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Transcript of Special Briefing on Ukraine Situation by Foreign Secretary Shri Harsh Vardhan Shringla (February 24, 2022)

February 25, 2022

Shri Arindam Bagchi, Official Spokesperson: Very Good evening ladies, gentlemen, thank you very much for joining us at this late hour. As you are aware, there have been fast paced developments in Ukraine since today morning and of course, we've been following the developments over the last few days. So today, we have had the privilege of having with us Foreign Secretary, Shri Harsh Vardhan Shringla to talk to us about our primary focus, of the government today, which is on the safety and security of the Indian nationals and their evacuation from Ukraine. I will request Foreign Secretary Sir to make brief opening remarks and after that, we'll take some questions. So over to you, Sir.

Harsh Vardhan Shringla, Foreign Secretary: Namaskar and Good evening. Thank you for joining us at this late hour. You've all seen the sudden and serious developments in Ukraine today. As we speak, there is a meeting of the Cabinet Committee on Security, chaired by the Prime Minister in session to take stock of this situation. Prime Minister has conveyed at the CCS meeting that the topmost priority of the government is the safety and security of Indian nationals, including Indian students, and their evacuation from Ukraine. Prime Minister is scheduled to speak to the President of Russia, Vladimir Putin, shortly. External Affairs Minister will be speaking to the foreign ministers of the countries neighbouring Ukraine, namely Poland, Romania, Slovakia, and Hungary. Earlier this evening, he also spoke to the EU high representative, as well as the Foreign Minister of the UK. A number of steps have been taken over the last month or so to deal with the emerging situation in Ukraine, including the contingencies that could arise and I'm referring to the situation as we see today. We started the registration of Indian nationals in the Ukraine about a month ago. Our embassy anticipated the need to connect and be in contact with all Indian students in the Ukraine. Based on the online registration process that was conducted by our embassy, we found that there were close to about 20,000 Indian nationals, including students in the Ukraine. Of these about 4000 have since left the country, and we have taken a number of measures to facilitate flights out of the country. This includes removing the cap on the number of passengers that could fly out of Ukraine that was imposed by the civil aviation authorities of both countries, there was a 440 numbers that could fly out every week, that cap was removed. We also ensured that the number of flights were augmented rapidly, from about twice a week to about two flights a day and that enabled us to get at least 4000 of our citizens and students out. We should also remember that there were a number of other options available through flights through Dubai and Istanbul and other places from Kiev.

Our embassy in Ukraine continues to be functional, is rendering all assistance possible to Indian nationals there notwithstanding the fairly complicated and evolving situation that we find ourselves in. The Embassy has issued a number of advisories in recent days. Today itself, the Embassy has issued three advisories and these provide advice to Indian nationals on the situation as it evolves. Travel towards safer places, including western parts of the country that will facilitate the exit by road and other means, safety precautions that our citizens could take, etc. Our ambassador also sent a personal message to all Indian citizens in Ukraine providing advice. We are consulting universities, student contractors in the process of providing for the welfare and safety of our students. A control room has been set up in MEA, now this control room has been functioning for the past 7 or 8 days but we have seriously augmented the strength. We have over 20 officers that are manning this control room in the Ministry of External Affairs on a 24/7 basis. Just to give you an example till now and just today, we have answered 980 calls and dealt with some 850 emails that were sent to this control room. Our embassy in Kyiv has also set up a 24/7 helpline centre.

The other measure that we have taken is that we have dispatched Russian speaking officers to Kiev and to the countries, neighbouring Ukraine. Russian speaking because the language there is Russian. If you are not Russian speaking, your utility is far more limited. Some of these officers have already reached and are functioning, some will be reaching shortly. We've also asked our embassies, our ambassadors in the countries neighbouring Ukraine, and I mentioned these - Poland, Romania, Slovakia and Hungary, to send teams of their officers to the border areas with Ukraine to facilitate the exit of Indian nationals from Ukraine to permit them to come into their countries, so where they can be safely evacuated back to India, and MEA teams are on their way as we speak to the Zahony border post in Hungary, Krakowiec land border in Poland, Vysne Nemecke in Slovak Republic, and Suceava land border in Romania. We have also asked some of our officers to go across and set up camp offices in Ukraine close to the border to the places we have identified - Lviv, which is close to Poland, and Chernivtsi which is close to Romania. And here I think will be sort of facilitation points.

It's a very complicated, very evolving situation. It's obviously you know, certain areas there's conflict. We can't have a single sort of advisory that fits all situations. We have to evolve, we have to see where we are, and which part of the country you are located in, what the situation is. Generally, if we are advising that if you find yourself in a certain difficult situation, then you should remain in secure areas and shelters etc. If you can, you move westwards towards the borders with some of the countries, I mentioned. And these advisories will be continuously issued, these helplines are for that purpose so that depending on the situation that advice can be given. One important step that we've taken because a number of our students were reluctant to leave because the university authorities had said the classes must be offline. We have now persuaded all the universities and institutions to allow online classes and therefore students can actually leave without having to face the strain of not being able to or missing out on their classes.

