Indian Ambassador to Moscow Bala Venkatesh Varma sat down for an interview with TASS prior to wrapping up his tenure in the Russian capital. During the talk, he spoke about how Russian-Indian relations had changed over the past three years, in addition to cooperation with Moscow on Afghanistan as well as dialogue with the Taliban movement (outlawed in Russia).
— My first question is regarding your Mission in Moscow. You have served here as Ambassador for three years. What was the greatest challenge for you and what do you consider as your greatest achievement?
Ambassador: These have been three transformative years in India-Russia relations. The traditional strengths of India-Russia relations which are defense, nuclear, space, and energy have been further strengthened. However, new drivers of growth have also been added, so there has been a distinct diversification of relations. We are considering major projects in the energy sector, long-term arrangements with respect to coking coal, with respect to the supply of fertilizers. Russian investments in India's petrochemical sector, railways, shipbuilding, will be taking place. In the defense field, India-Russia defense contracts were only about 2-3 billion dollars per year when I joined in 2018. Today the total amount is about 9-10 billion dollars.
We have major defense contracts already under implementation. The S-400 is one of them. We also have a contract relating to the manufacture and production of 1135.6 frigates and I was in Kaliningrad in the Yantar shipyard yesterday. My wife, Ms. Vidya Varma launched the ship - it's a tradition that women launch ships. It was a very beautiful ceremony.
The production of more than 700,000 AK-203 rifles, will be done in India. It’s a Make in India program. We are going to buy an additional Su 30-MKI as well as additional MiG 29s and 400 more T-90 tanks. So there has been a fundamental change in how our defense relationship has moved on in the last 3 years. Russia has moved back again as the top defense partner of India.
Prime Minister Modi's visit to Vladivostok in September 2019 undertook a fundamental change in India’s approach to Russia where inter-regional cooperation has become a very important part. India has announced a 1 billion dollar credit line for development of the Russian Far East and we intend to take that forward. The Chennai - Vladivostok corridor will supplement the North-South corridor. India is also interested in the Northern Sea route. So all put together, I am happy that these 3 years have been fairly transformative in India-Russia relations. The old strengths have been consolidated, but new drivers have been added to the relationship.
And of course, this will be taken forward when there will be a bilateral summit between India-Russia. Both sides are actively working on it. There is a high possibility that the Summit is taking place in December.
— What agreements are to be signed during this Summit?
Ambassador: We expect a number of agreements in the defense, economic, trade, science and technology spheres. We expect the Joint Commission on Technology and Science to be announced. Military-Technical cooperation for the next decade 2021-2031 will be announced. We also have an agreement on reciprocal logistic support for each other's armed forces so that the armed forces that come for each other’s exercises will have good logistic support both in Russia and in India. And this year, in the last five months, India has participated in each and every major Russian exercise. INDRA Navy, INDRA Army, Zapad, and Peace Mission.
— So this year, leaders of Russia and India established a 2+2 dialogue between Ministers of Foreign Affairs and Defense but actually our countries have already had a long history of successful relations in both military-technical and diplomatic spheres. So, why was it so important to establish such a new dialogue and when their first meeting would take place?
Ambassador: There are a lot of new trends affecting strategic stability at the regional and global levels. It is always important for friends like India and Russia to have an additional level of consultations, an additional platform of consultations. For example, India and Russia can have more focused cooperation in Central Asia, in the Indian Ocean region. A number of developments including relating to Afghanistan have created new challenges. And I think the 2+2 dialogue will be a very important addition to the architecture of dialogue that you have rightly pointed out already exists. The dialogue is expected to take place in Moscow, possibly by mid-November.
— And also you mentioned Afghanistan. After the takeover of Kabul by the Taliban, the leaders of Russia and India have agreed to hold regular consultations on Afghanistan. On what level these consultations will be held?
Ambassador: There are different levels of consultations. Russia recently hosted a meeting of the Moscow format. Our DG, MFA looking after relations with Afghanistan was here along with our DG who looks after our relations with Russia.
They participated in the Moscow Format meeting. They also had an interaction with the Taliban. So I think on the whole this is an important factor. Secondly, at the NSA's level, General Patrushev visited India in September. This would most possibly be followed by India hosting a meeting of the senior security officials on November 10 on Afghanistan of regional countries. General Patrushev has been invited and there’s a very strong possibility that he may actually visit. We are still awaiting confirmation, but he will be a very welcome participant in the dialogue. India and Russia, I must emphasize have particular interest in the impact of Afghanistan on the broader region so therefore our existing consultations have been further strengthened, including at the security services level.
