December 26th, 2010 DC Correspondent
Kanwal Sibal, who was India’s ambassador to Moscow and later foreign secretary, says that it is for the first time that the Russians have been upfront and explicit about holding Pakistan accountable on the terrorism issue. In an interview to Ramesh Ramachandran, he says that this is a new language that signifies a welcome change in political line.
Q. Is the Russian connection worth nurturing, considering that lately India has developed viable relations with leading Western democracies?
A. It is very wrong to think in terms of an either-or situation because conditions of globalisation today permit us to develop strong relations with the US and continue to nurture our longstanding ties with Russia. There are gains to be made from both sides. The Cold War constraints, which India even then resisted, don’t exist anymore.
If we want to play a global role, if we want to become a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, this cannot be on the basis of exclusive relationships. We have to be self-confident and establish mutually-beneficial relationships with all centres of power. Our relationship with Russia is not at the expense of our other relationships and vice-versa.
Q. The outcome of Russian President Dmitry Medvedev’s visit seems to have belied the view that India’s old relationship with Russia in areas such as defence may be overshadowed. Also, two-way trade was not picking up. How do you view the matter?
A. Our defence relationship with Russia remains prolific. Almost 70 per cent of our defence supplies come from Russia; diversification of supply sources may lower this figure to 40 to 50 per cent in the decades ahead, which will be a very substantial reliance still. If you look at the range of our agreements and sourcing from Russia — the fifth generation fighter aircraft, the multi-role transport aircraft, additional T-90 tanks, Sukhoi MK30i and Mig-29K aircraft, lease of a nuclear submarine and technical help for Arihant, access to military signals from Glonass, etc — you can see the durability of our defence ties.
We are consolidating our defence ties with Russia even as we develop new partnerships because it is a trusted and reliable supplier. There is no risk with Russia of interruption of supplies in the future if the situation deteriorates in our neighbourhood. But trade, no doubt, is a very weak element in our relationship.
We have tried very hard to overcome this deficiency by setting up the India-Russia business forum, a CEOs forum, and working on a Ceca (Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement), but progress has been slow. President Medvedev’s visit, however, indicates a new dynamism on the economic front. Signs that Russia is politically more determined to expand its ties with India beyond the defence sector have become more visible. With the signing of an inter-governmental agreement on cooperation in the hydrocarbons sector, we have succeeded in our persistent efforts to get Russia to give a political push to the energy relationship. Agreements in the area of pharmaceuticals hold out hope for increased Indian sales to the expanding Russian market. So, if energy, pharmaceuticals, and the IT sector, in which potential synergies exist, come into the trade mix, our trade figures will expand.
Q. Do you see the first hints of a Moscow-Delhi axis emerging in Central Asia-Afghanistan, especially in a post-US situation in Afghanistan?
A. Such an axis cannot be realistically built as Moscow will not want to get embroiled in Afghanistan once again, and other players like Iran and China cannot be ignored. In fact, the initiative taken by Russia, Tajikistan, Pakistan and Afghanistan to discuss the future of that region was a contrary signal as India was left out — to Pakistan’s satisfaction.
Islamabad has made great efforts to deny India a role and seemed to have succeeded even with a tried and trusted friend like Russia. However, President Medvedev’s visit has removed misapprehensions that Russia was exploring options in this region without India.
For the first time the Russians have been upfront and explicit about holding Pakistan accountable on the terrorism issue, naming it, and asking it to expeditiously bring all the perpetrators, authors and accomplices of the Mumbai attacks to justice. They have also referred to the safe havens for terrorists and radical extremists in Pakistan. This is new language signifying a welcome change in political line.
Q. What should Russia be doing if its utterances on Pakistan and terrorism have to be given meaning? Politically, can it apply pressure on Pakistan? How much leverage does Moscow have with Islamabad?
A. President Medvedev’s statements on the Indian soil about Pak terror, and by those of France President Nicolas Sarkozy, amount to a form of pressure on Pakistan. The Russian President has promised stepped up anti-terror cooperation with India, including technology. He has supported firmer adherence to relevant UN resolutions. Russia can mobilise the Central Asian states against the terrorist threat from Pakistan more actively and further isolate Pakistan politically in the region.
Of course, after the Soviet debacle in Afghanistan, Russia will not want to physically intervene in the region. It will also be careful not to destabilise Pakistan to the point that it becomes more of a menace, or is incapable of extending the kind of cooperation the US wants from it. Russia will also be mindful of US interests.
The situation is exceedingly complex and no one, including the Americans, can clearly see what to do next. If the US is unable to use its leverages to make Pakistan do what it wants, it is difficult to imagine what Russia can proactively do on the ground which would meet both Russian and Indian objectives.
Ultimately, all of us have to depend in great measure on the US and its allies to make sure that they don’t allow disruptive forces to gain power in the region. To that extent, Russia, India, or for that matter even Iran, would have interest in securing the interests of the international community in Afghanistan in collaboration with the US and others. But so far, the US has not sufficiently reached out to regional countries and accommodated sufficiently their thinking in its policies.
Q. Will nurturing a Moscow-Delhi axis be to our benefit, or will the costs be too severe?
A. Talk of an axis will be an exaggeration, but enhanced cooperation has no adverse costs, only benefits. Our defence relationship remains very strong. Russia is a leading energy power. Its scientific and technological base in many areas, such as space and nuclear energy, is very strong. Who will object to expansion of our ties with Russia in these areas? The US, Europe, China? There is no such risk. Our thinking and approach is not based on exclusivity. Other countries, including China in the economic area, are ready to engage with us in spheres where mutual gains can be maximised.
Q. How do you rate Medvedev’s visit?
A. Very satisfactory. On terrorism, Pakistan, permanent membership of the Security Council, defence, energy, economic ties, visa restrictions, etc, the visit saw a conscious effort by the Russian side to move forward while removing any misgivings that might have arisen beneath the surface about Russia’s position on some of these issues. The extra effort made by Russia shows that it is no longer taking India for granted. India, of course, has never lost sight of the value of its Russia relationship.
‘Russia is explicit about Pak terror’December 26th, 2010 DC Correspondent