As I said, the situation on the ground is difficult and is rapidly evolving. I want to take this opportunity to assure all Indian citizens including students in Ukraine, and their family members, that we will take all possible steps to bring back, to bring you back safe and sound ,bring your wards back safe and sound. Prime Minister has specifically stated that the Ministry of External Affairs will do everything possible in coordination of course with other ministries involved to ensure that facilitation on the lines that I discussed- helplines, control rooms, officers available, shelters, accommodation, facilitation, every manner is done for our citizens. We, of course, had a few citizens outside our embassy also, I'm told that at least all of them, I'm talking about numbers of 200 to 250 of our citizens have been accommodated in schools in the area. The Embassy has been asked to facilitate their requirements, and depending on the situation, we will have them evacuated westwards.

As you know, this government has been very focused when it comes to the welfare of Indian citizens in difficult situations around the world. We have had a lot of experience in facilitating and arranging such evacuations. The Vande Bharat mission, which is the largest repatriation exercise of its kind was undertaken during the peak of COVID times. More recently, we had Operation Devi Shakti which is involving the evacuation of Indian nationals from Afghanistan from a conflict situation. We will obviously have to take into account that every situation presents its own challenges, and we have to deal with it accordingly. So perhaps I'll stop here and see if there any questions.

Shri Arindam Bagchi, Official Spokesperson: Thank you very much Sir. I'm sure there are a lot of questions. Please introduce yourselves before taking the questions. Maybe I'll start with you right here. I saw your name you go first.

Akhilesh Suman: Sir, I’m Akhilesh Suman from Sansad TV. Russia and US both are our strategic partners. And in this point of time, are we playing any role talking to both US and Russia to stop the war and create a situation when there can be a continued prosperity in the region?

Nayanima: Sir, would you like to make any comments on the sanctions being imposed on Russia? Does that bring more difficulty for us as far as our military acquisitions are concerned? Thank you. Nayanima from ThePrint.

Sidhant: Sir my question is regarding India's consistent position when it comes to countries’ territorial sovereignty, regarding this invasion of countries’ territorial sovereignty has been violated. What does New Delhi has to say on that? I’m Sidhant from WION.

Meghana: Meghana from DD News. Sir, some states have also set up control rooms. So is there any coordination with the state control rooms as well? Where do those people who reach out to state control rooms, does it reach the MEA, how does it work?

Shri Arindam Bagchi, Official Spokesperson: I'll take one last one.

Suhasini: Suhasini from The Hindu. Foreign Secretary, we know that, as you said, there have been conversations between the EAM the European Union counterparts, the UK as well. I wanted to just touch on Nayanima’s and Sidhant’s questions on the UN Security Council resolution that the US says it is going to bring. Has India seen a draft of the resolution that is coming about? So far, the statements India has made, have not criticized Russia, have referred to legitimate security interests of all parties, and has not actually affirmed the territorial integrity of Ukraine. So I just wanted to know if India's position on any of these is likely to change given this UNSC resolution.

Harsh Vardhan Shringla, Foreign Secretary: So let us start with a Akhilesh Ji’s question, which is whether we are playing any role with our strategic partners. It is true that India has maintained the best of relations with all countries concerned, whether it's the United States, whether it's Russia, or whether it's the European Union. We have been in touch with all parties concerned, as you can imagine, both as a member of the Security Council, as a country with a lot at stake in that region, as a country with so many of its citizens in vulnerable zone. We have been in close touch with all concerned. External Affairs Minister was in Europe recently where he's had a number of meetings with his interlocutors. This evening, as I said, Prime Minister will be speaking to President Putin. External Affairs Minister himself has spoken to a number of ministers from the European Union and will be speaking to those ministers, those of his counterparts who were from neighbouring countries, which is very important, primarily for our own citizens and their safe evacuation out of Ukraine.

So our focus in the UN Security Council has always been on de-escalation of tensions, on diplomatic dialogue as the only way forward, and we've also emphasized on the existing agreements, the Minsk agreements, the Normandy format. We've also obviously placed the highest importance to the safety and security of our nationals in the Ukraine, in our statements in the UN Security Council. And so, in all of this, I think we have, as I said, maintained that people need to talk to each other, the parties need to be engaged and if there's anything that we can do to facilitate that engagement, we are more than happy to do. And I think, as we go along we will try and be as helpful as possible.

