Long before becoming President of Russia, Vladimir Putin served as the First Deputy Mayor of Leningrad (later St Petersburg) and was known as a man of few words, remembered a veteran Indian diplomat who spent nearly thirteen years of his professional career in Soviet Union and later in Russia. Ronen Sen who served Indian Prime Ministers, Rajiv Gandhi, VP Singh, Chandra Shekhar and P V Narasimha Rao as Joint Secretary in the Prime Minister’s Office and often acted as a “special envoy” remarked that a secret negotiation can succeed if the other side is assured that the deployed envoys enjoy full access to the top political leadership of India.
“In the Soviet set up, the mayors of Moscow and Leningrad used to be important and usually were members of the Polit Bureau of the Communist party of Soviet Union. This tradition continued when USSR dissolved and the mayors of St Petersburg and Moscow continued to be important. As First Deputy Mayor of St Petersburg, Vladimir Putin was always measured in his comments,” said Mr Sen who went to Moscow during the early 1990s during the Prime Ministership of Narasimha Rao and was the Indian ambassador for six years till the Vajpayee era.
He said that Mr Putin was known for his work in the Soviet intelligence set up and it was known that he served a good part of his KGB years in East Germany during the Cold War.
President Putin turned seventy this year which also saw Moscow launch its biggest military operation in Europe with the campaign against Ukraine which continues. It was during the early 1990s that Mr Putin began his tentative move for top political position in Russia which would ultimately make him the successor to President Boris Yeltsin in 2000. The 1990s were the period when main characters of the current presidential team in Moscow emerged on the scene. As Indian ambassador Mr Sen was witness also to the rise of current Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov who has become the voice of Russia to the rest of the world because of his proficiency in English.
“In those days Mr Lavrov was in charge of International organisation in the Russian foreign ministry and sometime after my arrival in Moscow, he left for the United Nations headquarters in New York,” recollected Mr Sen who was the first Indian ambassador to the Russian Federation after the fall of the Soviet Union. Mr Lavrov went on to earn a name for himself at the United Nations and has been one of the longest serving Russian officials - apart from Zamir Kabulov - to be engaged with peace building in Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban regime in 2000 under US attack.
As the first Indian ambassador to Russia, the task for Ambassador Sen was critical as he had to ensure continuity of military supplies to India despite the chaotic situation which erupted in Moscow in the early years of the Yeltsin government. “Apart from being the main defence supplier to India, Soviet Union was also the second largest export destination of India after the United States,” said Mr Sen remembering the economic impact that the dissolution of Soviet Union had on India. It was part of his task to ensure that the dissolution of the Soviet structure would not hit India heavily.
During his years of working in the Indian Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), Mr Sen often worked as a special emissary of the Prime Minister to engage foreign leaders. These were highly strategic communication that the Indian PMs carried out during the late Cold War and early post-Cold War years when India had to negotiate several regional conflicts like Afghanistan as well as global power play. He often travelled on short notice in special aircraft and without the Indian passport. Mr Sen says the task of engaging a foreign leader for dialogue can succeed only if the interlocutor is ensured of ‘access’ to the top political leadership and absolute secrecy. “Access to the top leadership is the key to having a discreet dialogue over critical issues,” said Mr Sen indicating that secret diplomacy over contentious issue has greater chance of success if the other side is assured that the envoys enjoy access and confidence of the leadership.
Mr Sen was first posted in Russia in 1968 during the ambassadorship of D P Dhar and served in Moscow till the signing of the Indo-Soviet Friendship Treaty of 1971 which was decisive for India’s victory in the war against Pakistan that year. He was posted to California next as India’s commercial consul when he met Ronald Reagan the governor of the state. He returned later that decade to Moscow and subsequently would go for an ambassadorial posting to Moscow during the Yeltsin years.
Reminiscing about his early introduction to Governor Reagan, Mr Sen said that his stint in California came in handy when Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi engaged the United States in diplomacy over technology and resolving the crisis that erupted in Afghanistan because of the decade long soviet occupation (1979-’89) of Afghanistan. Ambassador Sen was the special envoy of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in the secret talks with US ambassador John Gunther Dean over a joint attempt to create a national unity government in Kabul after the end of the Soviet occupation.