In an exclusive and candid interview, senior diplomat and Russia’s former ambassador to India Vyacheslav Trubnikov shares his optimistic outlook on bilateral relations.
Trubnikov: "Russia needs to communicate with new generations of Indians, seeking virtual communication and new ways to bring information about Russia home to India." Source: Boris Prihodko/RIA Novosti
Russia and India have declared a ‘privileged strategic partnership’, which is quite a high-profile status for an international relationship. How does this status show itself in practice?
The term ‘strategic partnership’ is used so often that it seems to me it may soon lose its appeal. However, this does not apply to Russia and India. In my opinion, India is the only country with which Russia has attained this level of relations.
As for foreign policy, we share the same views on the foundations of international relations. We are committed to international law and support the United Nations' position as the only organisation capable of maintaining order and peace in the world today.
I cannot say that we share the same position on Syria; the Syrian issue is very complicated. We do, however, agree in the most basic sense that it is a strictly civil war, and we are therefore opposed to interference.
We are now developing new weapons in a joint effort with Indian specialists. The fifth-generation jet fighter is a perfect example. We continue to fight terrorism together, as well. India was the country which understood our position very well during the Chechen wars.
The leaders of our nations meet on a regular basis. We can find a common language with any Indian government. We enjoy a friendship between the Indian and Russian peoples. These ties make our partnership truly privileged.
India's Soviet Culture Week, organised back in the late 1980s, comes to mind. Some of the best Russian performance ensembles arrived—the Bolshoi Theater, the Mariinsky Theatre, the Moiseyev Dance Company, the Beryozka Dance Company, and Alexandrov Ensemble Choir. When I came to Bengal in early 2005 as Russia’s Ambassador to India, the first question that the Chief Minister asked me was: “When are we going to see the Bolshoi Theater again?” The relations between the two countries are built on the spiritual ties which we unfortunately almost completely lack in our relationships with the West. Where there is distrust in the West, here we see open hearts.
When it comes to foreign policy, won’t Russia’s relations with China affect the relationship between Russia and India? Can we maintain balance in the Russia-India-China triangle?
We don’t build relations with either India or China at the expense of the other. Moreover, Russia plays an important role in the triangle and the BRICS bloc. It is Russia that smoothes out discrepancies between India and China within this triangle. We have no plans to make friends "against" anyone else; this is a friendship of three nations, even more so within BRICS.
Why do you think the enormous potential of the trade and economic relations between Russia and India is not being fully utilised?
Changes in trade and economic patterns, as well as in the Russian economy in the wake of the Soviet Union's disintegration became a factor, as did the liberalisation of the Indian economy, where the private sector currently dominates. The Russian private sector logically turned its attention primarily to Europe and the United States. As a country that emerged from under the Iron Curtain, we had to improve relations with our former adversaries.
In the early 1990s, there was a situation where Russia and India were to some extent economically isolated from each other. Our presence in India declined, especially in the media.
Only those entrepreneurs, both Russian and Indian, who are not afraid to take risks, are entering each other’s markets. A lot has been done—by our western competitors, not us—to show the Indians that the Russian market is bad, bribes are a necessity, and that it is particularly difficult to succeed there.
On the other hand, it is much easier for Russian entrepreneurs to work with the well-known currencies which are in good standing in European and North American markets. We do not need to convert currencies when we pay Indian partners in dollars, pounds, or euros.
And of course there is the issue of visas. An Indian businessman once told me very accurately that business is just like an electric current: it follows the path of least resistance. Why should I wait for a month and a half to be issued a Russian visa when I can get a Bulgarian or Polish one in two days’ time? This visa issue persists to this day, and it comes from our commitments to the European Union. In an effort to open up entry into Europe, into the Schengen Area, we had to close our borders to the countries which raise concerns among the European Union states due to their large volume of illegal immigrants, and India is on that same list. Russia would therefore be compelled to follow the rules formulated by our European partners. As a result, our business partnership with India suffers.
Russia and India have been reporting relatively low two-way trade figures. Do you believe this is a serious barrier to the trade and economic relations between the two countries?
I’m not concerned by the $11 billion annual two-way trade. Eight years ago, when I was appointed ambassador to India, we only had $1.7 billion. I don’t think that trade turnover means much in contemporary economic relations. I should emphasise the quality of our trade and economic relationship. Mutual trade must envisage mutual investments. We should create mutually beneficial joint ventures. The Sakhalin-1 project is a characteristic example. The Indians invested $2 billion in the project and in so doing secured regular crude supplies. I am proud that we welcomed the first supply of crude from Sakhalin-1 together with then Indian Petroleum and Natural Gas Minister Murli Deora. Projects of this kind define our collaboration with India at the modern level.
We cannot build up significant trade turnover on purchases of tea, textiles and pepper. We only buy as much of those as we require.
One sector that we must make our priority is high technologies. India is currently the global leader in high-tech production.
I’m glad that our collaboration in telecommunications is growing. Take Sistema JSFC, for example – while it has its difficulties, they are mostly due to the internal political situation in India. Election campaigning is underway, and the situation around Sistema is a result of a major political clash between the incumbent party and the opposition, which has resulted in serious problems for foreign partners.
