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Home > India > News > Interview

The Rediff Interview/Former foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal

'Energy can be the pillar in Indo-Russian ties'

February 15, 2008

Former foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal
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Kanwal Sibal, former foreign secretary and India's ex-ambassador to Russia [Images], spoke exclusively to on Russian Prime Minister Viktor A Zubkov's recent visit to India.

On a day when the Russian Prime Minister inaugurated the 'Year of Russia' in India in 2008, Sibal attempted to put in perspective the Indo-Russian ties.

The 'Year of Russia' will witness special programmes in economy, science and culture and it will be followed by the 'Year of India' in Russia in 2009.

He spoke to Managing Editor Sheela Bhatt.

The Left parties have alleged that when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh [Images] visited Moscow [Images] in November 2007 the Indo-Russian nuclear co-operation agreement was ready, but could not be signed due to US pressure. Do you find the vibes between Russian and India getting cold?

I don't share this view at all. I have seen the kind of interactions that have taken place between this government and the Russian government in three years I was in Moscow. During my tenure, Dr Singh visited Russia four times. I can't recall him visiting any other country so often.

As decided by both sides, yearly summit-level meetings and visits are being held regularly. That itself shows both countries think that ties are important. On the issue of the Indo-Russian civil nuclear energy, talks have been held. Russia is the only player, and it is the only country to have actually built civil nuclear power plants in India. The substantive discussion took place to reach an agreement for the new nuclear power plants when President Putin came to India in January 2007.

The Memorandum of Intent was signed for building additional power plants. It was to be followed by an inter-governmental agreement. For some reason, the agreement could not be signed by Singh and Putin during his Moscow visit. But whatever confusion was there, it is now removed by the Singh's announcement. India and Russia have finalised the civil nuclear energy agreement.

Is there a shadow of  the ongoing Indo-US nuclear deal on the Indo-Russia nuclear energy co-operation agreement?

I think it's inevitable. Why should we run away from this? The key is in the US hands. Unless the US opens the doors of civil nuclear co-operation with India, no other country will come forward and co-operate with us.

Nobody wants to challenge the US and nobody wants to undermine the Nuclear Suppliers Group guidelines. And, there are concerns of proliferation that go beyond India. The international community, at least most of it, like the US, Russia, France [Images] and the UK certainly have absorbed and accepted India's defiance of the non-proliferation regime when we tested nuclear weapons in 1998. But, if it happens beyond this, they would as the cost to them would be to heavy to bear..

What does that mean?

That means they don't want India's example to be followed by anybody else. As I said, the US holds the key and unless it is on board, we will not be able to co-operate with others. If the process with the US is stalled due to internal problems or any other problems, there will be a shadow of it on our dealings with others. You can sign anything with others, but the actual implementation of those agreements will not see actual power plants coming to India unless the Indo-US agreement is sealed.

You have seen President Putin rule quite closely. What kind of fundamental changes has he brought about in the traditional Indo-Russian relationship?

Let me put it this way: If  President Putin had not come to power, we would have had a problem in our relationship with Russia. In the sense of a lack of attention we felt during Boris Yeltsin's tenure. It could have perhaps become more of a fact on the ground because in his time Russia's policies were differently oriented.

When Putin came to power, he steered ties with India back in the right direction. Personally, he has played an important role in giving strength to the relations. For example, GLONASS [The Global Navigation Satellite System]. Russia is the only country which is willing to give access to India to high-precision signals. In other words, the crucial military signals.

Do you agree with Commerce Minister Kamal Nath's view that we can't rest on nostalgia. Was Putin more realistic while dealing with India?

I think we misunderstood the reference to nostalgia. Really speaking, the Soviets didn't have any genuine friends. They had client states and allies. India, in a sense, was a genuine friend. India was friendly with the erstwhile USSR because of the independent decision it took in the context of enormous pressure from the West.

The closer relationship with that country served India's national interest. It suited both sides. They were Communists, we were not. Their governance and economy was different form ours. If you look at it, in reality, there was a lot that divided us and yet we were very close. The thinking then was more pragmatic than ideological. Though, the Soviet Union was an ideological state, the relations were based on pragmatism. Those years have gone and the Cold War is over. India has so many options. The West is wooing India, especially the US. The economic options before India are much bigger now. In the knowledge economy, we are making strides.

The earlier relationship was based on government-to-government interactions. Now, the private sector is coming in. These are various reasons of decline in the economic content of our relationship. This is not related to nostalgia or anything else. It's a product of changes that have taken place in Russia and India. Russia is building up to become a major economic player, which I think one day it will.

