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India’s Ukraine policy guided by national interest, energy security: Shringla | India News


India’s oil imports from Russia are less than 2% of its total imports and, as one of the world’s largest importers of energy, India’s policy will be guided by its national interest to ensure its energy security, said foreign secretary Harsh V Shringla in an exclusive interview to TOI’s Sachin Parashar. As he prepares to leave office on Saturday, Shringla addressed a range of issues, starting with the pandemic and China’s LAC aggression to the current tensions in relations with the West over Ukraine and also the new government in Pakistan.
You have been a foreign secretary for well over 2 years. Are you satisfied with what you were able to achieve? Any regret?
The past two years have been tumultuous – a non-stop roller-coaster ride. And it has been a privilege to serve as Foreign Secretary in this period. In many ways, these years have been a defining moment for India as a country and, in a smaller way, for us in the Ministry of External Affairs. Yes, they have been challenging, but I would not exchange this experience for anything.
The COVID crisis affected us all. In a sense, it has defined my period in this office. But this was not the only crisis we faced. We had to deal with unexpected developments on our border with China, in our neighbourhood and beyond. From Afghanistan to Ukraine, there have been many triggers for instability, and for 3.00am calls.
Challenges, of course, also presented opportunities. They revealed resilience and reserves of strength in our system and our society – and, I must mention, among my colleagues who rose to the occasion. From the initial phases of the COVID pandemic, the MEA was called upon to play a key role. As the pandemic wanes today, we can take satisfaction over the successful repatriation of our citizens from different parts of the world, beginning with Wuhan in China and culminating in the Vande Bharat Mission. Our reputation as the pharmacy of the world was enhanced by our ability to provide medicines and Made in India vaccines to countries in all geographies.
In facilitating the evacuation of stranded citizens from conflict zones in Afghanistan and Ukraine, India ensured that the well-being, safety and security of its citizens abroad were of the greatest importance. This is now a core mandate of MEA. We proved steadfast in dealing with the aggressive moves by China on our borders. Diplomacy played a role in ensuring a heightened relationship with US, despite a polarised electoral transition there. The infusion of ‘Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas’ into our ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy has drawn us into a closer embrace with our neighbours through good and bad times.
Despite COVID, our proactive diplomacy continued unabated. Digital diplomacy and even virtual summits became the new normal. India’s successful and in many ways unprecedented Presidency of the UN Security Council was followed by an impactful participation by the Prime Minister at the Quad Leaders’ Summit and the first bilateral meeting with President Biden, and the G20 and COP26 Summits in Rome and Glasgow, respectively. Our strategic relationship with Australia and the UAE, exemplified by recent trade agreements, also developed with an unusual intensity. Frankly, the clock never stopped. The leadership provided by the PM and EAM has been inspirational as we worked on these challenges and opportunities.
You were also a foreign secretary when India had to contend with some tumultuous events. First, there was the pandemic, then the Chinese LAC aggression, Taliban comeback in Afghanistan last year and now Ukraine. Which one of these was the biggest challenge for MEA and of course for you personally?
Each posed its own difficulties. The pandemic posed a series of major operational challenges, including managing the fallouts of global lockdowns; ensuring welfare and repatriation of Indian nationals abroad; executing procurement operations to upgrade our health infrastructure during the first wave and to overcome the shortage of medical oxygen and drugs such as Remdisivir during the second wave; and providing medical supplies to our friends and partners in the face of daunting logistical challenges.
We had to create the structures and capacities within the MEA to manage these problems. A dedicated COVID cell was created during the earliest days of the pandemic, in March 2020. MEA adopted a matrixed structure, like that of start-ups, and surged capacity where it was required. Quick decision making with immediate feedback and rapid dissemination of instructions allowed us to respond swiftly to changing demands. We relied heavily on tech and communication including through portals.
The situation in Afghanistan posed both geopolitical and humanitarian difficulties. The geopolitical situation is being dealt with. The immediate situation made us launch Operation Devi Shakti which involved the repatriation of Indian nationals and Afghan minorities.
Operation Ganga was also a major challenge, which required evacuation of our nationals from active conflict zones in Ukraine.
We also had to contend with the unprecedented situation on India’s border with China. Attempts at resolving it required considerable attention on the part of the Government.
