Russia’s new Ambassador to India Nikolay Kudashev takes over at a tough time for bilateral ties. In his first interview since taking over, Mr. Kudashev told The Hindu that the priority for New Delhi and Moscow would be sealing several defence agreements this year, but the bigger priority would be reaching out to the next generation of Indians and Russians to broaden cooperation.
Where are India-Russia ties today, given all the changes in the world, and how will both countries address the reports of a “drift” between them?
Our relations have reached unprecedented level of maturity. In the past year 2017, all Indian ministers of the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) have visited Russia. It is unprecedented, and we have had reciprocal visits. Our leaders met five times in the last three years. I am not even mentioning the telephone conversations between them. So it is fair to say that President Putin and Prime Minister Modi have established very special relationship. They personally manage our bilateral ties and international cooperation.
On the drift, it is not that we are running apart from each other. There are new opportunities coming up our way and sometimes we are lagging behind them. New mechanism and platforms for cooperation are emerging, but the key to our new successes may lie to the extent of our interest of our young generation in contributing to our joint projects and bilateral relations.
Is India-Russia military cooperation keeping pace, given India’s move to diversify its hardware procurement?
This is one of the pillars of our strategic cooperation both sides are deservedly proud of. This year we expect the nodal points of our defence cooperation to be the signing of contractual obligations of anti-aircraft systems S-400, Ka-226T helicopters, and joint manufacture of frigates. The issue of joint development and manufacture of the Sukhoi/HAL Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA) is also on the agenda, as is the supply of Mi-17 helicopters and upgrade of Mig-29 fighters. So we have very ambitious plans.
Can you elaborate on the status of FGFA, which has been repeatedly delayed?
This issue was raised during our recent high level contacts, and the project remains on the agenda. The FGFA project will define the future image of the Indian Air Force for at least 50 years including the armament system of such aircraft. We are convinced on the merits and advantages of our aircraft. If you ask me what defines the quality of our cooperation, it is that the Russian side is a pioneer of ‘Make in India’. Almost all new projects envisage a very high level of localisation. Of course it not only concerns new deals but old ones like Su-30 aircraft, T-90 tanks and BrahMos missiles. To be honest it’s hard to tell what is it that we are not making in India and not making with India!
How do you see India-Russia cooperation in nuclear energy growing, with U.S. and French competitors in the market?
This is one of the defining dimensions of our cooperation. Works on Kudankulam site are advancing successfully. Units 1 and 2 are already operational, Unit 3 and 4 are progressing according to the time schedule. Important agreements have been reached on Units 5 and 6. We are now expecting a signal from our Indian partners on the second site, where we believe a decision on its location is almost in the final stage.
Do you worry about competition from other foreign collaborations in nuclear sector?
Speaking about U.S. and French companies, we are not afraid of normal, fair competition. We are confident in the merits of our technologies. And in any case, despite all the talk, the Russian side and the Russian company Rosatom is the only enterprise has been doing business in India for decades, producing energy for India.
The only thing which is unacceptable to us is the language of sanctions and discrimination, the language which our partners (U.S.) are increasingly using against us. This is nothing but an attempt to undermine our strategic partnership with India including in such strategically important sectors like military and technical cooperation, energy and nuclear energy.
On Afghanistan, is there any common ground between India and Russia today, given Indian opposition to Taliban talks, and Russia-U.S. differences on the way forward?
Many talk of the contradictions in the Afghanistan policy of India and Russia. To my mind this is artificial. Both Indian and Russia need a peaceful and democratic Afghanistan free from terrorism, crime and drug trafficking. India, like Russia, believes there is and cannot be any military solution to the Afghanistan problem. So priority goes to the political dialogue which means that reconciliation of the parties and we think such dialogue should not be secretive or selective. It should be an open dialogue with multilateral fora, with priority participation of regional countries, like the Moscow process and the SCO-Afghanistan contact group where India is also participating.
But there is a basic contraction in that when U.S. made its South Asia policy statement on Afghanistan, India welcomed it and Russia criticised it…
The U.S. policy is not limited to South Asia. According to the U.S. policy, Russia stands as a revisionist state and a threat for U.S. and its allies. I hope that you won’t connect Indian policy with such views of the U.S. leadership. We may have certain nuances in our (India-Russia) approaches but I wouldn’t exaggerate the differences. From our point of view the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan has stretched itself and has no future prospects as a tool of reconciliation. We need another mechanism of settlement. We, together with India are looking for them.
India has also been keen to explore Russian support for supplying weapons, helicopters to Afghanistan. Has there been any progress on Indian requests?
As far as I know this issue is on our agenda. If you are talking of helicopters, it is a matter of commercial negotiations. There could be other proposals but we are talking of three helicopters at the beginning.
Not just Afghanistan, India is also negotiating on military supplies of Russian-origin hardware to third countries like Vietnam or Malaysia. Are there plans for a bilateral mechanism for this?