Nayanima’s question on sanctions on Russia, you are aware that certain unilateral sanctions were already existing, as far as Russia was concerned. Some additional sanctions have been imposed by the United States, by the EU, by Australia, Japan, the UK, among others. But this is an evolving situation, as I said, and we have to see what sort of impact these sanctions will have on our own interests. Clearly, we need to study this carefully because any sanctions will have impact on our existing relationship. I think it would only be correct to acknowledge that factor, but the actual impact of the sanctions needs to be studied carefully and we will do that.

Sidhant, I think you spoke about the country's sovereignty. I think that question was also asked by Suhasini, when you talked about our position in Security Council, the possibility of a UNSC resolution that would be tabled on the evolving situation. We have seen a draft resolution, I'm told that would undergo considerable changes, we will wait to see the shape that this resolution takes before we can pronounce ourselves in the position that we would take on this issue. So it is, as I said, an evolving situation, both on the ground and in the United Nations. We are at the cutting edge of many of the issues, many of the areas where these issues will be discussed and will be considered by the international community and we will certainly play our due role in that regard.

I think Meghana had asked this question about state control rooms, I can tell you that a number of Chief Secretaries of states have spoken to me. Obviously, states are concerned about students, about citizens from their states who are in Ukraine. We are coordinating very closely in that regard. It's only fair to tell you that we have set up control rooms and teams all over, we have set up the control rooms in Hungary, in Poland, in Slovakia, in Romania, all this information is out in the public domain. But early in the day, whoever contacted me, I immediately sent out the details to them in our state governments. Our External Publicity Division has put all this out in the public domain and all this is information that our states can use. We are, as I said, in close touch with all concerned who have a stake in this issue, whether it is parents, whether it is family members, or whether it is state governments, Members of Parliament, those who are concerned about this, and I just mentioned, Prime Minister is chairing a meeting of the Cabinet Committee on Security. They are examining all aspects of this situation in particular, what sort of assistance, what sort of support that we can render to our citizens in this time of need and clearly, you know, involving the state governments in this activity is a part of that effort.

Shri Arindam Bagchi, Official Spokesperson: Thank you sir. Next round of question.

Manish Jha: Sir main Manish Jha hoon TV 9 bhaaratavarsh se. Mera savaal yeh hai ki bahut saare political leaders bhi yeh kah rahe hain ki agar ham logon ne thoda pehle action liya hota. Jaisaa apane khud hi bataaya hai ki 1 mahine pehle hi hamne data collect kar liya tha lekin advisory 15 February ko jaari hui, to kya agar thoda pahale action liya hota to shaayad hum jyaada students ko baahar nikaal paate aur haalaat thode behtar hote. Kyonki aap land border discuss kar rhe they, thoda detail agar dedenge ki bacche kaise un chaaron neighbouring countries jo land borders hain vahaan tak kaise pahunchenge? Kya vo route safe hai? (Questioned in Hindi; Approximate Translation) Sir I am Manish Jha from TV 9 Bharatvarsh. My question is that many political leaders are also saying that if we had taken action a little earlier. As you have told yourself that we had collected the data 1 month ago but the advisory was issued on 15 February, so if we had taken action a little earlier, perhaps we would have been able to take out more students and the situation would have been a little better. Because you were discussing about land borders, could you give some details on how will the children reach the four neighbouring countries which have land borders? Is that route safe?

Sudhi Ranjan: Sir, Sudhi Ranjan from the Bloomberg. Sir, what is the kind of message we are likely to carry to Russia with the Prime Minister? And secondly, so we've heard the Ukrainian Ambassador to India, saying that they're disappointed with India’s stand, is there a reaction to that or clarification to that, Sir?

Maha Siddiqui: Sir, Maha Siddiqui from CNN News 18. Sir, is the call by the Prime Minister to the Russian President Vladimir Putin being made at the request of Ukraine or is India making this call because India at the moment is also a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council.

Srinjoy: Sir, Srinjoy from Times Now. Sir you said Prime Minister is speaking with the President of Russia Mr. Putin tonight. Is he going to make any other calls to any other major leaders either today, tonight or sometime tomorrow morning?

Sandeep: Sandeep News 18 India se, Normally situation mein evacuation hota hai to airforce ko bhi involve kiya jaata hai, kya aisi situation hai ki airforce ko bhi iss evacuation mein aap log shamil karenge? (Questioned in Hindi; Approximate Translation) Sandeep from News 18 India. If there is an evacuation under the normal situation, then the Air Force is also included, is there such a situation that the Air Force will also be included in this evacuation.