I would also like to draw your attention to India’s unprecedented multilateral profile. We are currently serving a non-permanent tenure on the Security Council. In the short interlude between the second and third waves, the Prime Minister attended the first QUAD Leaders Summit, attended the G20 Summit in Rome and the historic COP26 Summit in Glasgow. He also presided over the UN Security Council meeting under India’s Presidency. This was the first time in history that an Indian Prime Minister had done so, and India secured the consensual adoption of the first ever Security Council statement on Maritime Security. We have remained engaged in other formats such as BRICS, SCO and the G7.
Was Operation Ganga the most difficult evacuation India has carried out in the past few decades?
At the direction of the Prime Minister, we launched Operation Ganga to evacuate our citizens from Ukraine. Operation Ganga was certainly one of the most challenging evacuation undertaken by us. We were working in a geographically distant region and had to evacuate our nationals from active conflict zones.
The hostilities in Ukraine placed the Indian community of 20,000 plus in direct danger. For us, our most pressing and immediate interest throughout the crisis was to safeguard our citizens- mostly young students- and to ensure that they were not in harm’s way.
Indians were dispersed across the country, posing severe logistical challenges. We had to carry out the evacuation of our students in conflict zones such as Kharkiv and Sumy while military actions, including air strikes and shelling, were underway. This meant movement in a war-torn situation in a large country, at times over a 1000 km, and at a time when transportation was gravely affected.
This also required reaching and exiting border checkpoints that were clogged by an estimated 26 lakh refugees. The entire exercise involved a ‘whole of Government’ approach with the PM himself chairing review meetings, almost daily.
At the MEA, the evacuation operations were monitored on a 24×7 basis. This exercise involved excellent inter-agency cooperation involving inter alia the Ministry of Civil Aviation, Ministry of Defence, National Disaster Response Force, Indian Air Force and private airlines. We were also liaising with State Governments to make arrangement to bring students to their respective States once they landed in Delhi or Mumbai.
Our embassy personnel, supplemented by teams of Russian speaking officers from headquarters and our Missions neighbouring Ukraine, worked tirelessly on the ground in dangerous circumstances to ensure that Operation Ganga was successful. 90 flights were operated, of which 76 were civilian and 14 were Indian Air-force flights. The evacuations took place from Romania, Poland, Hungary and Slovakia.
Operation Ganga is yet another testimony of our nation’s commitment to ensure that every Indian stranded abroad can always rely on their Government to bring them home.
India seems to be reasserting its strategic autonomy in its handling of the Ukraine crisis. What implications does it have for India’s ties with the US? Is there a risk of a prolonged conflict putting a strain on relations? India hasn’t condemned the Russian invasion and the US also clearly doesn’t want India to import any more oil from Russia than what it’s already importing.
India’s relations with other countries stand on their own merit. This is manifested in our steadfast and consistent position on the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. We have expressed deep concern about the worsening humanitarian situation in Ukraine and called for an immediate cessation of violence and hostilities. In his telephonic conversations with both President Putin and President Zelensky, Prime Minister had reiterated that there is no alternative to the path of diplomacy and dialogue.
In our conversations with all major powers, including the United States, we have emphasized that the current global order is anchored in international law, the UN charter and respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of countries. This sentiment is shared by both India and the United States, as reflected in the recent virtual meeting between Prime Minister and President Biden as well as the India-US 2+2 Dialogue.
India’s oil imports from Russia are less than 2% of our total imports. As one of the world’s largest importers of energy, India’s policy will be guided by our national interest to ensure our energy security.
One adverse fallout of the Ukraine crisis for India could be a tighter strategic embrace between Russia and China. Is India prepared for that?
We are cognizant of the rapidly changing dynamics in international relations, including between Russia and China. We continue to monitor these developments and assess them from our perspective so as to fashion our policy response.
Pakistan has a new government. And it’s headed by Nawaz Sharif‘s brother. Does it inspire any hope of a breakthrough in ties? Are you hopeful of a SAARC summit soon?
We have said this on multiple occasions – India desires good neighbourly relations with Pakistan and is committed to addressing issues, if any, bilaterally and peacefully. However, any meaningful dialogue can only be held in a conducive atmosphere, and the onus is on Pakistan to create such an atmosphere. Prime Minister in his message to the new Pakistani PM also said that India desired peace and stability in a region free of terror, so that we could focus on our development challenges and ensure the well-being and prosperity of our people.
