Modi set for Russia, eye on business

Foreign Secretary Vijay Keshav Gokhale during a press briefing on Prime Minister Narendra Modi's visit to Vladivostok in Russia, in New Delhi, Monday, September 2, 2019.

Foreign Secretary Vijay Keshav Gokhale during a press briefing on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Vladivostok in Russia, in New Delhi, Monday, September 2, 2019.(PTI)

Prime Minister Narendra Modi is set to head to Vladivostok in the Russian Far East on Wednesday at the head of a large business delegation to demonstrate the importance India attaches to an area that has thus far been largely ignored by New Delhi.

Briefing mediapersons here on the upcoming 36-hour visit to Vladivostok where Modi will also have his annual summit meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, foreign secretary Vijay Gokhale repeatedly underscored the importance India attaches to the Russian Far East “as an area where we can do business as well as an area of geo-political importance to us in the context of the Indo-Pacific”.

As of now, India’s economic links have been focused more on European Russia or the areas north of Central Asia; not the Russian Far East despite having a consulate in Vladivostok for over two decades, he said.

India, according to Gokhale, is particularly interested in looking at the possibility of farming and manpower exports — given the serious shortage of manpower in that part of the world — besides the possibility of oil and gas supplies from the Arctic with the opening of the Northern Sea Route which lies within Russia’s exclusive economic zone.

One key deliverable in this visit is a roadmap on hydrocarbon cooperation — “a five-year roadmap laying out what possibilities we have in cooperating in oil and gas both in terms of exploration and exploitation and in terms of purchase between 2019 and 2024 as we seek to diversify our energy supplies beyond complete dependency in the Gulf”.

Another important MoU that is likely to be signed pertains to developing a maritime route between Chennai and Vladivostok but Gokhale sought to rein in expectations; clarifying that no shipping service will be announced. Stating that this is just a start, he said: “There is a recognition that an alternate route to Europe through the Northern route is now a possibility that we should look at in terms of the economic benefits it can bring us North East of Asia and beyond specially because a lot of new gas and mineral finds are in this region.”

On the oil and gas front, he said, India is looking at exploration in proven areas where there are reserves and some Indian PSUs are likely to announce investments in new oil clusters. Also an agreement on LNG import is likely during the visit or just after.

As to whether the oil pipeline between India and Russia is on the table, the foreign secretary said it was very much a subject of discussion but was caught up in more than one complication. Any concrete development on this front will depend on how US sanctions on Iran progresses and India’s own relations with Pakistan as the proposed pipeline crosses both countries.

India is also exploring the possibility of sending people with some skills to Russia as part of manpower export, particularly in the mineral sector and agriculture.