— What other countries will participate in these consultations on November 10?
Ambassador: There are six regional countries, India, Russia, Pakistan, China, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.
— You mentioned the Moscow format meeting on Afghanistan. How do you assess its results?
Ambassador: The Moscow format meeting is an ongoing process. It’s a good contribution by Russia, to get all the parties together to focus on the evolving humanitarian crisis that is emerging in Afghanistan but also the problem of terrorism, drug trafficking and the impact on Central Asian security. So all these are common challenges for India and Russia. We were there because Russia was hosting that meeting but on the question of recognition of the Taliban, I think it is still premature to talk about actual recognition because there are still concerns in the international community on the nature of the government that can be formed or is wanting to take control in Afghanistan.
— You mentioned that the Indian delegation met with the Taliban delegation on the sidelines of the Moscow Format meeting. You know Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid was quoted as saying that the two sides stressed the need to take into account each others’ concerns and to improve bilateral economic and diplomatic relations. Is it true and is India ready to engage with the Taliban?
Ambassador: There was a meeting with the Taliban. We put forward our points of view, the Taliban put forward their points of view. This is the dialogue that we continue. No decisions were taken either way on both sides. But I think India will engage in the humanitarian situation because the humanitarian situation is quite serious and India’s always placed the wellbeing of the Afghan people as the topmost priority.
— Let’s turn to our bilateral relations. Actually, as we see the COVID situation in Russia is very bad again, and some regions are running out of the Sputnik Light vaccine. Meanwhile, India has permitted the export of the domestically produced Sputnik Light vaccine to Russia. So, when such supplies will start and in what amounts?
Ambassador: Yes, the companies are in touch. I think in the next couple of weeks production will rise to a sufficient level where the external demands of Sputnik will be exported out of India for use, including Russia. I don’t have specific figures at the moment.
— Also, when do you expect approval of the Sputnik Light vaccine in India?
Ambassador: That is under process. I’m sure it will be done pretty soon.
— In October for the first time since the beginning of the pandemic India has started granting tourist visas, but only for foreigners arriving on charter flights. But there are no charter flights between our two countries. Can you tell me when they are expected to start?
Ambassador: Aeroflot and Air India are operating flights to Delhi. If there are special requests, I am sure they will be considered positively by the Indian authorities.
— Also, in your previous interview to Kommersant, you said that India is going to open a tourist office in Moscow.
Ambassador: We are already looking for actual premises - office premises, so as soon as that is finalized, probably by the end of the year, we will have a tourist office in Moscow.
— What it will be dealing with?
Ambassador: They will expand tourist links between India and Russia but also Russia will be seen as a centerpiece for engagement with the other Central Asia states, with other Asian states and the Caucasus. There’s a huge demand for tourism services. And we hope that the establishment of a tourism office will upgrade them.
— What regions of India, places or cities would you personally recommend to visit?
Ambassador: Of course, India is a vast and beautiful country. The traditional areas of where people go for tourism especially from Russia includes, Delhi, Agra, Jaipur, but also Goa and Kerala, which are very beautiful, but I would suggest that you go to other parts of India as well.
The North East is very beautiful. Orissa, Andhra Pradesh. We also have excellent facilities in Madhya Pradesh, up north in Kashmir, in Uttarakhand. The list is very large.
— Maybe you can reveal a secret and tell us who will be your successor as Ambassador?
Ambassador: It will be announced very soon. He is a very accomplished diplomat. He will be joining in the next couple of weeks. I’m sure that India-Russia relations will be taken forward during his term.
I want to thank you and TASS for all the support you have given us. You have been very positive with very good analytical, factual coverage of India-Russia relations and India’s role in Russia, and we want to thank you for that.
— Thank you very much. And the last question, if you don’t mind: What are your plans once you complete your mission if it’s not a secret?
Ambassador: Not a secret, but of course I will be retiring from diplomatic service. If you retire, you are free to do many things and there’s no need to hurry. But I will obviously keep an interest in Russia. I have lots of friends in Russia. I’m sure my interest in Russia which is almost forty years old now, will continue in the future as well.
— Thank you so much.
Ambassador: Thank you.