Are you hopeful of a mutually satisfactory resolution soon of the military situation in Ladakh? Looking into the crystal ball, what do you think the future holds for bilateral ties with China? Can the 2 countries learn to respect each other’s aspirations and sensitivities?
An essential basis for the largely positive trajectory of India-China relations during the last 40 years had been the agreement between the two countries to ensure peace and tranquility in the border areas. Chinese attempts to unilaterally alter the status quo in Ladakh seriously disturbed peace and tranquility in the border areas. These acts are in violation of our bilateral agreements and have inevitably impacted the development of the bilateral relationship. We have continued to stress on dialogue and communication to resolve the situation and return to complete peace and tranquility in our border areas.
As a result of dialogue and consultations over several months, we made progress and reached an agreement to disengage in Pangong Lake area and Gogra. There are still remaining issues which the two sides are negotiating through diplomatic and military channels. We hope that these will be resolved soon and there is full and complete restoration of peace and tranquility in the India-China border areas.
We have made it clear to the Chinese side that peace and tranquility in border areas are essential for development of our relationship. On our part we are clear that the development of the India-China relationship can only be based on ‘three mutuals’ – mutual respect, mutual sensitivity and mutual interests.
India seems to have made a comeback of sorts in the neighbourhood, regaining perhaps some of the lost ground from China. This seems true particularly in the context of Sri Lanka. What can India do more to ensure that this trend, if we can call it one, persists?
The neighbourhood remains our primary diplomatic arena. Given my own background of work in the neighbourhood, I gave special attention to the immediate neighbourhood. Normally, Foreign Secretaries chose Bhutan as their first visit abroad. I decided to make Afghanistan my first visit, to acquaint myself with our greatest challenge at that time. My visits to Bangladesh, Myanmar, Nepal, Maldives and Sri Lanka were all linked to securing our national interest at critical stages. The primacy given to the neighbourhood in our diplomatic efforts is reflected in our ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy which has become a central pillar of India’s foreign and security policies since 2014. It is first and foremost amongst our foreign policy priorities.
Whether it is vaccines or the SAARC virtual meeting during the early days of the pandemic or the SAARC Emergency Fund, or the recent economic measures to assist some of our partners, we are determined to be a force for good. We also stand by our friends during difficult times.
The Prime Minister’s vision of “Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas, Sabka Vishvas” has encompassed our immediate neighbourhood. India interacts with its neighbours more frequently, at more levels, including the highest, and does so with in a constructive and open spirit. We are better connected than ever before. We are buying and selling energy from each other. We visit each other in larger numbers using the better physical connections that have been created. We have much stronger development relationships. I strongly believe that stability, growth and prosperity of those nearest to us will help India and is in India’s interest and have tried to act on it. Hailing from the northeast part of the country, I have given considerable attention to making North Eastern India a vital land bridge to our neighbourhood and beyond that to ASEAN countries. We have worked bilaterally with countries such as Japan, and have involved partners such as NEDFi to develop this idea.
This is not to say that I did not spend time on our larger partners. As a former Ambassador to USA, I worked to build the bilateral partnership. I also visited Russia, the UK, Germany and France at each point involving important exchanges on issues of mutual interest. As someone who has had experience of multilateral work, I focused my attention on India’s membership in the UN Security Council. One of my best moments was presiding over the UN Security Council (India was President of the Council) when Resolution 2593 on Afghanistan was adopted.
Coming back to the neighbourhood, it has received the greatest attention and emphasis in our diplomatic efforts and will continue to do so. It also receives the greatest priority in the allocation of funds and resources and will also continue to do so.
I have worked on mainstreaming the Neighbourhood First approach across central and state governments and on building a 21st century component into our relationships with a focus on sharing best practices, on fintech, on renewables, on service delivery platforms such as Aadhar, UPI and on projects such as Jal Jeevan and Ayushman Bharat. I was happy to recently convene the first meeting of the Inter-Ministerial Coordination Group consisting of key Secretary level officers on issues relating to our neighbouring countries. The group was able to fast-track decisions on several important issues through this mechanism. This has set a new paradigm for promoting a whole-of-government approach to implementing our Neighbourhood First Policy.


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