What does Russia think about the Indo-US nuclear deal?

Russia doesn't mind the Indo-US nuclear deal. Putin, during his long tenure, himself has tried hard to have a good working relationship with the US. Russia wanted to co-operate on major issues. I don't want to get into the US policy on Russia, but the fact is that one can make the case that there was a serious mishandling of Russia by the West. They cornered Russia, rightly or wrongly. 

Now, Russians assert themselves and show their economic muscle. The change in Russia-US ties has nothing to do with the improvement of Indo-US relations. It's not Cold War or anything else. The two dynamics are altogether different. Both are not inter-connected. And, Russians are pragmatic people. If at all, theoretically speaking, there is any concern about India's proximity with the US, then Russians should step up their engagement with India  They should make sure that all the legacy they have in this country in terms of goodwill and strong support, they should capitalise and build on further.

Do you expect, in a changing atmosphere, Russia may supply arms to Pakistan?

They haven't done that so far. The atmosphere has changed for sometime. I cannot understand the logic that if our relationship improves with the US, they may sell arms to Pakistan. Where is the connection? To my mind, it will be hardly helpful to them. They are the largest suppliers of arms to India. The deals that have been signed recently by the UPA government will ensure that India will be their most privileged defence partner. Would they, again as a pragmatic country, jeopardise their position by trying to create misunderstanding by trying to sell arms to Pakistan? Presuming that Pakistan is interested. Even then how much capacity does Pakistan have to buy arms? The US and China are already supplying arms to Pakistan.  China is their biggest partner. How many arms do  they need?

The Chinese fighters, which Pakistan wants to buy, have Russian engines.

China has the end-user agreement with Russia and they have to ask Russia to sell engines to Pakistan. So far, Russia has not given permission to China. As per my understanding, Russia will not give permission to China to sell those fighters to Pakistan with Russian engines. The problem of terrorism and fundamentalism is as dangerous to Russia as it is for us. We may have taken the body blows already, but for Russia it is a new game. If anything goes wrong in Russia, their internal system can be seriously complicated. The prospect of a good Russia-Pakistan relationship is not that bright.

Overall, you are optimistic about Indo-Russian ties.

The only weakness in our relationship is the economic relationship. Unless we increase the figures we will not be able to create sufficient stake in each other's countries.  The relationship can't depend only on defence. After all, we can't keep spending million of dollars on defence acquisition. There has to be diversification. I was pushing through the co-operation in the energy sector. The subject is complicated and large in dimension.

During the Yeltsin era, foreign interests and local Russian private sector industry had made deep inroads in to the energy sector. President Putin decided to change that. He reasserted the state control over energy resources. Some new laws are going to be passed.

They haven't put back the whole thing in order yet. Irrespective of that, I would still say, that Russians will have to take a strong political decision to give India an opportunity in the energy sector. So, that it can be the new pillar in our relationship.

Can strategic ties survive if the economic ties remain so low?

Yes, of course. There are many other elements in our strategic ties. Economic ties are a vital part for any two countries. But, what brings Russia in terms of diplomatic and political support is important to us and vice versa. The most crucial thing is the Russia's policy in our neighbourhood. Any policy in our neighbourhood, which is not in India's interests, will cost us politically, economically and militarily.

Russia accepts India's pre-eminence in its neighbourhood. It does not interfere in your relationship with your neighbors. It doesn't do anything, which can create problems between us and our neighbors.

The visa issue, though a minor one, was even mentioned by Kamal Nath in his speech. What is the problem?

On the issue of visas, Russians are narrow-minded. Europe has imposed very unpalatable conditions on them. They had to sign the agreement to take back anybody who travels from Russia to Europe on an illegal visa. Russians have tied up visa facilitation with this issue. We have told them there is no logic of connecting the two. There is no illegal migration between India and Russia and if there is any such migration our regular law can take care of it. We don't have common sea or land route. So, Aeroflot is the only flight operating between the two countries.

What is not working out within Russia for Indians?

Russia has not put its house completely in order. In the sense of a transition from the  Soviet Union to Russia has been done after a loss of the large part of  its territory and population. Switching from the state-controlled economy to the market economy has generated many problems. The level of corruption is quite high which President Putin tried to control. Not enough expertise is present in Russia to deal with pressure of market economy and competition. They have enormous resources. Not enough was done to invest in high-technology areas when they were passing through an economic crisis. They are trying to catch up on lost time.

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