GLONASS is another opportunity for cooperation. I am certain that if we had been more active back in the mid-2000s, if we had been paying more attention to India’s proposals, we would have made much better progress in this area. The GPS devices used in India lack high precision because the United States won’t share its solutions with anyone, even its NATO allies; however, India cannot operate its arms and weapons, including missiles, without contemporary guidance technologies. India trusts Russia because India understands that it will never "blinded" by Russia.
I am also happy to see major Russian corporations taking an interest in India, specifically the Severstal steel and mining company. India has immense iron ore deposits, but suffers from a lack short of coking coal. A joint project is therefore an excellent idea for us.
Meanwhile both countries need to expand cooperation in the energy sector—in peaceful uses of nuclear power, as well as in supplies of natural gas and crude. We must trust each other and build this collaboration on a long-term strategic basis, rather than settle for sporadic sales of a few tankers of crude or liquefied gas.
What is your stance on Kudankulam?
Russia was practically the only country which supported India when it was under a nuclear embargo, facing tough economic sanctions following its nuclear test explosions. The Nuclear Suppliers Group crossed India out of its list of partners; but we kept building the Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant and training Indian specialists in Russia at the Voronezh Nuclear Power Plant. This project continues to make progress: two power units will soon be commissioned, and two more units are under construction in Kudankulam.
The difficulties we encounter also apply to our western competitors. The protests against the plant began long ago, when the construction had only started, but eventually the Tamil Nadu fishermen who had been protesting the construction of Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant came to understand that it would bring new jobs. Therefore, the difficulties that we have at the current phase are the difficulties of growth.
In military and technical cooperation, Russia has lost a few important tenders. Does this mean that there’s a crisis in our collaboration in this area?
On the one hand, this was a result of India’s official policy regarding the development of its armed forces and procurement of weapons. We shouldn’t consider it a tragedy. On the other hand, this is no time to rest on our laurels as the monopoly supplier to the Indian arms and military equipment market.
Russia has only recently seen a turning point towards the restoration and strengthening of its military-industrial complex. Where in the West, including in the United States, the production of arms is mostly run by private companies, the Russian arms market remains the domain of the state. The thing is that we don’t have any large private companies capable of performing such complicated operations. We require new approaches to the restoration of our military-industrial complex.
When we signed the agreement to remodel the cruiser-carrier Admiral Gorshkov as a full-scale aircraft carrier for the Indian Navy, the Indians thought that we were in no position to ask for a particularly high price. We figured that any money would be beneficial, and that a naval engineering plant should execute the Indian order. Unfortunately, the order ended up with a producer of submarines, rather than of aircraft carriers. Specialists later shared their impressions with me: those who were received the order were neither morally nor physically prepared to fulfill it.
Nevertheless, our collaboration in the military and technical sector is developing consistently, albeit more slowly than we would like. We are on our way to producing the Medium Transport Aircraft and developing the Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft. We have leased one nuclear submarine to the Indian Navy and will soon lease them another, which speaks for itself.
We are very pleased to be building our cooperation on many levels, including joint design, the production of prototype models, and even marketing. The best example of our collaboration in the military and technical fields is the BrahMos missile project. We plan to follow this model of cooperation in civil engineering as well.
It is crucial for Russia to restore its military-industrial sector and defence research in order to remain competitive in the Asia-Pacific Region.
What are the main objectives of cultural and humanitarian cooperation between Russia and India?
There is a tremendous shortage of information in India on Russia. Anyone living in India has to be a big admirer of Russia to dredge even a few nuggets of reliable information about our country out of the internet, and even then, it will most likely be distorted, sometimes maliciously, or it will be completely garbled.
I find that the poor availability of information on Russia and the lack of person-to-person contact in India hold our communication back more than anything else.
I divide Indian society into three groups in terms of their attitude to Russia: the first two groups are marginal. The first doesn’t think there’s any difference between the USSR and Russia; the second one believes the USSR and Russia might as well be night and day—there used to be the great Soviet Union, and now there’s Russia, a developing country that lags behind India on many levels.
But much of Indian society is still interested in Russia, although there aren’t many ways for them to satisfy their interest. These people see their country as a major player in international politics, and they are well aware of modern India's interests and understand that Russia could play an important role in developing and protecting them.
Russia should redouble its efforts to promote person-to-person contact, as well as to develop cultural, scientific and educational relations. The USSR used to publish Soviet Land magazine for India in English and in eight Indian languages through the Novosti Press Agency. Today's Indian intellectuals grew up on Sputnik, a youth magazine. Cultural centres became important hubs for Indians to study the Russian language, literature, and culture, all free of charge.
The Indians still remember the USSR of their student days.
Russia needs to communicate with new generations of Indians, seeking virtual communication and new ways to bring information about Russia home to India.
On that note, it would be helpful for Russians to learn more about the role that the modernized Mi-17 helicopters capable of carrying up to 3 tons of cargo – recently acquired by the Indian Air Force – played in saving tens of thousands of Uttarakhand residents, tourists and pilgrims from certain death. However, television channels seem to be captivated only by the scale of the floods in India which, by conservative estimates, have killed several hundred people.
June 28, 2013 RIR