Last year, Russia and India were supposed to solemnly celebrate the twentieth anniversary of their strategic partnership. However, the coronavirus pandemic intervened in the plans, and all anniversary events, including the visit of the Russian President to India, were canceled. But every cloud has a silver lining thanks to the pandemic, cooperation between the two countries has reached a new level. Shortly, production of the Russian Sputnik V vaccine will begin in India, which is often called the “pharmacy of the world” for its powerful pharmaceutical industry. In an interview with Lente.ru, the Ambassador of India to Russia Venkatesh Varma spoke about how he himself underwent vaccination with a Russian drug and how relations between the two countries are developing in this difficult time in all respects.
You were recently vaccinated with the Russian Sputnik V vaccine. How do you feel now? Venkatesh Varma: While I have only received the first dose of the Sputnik V vaccine, the second will be in the next week. I feel great, I have not had any side effects. Several of my colleagues at the embassy have already been vaccinated, others are planning to do so later. The Sputnik V vaccine is registered in Russia, but its effectiveness is also recognized at the international level. A recent publication in the authoritative medical journal Lancet also gives a positive assessment of the Russian vaccine. We are very happy about this. When will the Russian vaccine receive registration in India and will it be available to the Indian population?
India is currently in the third phase of clinical trials for the Sputnik V vaccine. The tests are expected to be completed in a couple of weeks. I am sure that the Indian regulator will issue a permit right after that. Doses of the drug produced in India will not only be used domestically but also exported to Russia and third countries. PDF (Russian Direct Investment Fund) is currently negotiating with several world-class Indian companies on the production of the Sputnik V vaccine. India is called the “pharmacy of the world”: our country has more than 60 percent of the world’s vaccine production capacity this case, the COVID-19 pandemic had its advantages for India.
Against the backdrop of the pandemic, India and Russia have developed very good cooperation in the pharmaceutical and vaccine fields. For example, last year India supplied more than 80 tons of medicines to Russia. We have already delivered over 10 million doses of vaccines [Covishield and Covaxin of India] to friendly countries. India is a very large player in the vaccination industry. Even the UN Secretary-General acknowledged that Indian vaccine production capacity will become one of the main factors on which the world’s ability to defeat the coronavirus pandemic and normalize the global health system will depend. We are fully confident that in this regard, further cooperation between India and Russia will be of great importance. Amid this abundance of vaccines, does India really need Sputnik V as well?
I am confident that after receiving permission from the Indian regulator, the Sputnik V vaccine will be used for vaccination in the country. I am confident that she will make a great contribution to the Indian vaccination program. More than 5.8 million Indians have been vaccinated in the past 24 days, and this number is expected to rise significantly with the start of the second round of vaccinations on 13 February. Pharmacology aside, how important are relations with Moscow in other areas for Delhi? Our strategic partnership with Russia is one of the most important directions in India’s foreign policy. This year we are celebrating its 20th anniversary. Foreign Minister Lavrov recently called the relationship between India and Russia “very close, very strategic, very special and very privileged.” He used the word “very” four times. I think that this “very” describes the relationship between India and Russia as accurately as possible.
We look forward to President Putin’s visit to India during this year, as soon as the epidemiological situation stabilizes. And in the next couple of weeks, several high-level meetings will take place to make our relations, which are developing very well, become even stronger. How likely is it that the new US administration will cause discord in relations between Moscow and Delhi? For example, will it insist on the refusal to purchase the Russian S-400 anti-aircraft missile systems? India has a long-term strategic partnership with Russia. And with the United States, we have a global strategic partnership. Our relations with each of these countries are individual and independent. India pursues an independent foreign policy. We make decisions based on our own defense and security needs.
We believe that all our partners understand that India proceeds from its urgent needs in this area. Currently, the S-400 contract is being executed following the agreed schedule. Thus, India takes a clear position on this issue, and we have communicated this to all our partners. Recently, armed clashes took place on the border between India and China, and there are wounded on both sides. Last year, during a similar escalation, talks were held in Moscow between the defense ministers of India and China. Will Delhi turn to Moscow for mediation this time? India and China are in direct contact with each other through diplomatic and military channels. Therefore there is no need for the mediation of any other country. However, we are grateful that our two ministers Foreign Minister Dr. Subrahmanyam Jaishankar and Defense Minister Mr. Rajnath Singh during their last year’s visit to Moscow had the opportunity to meet with their Chinese colleagues to discuss the issue of confrontation in Ladakh, which is so important for India.
This problem [border clashes] has arisen as a result of China’s disregard for its troop reduction commitments and its willingness to disrupt peace and tranquility. We have made it clear that India is ready to move forward [in resolving the conflict] only if the status quo is restored and there are no threats of force. Normalization of relations is impossible until the disengagement of troops in the border areas is agreed. Are you interested in supplying arms from Russia in light of this conflict? We are confident that Russia fully understands India’s security needs and we are very pleased with the way Russia has responded to India’s defense and security needs, including in the recent past. India has a long history of cooperation with Russia in the military-technical field. Our cooperation with Russia in this area is the most important factor in our security. What kind of queries do you have in mind?
Russia has responded positively to all of India’s requests related to the defense industry. The Russian side also strictly complied with all the contractual obligations reached earlier. Therefore, we are satisfied with the level of military support and supplies that Russia has provided to India. The domestic political agenda is also worrying. The farmers’ protests have already attracted international attention. How does the government plan to get out of this crisis? The protests were prompted by the adoption by the Indian Parliament of three laws that are designed to make the agricultural sector more economically and environmentally sustainable. As you know, most of our population depends on agriculture. The agricultural sector has needed reform for several decades.
This problem is not alien to Russia, because we have witnessed the transformation of the Russian agrarian sector. Even 30 years ago, it was in such a deplorable state that Russia was forced to import vegetables, and now it is an agricultural superpower. India is a democracy and we intend to address these issues democratically. Provided that the farmers themselves are ready for dialogue, I am sure the country’s leadership will be able to remove their concerns. For example, on Monday, Prime Minister Modi said in parliament that he would maintain a minimum regulated price for agricultural products – this was one of the main concerns of farmers. In general, issues that affect the lives of millions of people need to be resolved through dialogue and without outside interference, especially from those who express a tough position based only on information on social networks.
The Indian government has recommended that citizens practice yoga as a rehabilitation tool for COVID-19. Does the embassy plan to organize online classes for Russians who have suffered from this disease? Yoga is popular in Russia. During the pandemic, yoga was especially popular as a stress reliever and balance between mind and body. Also, yoga helps in developing immunity to a wide range of diseases and improving overall well-being. Therefore, we have uploaded the yoga video lessons of Indian Prime Minister Modi to the embassy website. Also, the Jawaharlal Nehru Cultural Center hosts online yoga classes, and we will be glad if more Russians join them. Let me also take this opportunity to wish all of your reader’s good health for the new year, especially during this challenging time. I hope that over time our life will return to normal and we can all enjoy the wonderful Russian summer.