The evolving Russia-China relationship appears to be of concern to India. How do you see it, and how will it affect India?
India has to understand that by virtue of both history and geography China is our closest neighbour. We have to have good relations with them. Our relationship with India is not dependent on our relationship with China. We have to think differently. We have to build bigger relations with China but this would be balanced positively by others. At this juncture you (India) have a tense relationship with China, but being so preoccupied with China is not very healthy – just like we were preoccupied with the US. We have a closer relationship with China, we are more involved in international affairs, (and) it’s very different from what it used to be 10-15 years ago.
The India-China relationship is fraught with tension. What if Russia is asked to make a choice?
We understand the difficulties and differences in your systems. China is becoming a more complex and sophisticated society. We have to give history a chance, in spite of our ideological anxieties. Act calmly.
If you need help from Russia as an intermediary, we could help. But we will not take sides. We will not jeopardise Russian interests for either China or India. We think that the fact that you are hostile to one another is an aberration. The sooner you solve it, the better. Thirty-forty years ago there was deep distrust between Russia and China, including a territorial dispute. Now, because of the wisdom of our peoples, the Russia-China border is most peaceful.
Some would say Russia is almost a younger sibling to China.
We are quasi allies right now, because the United States has chosen to contain both Russia and China, which is a strategic failure by the US. We also have a lot of common interests. Russia cannot be a junior brother to anybody and has never been so – from the heirs of Genghis Khan to Napoleon and Hitler, we have defeated them all.
The India-Russia relationship is confined to governments, how would you broaden it?
We should have common courses between Indian and Russian universities, open up our economies to each other – our $7 billion trade is an aberration. We should open up people-to-people contacts – there is only goodwill on either side. There are some members of the Russian elite who are fearful of China – not too many, but some. But there is none of that with India. On strategic affairs, for instance, we have serious conversations – but all this only at the top level. It doesn’t go deeper in the two systems.
In 2018, what would you say are top Russian foreign policy priorities?
Our top priority is Russia’s internal development – this is important for both our strategic and foreign policy. We’re good at diplomacy and good at military power and international manoeuvring but we have a relatively weak economic base, which is a longer term problem.
Our most important foreign priority would be keeping peace in the world – very important for Russia, and also because the global situation is worse than at any time in decades.
Second, building a robust relationship with China based on concept of greater Eurasia. Third, rebuilding our relationship with Europe, not on the previous basis which failed but on a new footing. Next in geographical terms would be India – because our relations with India are clear and there are unused opportunities that have been missed in the last 30 years.
How would you characterise the Russia-Pakistan relationship?
Pakistan is an important player, we want to be involved, have a relationship with them. But they are not in the same category as China or India.
Is Russia supporting Taliban in Afghanistan?
We are playing a very complicated game – sometimes we support somebody, sometimes we help somebody else. Taliban is also different. When we saw the US going in with ground troops we were aghast. That was a disaster. Now it’s different – we want it to be confined to Afghanistan’s borders. If needed we will support Taliban, if needed, we will support anti-Taliban forces. But they should not spread the ‘Afghan disease’ or terrorism disease to the neighbouring areas, be that India or central Asia. For the time being we don’t want US troops to leave Afghanistan – their withdrawal would create more problems. We understand that unlike India or China, they don’t have a vested interest, they don’t want to lose face. But for us it’s a huge national security issue.