Did 'Western Pressure' on MEA Scuttle Russian Official's Participation at Raisina Dialogue?

While sources close to the conference organisers say it was “too late” to accommodate the deputy speaker of Russia’s upper house of parliament, Konstantin Kosachev has publicly accused India of giving into "blackmail" by the West.

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New Delhi: Last week the Raisina Dialogue, India’s flagship conference on international relations, returned to a physical format for the first time in two years. This edition of the high-profile jamboree had a special frisson as it was the biggest gathering of diplomatic practitioners and experts since Russia’s February 24 invasion of Ukraine.

However, in a departure from previous annual Raisina Dialogue conferences, there was no participation from Russian official functionaries, though several think-tank experts from Moscow did attend.

An April 28 report in the Russian-language Kommersant newspaper stated that this year three very senior Russian officials had been invited to the Raisina Dialogue, organised by the Delhi-based think tank Observer Research Foundation (ORF) and sponsored by the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA).

The newspaper identified the invitees as Rosneft chief Igor Sechin, often described as Russia’s second most powerful man, deputy foreign minister Sergey Ryabkov and deputy speaker of Russia’s upper house of parliament, Konstantin Kosachev.

The article stated that they could not attend the conference due to “various reasons”, but did not elaborate.

The absence of high-level Russian participation was notable as the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, had participated in the last physical iteration in January 2020. Since 2017, Russian officials have been flying in from Moscow to participate in previous conferences, with Kosachev, Ryabkov, deputy foreign minister Igor Morgulov and lawmaker Vyacheslav Nikonov providing Kremlin’s perspective over the years.

Russian government officials had earlier boycotted the prestigious Munich Security Conference that took place before Russian forces invaded Ukraine. But the lack of Russian participation at the Raisina Dialogue was surprising since India, mindful of historical ties and a deep military relationship, has refrained from publicly criticising Moscow for the invasion.

India has abstained on all successive resolutions condemning Russian actions in Ukraine at various UN bodies. Lavrov had even travelled in early April to New Delhi, where he had lauded New Delhi for not taking a ‘one-sided’ view of the crisis.

But in the run-up to the Raisina Dialogue, there were apparently signs that Russian officials would not turn up.

Less than a week before the Raisina Dialogue began, a post on a Telegram channel created ripples in a small but well-informed circle of Indian and Russian observers.

The post on a channel named Konstantin Kosachev alleged that his invitation was rescinded as the organisers told him that there was pressure from western countries and event sponsors.

The Telegram channel did not have a verified badge, and further, it had been created recently on March 5.

Therefore, to authenticate whether the Telegram channel actually belonged to the senior Russian government official, The Wire got in touch with him over the phone.

In a WhatsApp exchange, Kosachev was asked whether he had written the post. “Yes, it’s mine,” he replied.

When asked further if his post could still be quoted now, he responded, “affirmative”.

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In the Telegram post, Kosachev, who is also a former chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Russian Federation Council, wrote that he had been invited by the organisers of the Raisina Dialogue, and accepted.

A machine translation of the post stated that “at first” the organisers “sheepishly informed me that there were no seats left on the list of speakers”. “…And then they admitted that they would like to avoid a conflict, when Western participants (numbering up to 50) can leave the meeting room during my speech, and the sponsors behind them will refuse to finance the conference, citing the fact that the Russian representative is under American and European sanctions,” Kosachev wrote.

When Lavrov delivered his speech at the UN human rights council, European diplomats walked out in protest. The West has been campaigning to suspend Russia from most international bodies. Last month, the UNGA voted to remove Russia from the UNHRC. The most recent body from where Russia was thrown out is the UN World Tourism Organisation.

Later in the post, he wrote that since Indians are “sovereign and self-sufficient”, they would have allowed themselves to act as “wingmen” only “under the most powerful external pressure”.

“I have no doubt that even now the reversal of the position did not occur on the organizers’ own initiative,” Kosachev posted, adding that it must have been “pure blackmail from the west”.

In the rest of the post, the senior Russian politician railed against the West for invisibilising Russia’s views from international events, claiming that it was akin to tactics employed in party meetings in the USSR. “Everything is like in the old Soviet times, only the roles have changed, and the backstage rules.”

Konstantin Kosachev. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

He added, “we will all gather in New Delhi and even in Munich, as soon as a free, unorganised discussion becomes possible again”.‎

Five days after the post was written, the Raisina Dialogue was inaugurated by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and European Union President Ursula Von der Leyen on April 25. Among the invitees, there were seven foreign ministers from Europe, alongside former heads of governments from the Western sphere.

At an interaction during the event, S. Jaishankar was asked questions by European foreign ministers to explain India’s position on Russia in “defending free societies globally” and asked not to undermine economic pressure tactics. Even as the Indian foreign minister pointed out that India’s oil purchases were a small fraction of Russian energy brought by Europe, he seemingly told off his European counterparts that the rules-based order had been under stress much before Ukraine in Asia, but without getting any recognition from Europe.

The Wire contacted both ORF and the MEA about the absence of Russian government officials, and specifically about Kosachev’s claims. Both of them refused to give an official response.

At the same time, sources close to the organisers told The Wire that Kosachev had been invited, but his confirmation came just two weeks before the event began. The invitations had gone out in early February before the invasion began.

While Rosneft chair Igor Sechin had been invited, there had not been any formal response. Russian Duma member Nikonov had initially agreed to participate and his name had also been on a preliminary agenda, but he changed his mind at the last minute, it was learned.

When The Wire contacted Kosachev again about whether he had confirmed his participation only in April, he said it was possible. However, he added that it was still not a plausible excuse to explain why he couldn’t be accommodated.

He stated that two weeks in advance was “absolutely regular practice” at such international conferences, and there had been no deadline mentioned to answer the invitation.

“In order to keep the discussion balanced, one does not kick out the most high ranked representative of an alternative view for formal reasons I presume,” he said.

Even as he added that he had “other sources” to explain his account of what happened, Kosachev also stated that he had moved on. “(What’s) Done is done. We need to go ahead, not look at the past,” he said.

According to observers in New Delhi, while India-Russia relations have continued to be warm, the ground realities of day-to-day diplomacy are more complicated due to factions within the Russian foreign ministry, who may have spread an inaccurate perception in Moscow about the reason for participants not being accommodated as speakers at Raisina Dialogue.

“There are definitely competing interests in the Russian establishment who would like to draw a wedge between India and Russia to put Russia firmly in China’s circle,” explained Nandan Unnikrishnan, a distinguished fellow at ORF and well-known Russia expert.

The recent pronouncement by the Russian and Chinese presidents that there are “no limits” to their ties highlights their drift towards each other in the last several years. At the same time, it is believed that Moscow would like to have some sunlight, as such a partnership could mean it being a junior partner in the long-term.

“India still has supporters in the Russian foreign ministry, but definitely the pro-China faction is bigger now,” he said.