Indian Ambassador to Russia D. B. Venkatesh Varma will soon leave his post after serving in one of his country’s most important diplomatic positions for over three years. He gave an interview to the reputable Russian business daily Kommersant about his assessment of bilateral ties over the years that can be read in English on the embassy’s website. This article will briefly touch upon the main points that he brought up and then extrapolate their strategic importance.
Ambassador Varma is most proud of each leader’s visit to the other’s country as well as the success that they’ve had in diversifying their special and privileged strategic partnership. In particular, he lauded India’s Act Far East Policy of engaging with Russia in its Far East and Arctic regions, especially through the Vladivostok-Chennai Maritime Corridor (VCMC) that was announced in September 2019. Robust economic cooperation in various industries stretching from pharmaceuticals to cyber, high-tech, and even digital finance was also achieved.
India’s top diplomat in Russia clarified his country’s multi-alignment policy of pursuing equally excellent relations with the US and Russia. He said that neither comes at the expense of the other and that there are no inherent contradictions. Ambassador Varma assured his interlocutor that India doesn’t regard the Quad as an alliance or even a quasi-alliance, reminding him that the South Asian state still participates in BRICS, RIC, and the SCO. This, according to him, proves its commitment to multipolarity, which India shares with Russia.
During his tenure, one of his country’s greatest challenges has been China, which he claimed has acted unilaterally along their frontier. Nevertheless, Ambassador Varma praised Russia for maintaining regular arms supplies to India during the summer 2020 standoff with the People’s Republic. On the topic of Afghanistan, he acknowledged that both countries “travelled along different roads” but believed that they share the same destination. What he means by this is that India and Russia want to thwart Afghan-emanating threats.
Overall, Ambassador Varma’s interview was a concise review of the past three years of Russian-Indian relations. The comprehensive diversification of their special and privileged strategic partnership, including the geo-economic dimension as manifested by the VCMC’s key role in India’s new Act Far East Policy, was a significant achievement. Nevertheless, it’s clear that he’s aware of Russia’s changing perceptions of India’s geostrategic role in the Indo-Pacific due to Moscow’s lingering suspicions of New Delhi’s intentions through the Quad.
Even so, this hasn’t had any profound impact on their partnership. Relations remain robust and have continued to improve despite these differences, including over Afghanistan. As one of India’s top diplomats, Ambassador Varma was cautious with his words when discussing the Quad and Afghanistan, as could have been expected. He understands how sensitive these issues are for Russia. This could be interpreted as a sign of respect for his hosts and an intent to clarify India’s evolving position towards both topics of discord.
Ambassador Varma will leave behind a unique legacy. He oversaw Indian diplomacy in Russia during this unprecedented period of global transformation at the opening stages of the New Cold War between the American and Chinese superpowers as well as the COVID-19 pandemic. During this time, India moved a lot closer towards the US while Russia began to grow suspicious of its historical partner’s intentions vis-a-vis China. Be that as it may, everything ultimately proved manageable due to his leadership.
His eventual successor will have to learn how to operate in this new, more complex strategic reality. It’s imperative that India prioritise relations with Russia and resist American pressure to distance itself from the Eurasian Great Power. Another challenge will be managing competition with China. From the Russian perspective, India shouldn’t do anything with the US that comes at the expense of New Delhi’s relations with Moscow and Beijing. Hopefully, Ambassador Varma’s successor will meet the Kremlin’s high expectations.