In an interview with TASS, Indian Ambassador to Russia Bala Venkatesh Varma spoke about the imminent registration of the Sputnik V vaccine in the republic, plans to supply the drug to third countries and the resumption of air traffic. The diplomat also assured that New Delhi will be guided by the interests of its own defense in the procurement of S-400 anti-aircraft missile systems, despite the threat of sanctions from the United States.
Q: Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, speaking at the general meeting of the Russian International Affairs Council, said that the United States is harshly pressing India to weaken military-technical cooperation with Russia. Do you agree with this assessment? Do you think Washington's policy on the Russian-Indian strategic partnership will undergo any changes under the Joe Biden administration?
Ambassador: Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov spoke in detail about the essence of the Russian-Indian partnership at a press conference on January 18. He called it very close, special and privileged and strategic, which is a very accurate description. As for your question about military-technical cooperation, India-Russia ties go back decades. This is one of the pillars of our strategic partnership. India also has a global strategic partnership with the US. New Delhi's relations with each country are independent. India has an independent policy, and we make every decision in the military sphere in accordance with the interests of our defense and national security. This principle is relevant for military-technical cooperation with all our partners.
Q: In December, the United States imposed sanctions on Turkey for the purchase of S-400 air defense systems from Russia under the law "On Countering America's Adversaries through Sanctions" (CAATSA). According to former US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo, the restrictions are a "clear signal" that the US "will not tolerate significant deals with the Russian defense and intelligence sectors." Are there any concerns that sanctions will be imposed against New Delhi as well? Are these concerns discussed in contacts with our American colleagues?
Ambassador: All our partners are aware of India's defense policy and needs. For any country it should not be a surprise that India is making decisions on its defence policy independently, in accordance with its own needs in defense and security.
Q: Therefore, the possible sanctions will not force India to withdraw from the acquisition of s-400?
Ambassador: I will only say that all of our partners in military-technical sphere know about the policy and the defence needs of India.
Q: On January 16, India began mass vaccination of the population against coronavirus. One of the promising vaccines is the Russian Sputnik V, which is currently undergoing clinical trials in the republic. When is the Russian vaccine expected to be registered?
Ambassador: We are very pleased that during the pandemic, India and Russia worked closely together through the health authorities. We congratulate Russia on the development of three vaccines. The Sputnik V vaccine is already well known, the second stage of its clinical trials in India has been completed, and the third has begun. The vaccine approval process will take another couple of weeks. Once the registration is completed, it can be used in India. And I am sure that in the coming months, the Sputnik V vaccine, produced in India with the cooperation of RDIF and Indian companies, will be exported both to Russia and to third countries. In other words, this is another area of fruitful cooperation between India and Russia.
Q: To which countries, except Russia, India intends to supply the Sputnik V vaccine?
Ambassador: We must wait for the registration of the vaccine, then this issue will be considered.
Q: Is India interested in cooperation on other Russian coronavirus vaccines, in particular on the drug" Epivaccorona "of the Vector center?
Ambassador: So far there have been preliminary contacts. But if more information is provided, I am sure that India will show interest in these vaccines as well.
Q: If I may, I would like to ask you a personal question: do you and the embassy staff plan to get vaccinated against coronavirus with Russian vaccines?
Ambassador: I'm very happy to tell you that I already received my first dose of the Sputnik V vaccine last week. I feel very well, there are no side effects. Many of my colleagues at the embassy have also been vaccinated, and many are going to do so. We believe that vaccination is part of normal precautions, such as wearing masks, maintaining social distance. After all, we are vaccinated against the flu in the same way.
Q: Recently, Russia announced the resumption of air traffic with India. Flights from Moscow to New Delhi will be operated twice a week. Are there any plans to increase flights? When will India open to Russian tourists?
Ambassador: We will be happy to welcome Russian tourists again as soon as the epidemic situation normalizes. So far, this has not happened. Aeroflot is already in contact with our aviation authorities regarding the resumption of flights, which are scheduled at least twice a week. As soon as the agreement is reached, I am sure that the flights will be carried out. At the moment, charter planes fly every two weeks, which are very popular. We would like to resume regular flights as soon as possible, but this will depend on the decision of the aviation authorities of both countries, taking into account the epidemic situation.
Q: Unfortunately, due to the pandemic, the annual Russian-Indian summit was not held last year. Your colleague, Russian Ambassador to New Delhi Nikolai Kudashev, noted that Putin's visit to India could take place in the first half of 2021. Is there already an understanding on specific deadlines?
Ambassador: There is an agreement between the two countries that President Putin will visit India to participate in the bilateral summit, which could not be held in 2020 for the only reason — the situation with COVID-19. As soon as the epidemic situation allows, both sides will agree on a specific date for the visit. We hope to have a summit by the middle of the year, but again it depends on the pandemic situation.
Q: What other visits of Russian officials to India and Indian officials to Russia are planned this year?
Ambassador: We have a very busy calendar of visits. Last year Russia was visited by the Ministers of defence and foreign Affairs of India. We expect high-level visits starting in mid-February. We plan to make a schedule of meetings of the intergovernmental commissions on trade, economic, military-technical cooperation, leading up to the summit somewhere in the middle of the year. This is our preliminary plan, but much will depend on the pandemic situation.
Q: During the last Russian-Indian summit in Vladivostok in 2019, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the provision of a $ 1 billion credit line for the development of the Far East. When is the credit planned to be allocated and on what terms?
Ambassador: This is an unprecedented case, because for the first time India provides a preferential credit line to its business partners for cooperation with Russian colleagues in the Far East, and this is very important. Our negotiations are at an advanced stage, and I hope that there will be positive results by the time of the bilateral summit.
I should also say that last week the first trilateral Russian-Indian-Japanese meeting was held in the online format within the framework of track II diplomacy (with the participation of business circles and experts), which focused on cooperation in the Russian Far East. This is a new phenomenon that may be of interest.
Q: This year, India is chairing the BRICS.
Ambassador: India, as chairman of the BRICS, as always, wants to consolidate the association as a key international platform for cooperation in a multipolar world in order to change the situation in the economy and health after the pandemic, but also to strengthen the synergy of contacts between people. India will formally announce its priorities later, but this is the general direction in which we are moving.
Q: Does the Indian side intend to hold events in the framework of its BRICS presidency in person, or will they be held in the traditional online format?
Ambassador: We want to hold events in person, because the presidency lasts for a whole year. We hope that by the summit at the end of the year, thanks to vaccination and other preventive measures, the pandemic will subside.
Q: Has the venue of the BRICS summit already been determined?
Ambassador: Not yet.
Q: Today, January 26, India celebrates Republic Day. Let me conclude by congratulating you on this holiday.
Ambassador: This is a special holiday-it is the day of the entry into force of the Constitution of India, which ensured the functioning of the largest democracy in the world and created the political and economic basis for the development of the country with a population of more than 1.3 billion people. But it is also an appropriate opportunity for us to reinvest in the special and privileged strategic partnership between India and Russia. The leaders of both countries-President Putin and Prime Minister Modi — attach special importance to the further development of our relations. We have just celebrated the 20th anniversary of the establishment of the strategic partnership. These have been two decades of very significant progress in bilateral relations, and we expect that the coming decades will strengthen them.
Interviewed by Leila Turayanova