cooperation for the next couple of decades.
SS: An interesting aspect of the Joint Statement is that, for the first time, there is mention of “temporary placement of skilled manpower from India to Far East Russia.” What is the vision behind this? What are the areas in which such a cooperation is likely to take place?
VV: Russia faces a significant manpower shortage. This problem is acute in the Russian Far East. Though Russia generally has a restrictive policy on migration, President Putin responded positively to our Prime Minister’s suggestion that Indian labour, in context of a forward looking migration policy, could contribute positively in developing the Russian Far East, given the excellent examples of how Indian labour has had an impact on other regions of the world. Indian migration will be linked to specific projects of a bilateral nature. There are already good examples with regard to diamond processing in Vladivostok and Yakutia. During EEF, about 10 MoUs were signed in the fields of education and skill development including with India’s National Skill Development Council. Many Indian States are interested in opportunities for skilled youth to find gainful employment in the Russian Far East.
Indian migration will be linked to specific projects of a bilateral nature. There are already good examples with regard to diamond processing in Vladivostok and Yakutia.
SS: The two leaders have devoted considerable time towards cooperation in the energy sector — both hydrocarbon and nuclear. What are the highlights of the agreements in these sectors?
VV: Energy is already a major area of cooperation between India and Russia. Six reactors will be constructed at the Kudankulam nuclear project. Both sides are also in touch with each other regarding a possible second site in the future that will further increase the construction of reactors with Russian assistance. There are other aspects of nuclear fuel cycle, including a ‘third country cooperation’, on which both sides were actively engaged.
In the hydrocarbon sector, there are examples of extremely successful cooperation projects. The 20 year old Sakhalin-1 Investment remains one of the most profitable investments made by India internationally.
During the Vladivostok Summit, there was agreement on a roadmap of cooperation over the next five years in the hydrocarbon sector. It included strengthening LNG exports to India; encouraging Russian companies to participate in gas projects in India; exploring the possibility of Indian companies collaborating in LNG projects, including in Arctic LNG infrastructure projects; cooperation at the university level, among others. Sourcing of coking coal from the Russian Far East is now a major priority.
SS: Connectivity is the new buzzword that carries significant strategic and political significance. How do India and Russia intend to cooperate in this area? For example, how will the two continue with the INSTC in the light of the US sanctions against Iran?
VV: India and Russia remain committed to the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC). In March 2019, a coordination meeting held in Tehran agreed on running test run along the corridor to identify bottlenecks between Indian ports and Russian destinations. The next coordination meeting will be held in Azerbaijan in 2020. In terms of connectivity, mention must be made of the Chennai-Vladivostok route which will also be critical to our Act Far East Policy.
Russia plays a very important role with respect to integration processes on the Eurasian landmass in the context of the Greater Eurasian Partnership. We seek integration in the wider region of the Indo-Pacific.
SS: How do these projects contribute to bridging the gap, if any, between Russia’s Eurasian project and India’s Indo-Pacific vision?
VV: We have engaged actively with Russia on our concept of the Indo-Pacific. During his visit to Moscow, External Affairs Minister Dr. Jaishankar spoke at-length at the Valdai Club. Russia plays a very important role with respect to integration processes on the Eurasian landmass in the context of the Greater Eurasian Partnership. We seek integration in the wider region of the Indo-Pacific. As Dr. Jaishankar highlighted, just as India is a strong power in the Indian Ocean with serious interests in the Pacific Ocean, Russia is a strong Pacific power with interests in the Indian Ocean. At the EEF plenary, the Prime Minister highlighted Vladivostok as being the Sangam of Eurasia and the Pacific, opening opportunities for the Arctic and the Northern Sea Route.
If you add the Chennai-Vladivostok route to the overall picture, a natural continuum between Indo-Pacific, the Northern Sea Route and the Eurasian landmass will emerge. Prime Minister’s visit to Vladivostok symbolised India’s determination to be engaged along all points of this geopolitical arch, from Chennai to Yamal, possibly the most significant engagement of this century.
SS: Prior to the summit, there were reports that India and Russia could sign LEMOA type agreement for use of each other’s logistics. But this has not occurred. Is this a sign of some divergence?
VV: Defence ministries of both countries have been discussing a Reciprocal Logistics Agreement, on which considerable progress has been made. We can expect this agreement to be concluded in the near future. It is only a matter of time. This year, the second Tri Service Exercise will be held in India. The IGA on the manufacture of spare parts will be a major boost for the Make in India initiative.
Russia has a policy on Jammu & Kashmir. It views J&K as an integral part of India. It has viewed the abrogation of Article 370 as an integral matter of India — consistent with its constitutional framework.
SS: Have the two leaders been able to bridge the perceived gap in their understandings on Afghanistan?
VV: India and Russia have a long history of consultations on Afghanistan. Both have vital stake for peace and stability of the country. Afghanistan figured in discussions during the visits of the NSA and External Affairs Minister to Moscow, as well as the visit of the Prime Minister to Vladivostok. As in the past, India and Russia are determined to see that their interests are protected with respect to emerging developments in Afghanistan.
SS: Were there discussions on Kashmir and non-state/state sponsored terror?
VV: Russia has a policy on Jammu & Kashmir. It views J&K as an integral part of India. It has viewed the abrogation of Article 370 as an integral matter of India — consistent with its constitutional framework. Russia supports normalisation of relations between India and Pakistan through bilateral dialogue based on the Shimla Agreement and Lahore Declaration. From the visit of EAM to Moscow and the Prime Minister’s visit to Vladivostok, we can say that Russia is beside India on the Kashmir issue.