This is an important issue that will showcase our transition from a seller-buyer relationship to the joint manufacturing of equipment. Naturally we will face problems of after sale support and repairs as well. This issue should be addressed on a precise contractual basis without any misunderstanding. Our work in this direction is ongoing, and the ministries will have more information on this.
Are there any talks for an India-Russia logistics support agreement on the lines of the Indo-U.S. LEMOA to enable the use of each other’s bases?
I believe for us with 60-year-old history of military exchanges, the issue of logistical agreement is a long past idea. We have moved beyond that a long time ago. For a very long time we have been training and conducting drills. We have started tri-service drills. We have been cooperating for a long time on military infrastructure construction. So we have qualitatively new tasks and goals not quite comparable to the issues India is trying to settle with its new partners.
Recently the Russian Foreign Minister seemed to suggest that India should give up its opposition to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (B&RI)…what sort of alternative resolution do you expect for India’s sovereignty concerns?
We have never tried to rope in, or engage India in the Chinese project, of which we ourselves are not a participant. When we talk about B&RI, we are talking about the integration of the Russian vision of Eurasian integration and the Chinese project. We have never asked India to make concessions in terms of its sovereignty. But there are interests of a larger Eurasia, of a continent which we belong to, and of Eurasian connectivity. Without solving these issues, we won’t be able to implement our plans— Russian plans, Indian plans, Chinese plans, whatever. Mr. Lavrov was talking about creative solutions, about not being absolutist on our contradictions, but finding creative approaches without limiting ourselves.
Given that, how do you see the push for Indian participation in the Indo-Pacific?
As for Indo-Pacific connectivity, it is India’s sovereign choice. You are in the Indo-Pacific region and it seems logical to engage in connectivity in this regard. What would be illogical is if you see your region as split or fragmented (South Asia and Indo-Pacific). This bigger picture was mentioned by Mr. Lavrov, but there were no other ways this topic was raised in other negotiations, either public or private.
India has asked for Russia’s support on entering the Nuclear Suppliers Group, and also for assistance with clearing the hurdles to the NSG. How do you see India’s chances?
The issue of the NSG was discussed during the meetings of the Deputy Foreign Minister Ryabkov (in December). Our position is very simple. We support Indian membership at the NSG. But obviously not all members of this group share our approach. For us, consensus within the group is very important, it underlines the very existence of the NSG. And we proceed from the understanding that our Indian colleagues will also work with those who have certain doubts in this regard. From our side, we always voice our support for the Indian candidacy.
We now see regular exercises and a growing Russian military cooperation with Pakistan. Why has Russia shifted its stand on not dealing with Pakistan in the past?
This issue has been very much exaggerated. Recently several Russian leaders, including Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov have touched upon the issue of Russian ties with Pakistan. Our relations with Pakistan in the military sphere are of a very minimum nature, and are strictly limited to anti-terrorism operations, and are not comparable in any way to the scope of our relations with India. Most importantly, our ties with Pakistan cannot be viewed as an attempt to change the regional strategic balance. We strive to have normal relations with Pakistan, which I understand is the intention of India as well. We want to support those forces in Pakistan who have the same intentions as us, to fight terrorism in all of its manifestations.
If countering terrorism is the objective, will Russia give India its support at the U.N.’s Financial Action Task Force later this month? India and several other countries have been keen to corner Pakistan on the support to terrorist groups in its country, especially groups that target India (Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed), and some have even spoken of sanctions against certain entities there.
Eventually our decision will depend on how weighty and substantiated the proof for Pakistan’s involvement in financing terrorism will be. We are honest people, and base ourselves not only on biased opinions, but on the basis of facts. To corner Pakistan is not our policy. We believe that the settlement of all issues with Pakistan depends on political dialogue. I will even take the risk to suggest that this comes from the Indian idea of a comprehensive dialogue with Pakistan. But it is not my intention to comment on issues that are of Indian sovereignty.
Let’s turn to neighbouring Iran. What is the future of the India-Iran-Russia International North South Trade Corridor (INSTC) given the possibility of more sanctions by the United States on Iran?
This is a very promising area of cooperation. First of all, in terms of energy and signing of a memorandum which would enable us to construct a gas pipeline from Iran to India, with Pakistan’s participation (IPI pipeline). The talks on this issue are underway, and we are now speaking of four separate memorandums related to the IPI project, with preference for a possible maritime route for this pipeline. It would seem to me that any agreement on this issue would be a very good example of regional connectivity. The INSTC corridor has been brought to life with or without American sanctions. Our countries have peacefully coexisted for thousands of years before the formations of the United States, and I am confident that the relations between our countries cannot be interpreted in the context of U.S. policy or sanctions. Indian public opinion tends to overestimate the weight of American policy in the region.