Harsh Vardhan Shringla, Foreign Secretary: Pahale main Manish ji ke prashn ka uttar dena chahta hoon.Yeh sthiti jo hum dekh rahe hain yeh kafi complicated situation hai. Issmein jo agar ham dekh sakte the ki kaise evolve hota tha to shayad aur bhi desh jo involved hain issmein woh bhi usi prakar se dekh sakte the to ye main kahana chahta hoon ki ye evolving situation banana ke karan se exact action jo apne kaha matlab bad mein jo hamara retrospective mein dekhen to lagega ki action pehale bhi le sakte the, par situation complicated hai or evolving hai. Ussi hisab se hamne apne preparations kiye the. Yeh bhi dekhna hoga ki kafi hamare jo students the unko advisory dene ke bavjud bhi wo dekh rahe the ki agar classes miss honge, agar classes offline honge, usska bhi natija hoga unke uppar aur kya options the, unke kya upay the? to issmein hamne kafi unke saath hum sampark mein the. Inko advice dete rahe aur jaisa maine kaha jo vahan se nikalna chahte the woh nikel gaye , jisko facilitate karana tha hamane facilitate karvaya or advisories bhi agar aap dekhen 15 tarikh ko jo advisory issue hua tha jismein hamne kaha tha ki non-essential indian citizens can leave the country to hamne kafi advance notice diya tha issmein. To mere khyal se jo situation aaj hai vah evolving situation ke karan se hai aur yah bhi hum kah sakte hain ki jo hamare nagrikon key suraksha hai unki well being hai unake jo evacuation ke jo arrangements hain vah hum puri tarah sambhal lenge or isamen ghabaraane ki koi baat nahi hogi. Aur jo safe route hain jaise aapne kaha wo bhi identify hogaye hain mainne aapko bataya tha ki by road agar Kiev se aapko jaana hai to Poland keliye 9 ghante ka rasta hai or Romania ke liye karib 12 ghante ka rasta hai toh woh raasta bhi map out hogaya hai aur woh raste mein jo points mainne bataye the jaise ki Lviv hain, Chernivtsi hai vahan bhi hamari teams jo Russian speaking officers hain wo teams hum bhej rahe hain woh wahan per rahenge taki vahan se bhi madad or sahayata hum de sakte hain hamare nagariko ko jo hum jaroor denge. (Answered in Hindi; Approximate Translation) First, I want to answer Manishji's question. This situation that we are seeing is quite a complicated situation. If we could see how it evolved, then perhaps even more countries that are involved would have seen in the same way. So I want to say that due to this evolving situation, the exact action that you mentioned, I mean, when we look at in retrospect, it will seem that the action could have been taken earlier also, but the situation is complicated and evolving. Accordingly we had made our preparations. It must be noted that despite issuing advisory, many of our students were worried about impact of missing out on classes; the other options etc. So, we were in regular touch with them. We kept issuing advisories and as I said, those who wanted to leave from there, they left, whom we could facilitate, we facilitated and also if you see, the advisory was issued on the 15th, in which we said that non-essential Indian citizens can leave the country. So in that we gave a lot of advance notice. So I think the situation which is there today is because of the evolving situation and I would also like to say that the security of our citizens, their wellbeing, the arrangements for their evacuation, we will handle them completely and there is nothing to panic about it. And there are the safe routes, that you said, have also been identified. I told you that by road if you have to go from Kiev, then there is a 9-hour journey to Poland and about 12 hours journey to Romania, these paths have also been mapped out and the points that I told on the way are Lviv, Chernevsky, there also we are sending our teams of Russian speaking officers. They will be there so that they can provide help and assistance to our citizens.

With regard to I think Sudhi Ranjan Ji’s question about conversation between our PM and Russian President I think it would be difficult to let us say guess in advance as to what nature of that conversation would be. I think we could certainly say that President Putin would provide his perspective on the situation, that he would brief the Prime Minister and I think that conversation would obviously be around the situation that we see today. But beyond that, to try and second guess what would be the conversation I think right now would be not correct. But needless to say, as the conversation takes place, we will be keeping you informed of the nature of that conversation.

There was a question about, I think you had asked about the disappointment expressed by the Ukrainian ambassador, honestly speaking, we have been in touch with him. We have been in touch with many of our diplomatic colleagues, I did not see any disappointment that he had expressed as far as we are concerned. And we will certainly be, as I said, in touch at very, very high level. The External Affairs Minister is expected to speak to the Ukrainian Foreign Minister this evening tonight and obviously we are speaking to all concerned. So, I don't think there should be any sense that we are speaking to one party and not to other.

I think Maha’s question was again whether the call, I think the call was on the behest of, you said of Ukraine. Well, I mean, the conversation is taking place because of the reasons I mentioned, we have a stake in the situation we are a concerned party, as both as a country that has close relations with Russia, with Ukraine, with the European Union with all concerned. We also have stakes in the region, economic stakes, we have people involved, our citizens are there, we are members of the UN Security Council. I mean, all of these factors are relevant to that conversation that is taking place.

Srinjoy you said are there any other calls expected? I think again, it's premature. Obviously, there will be calls in the days to come, there will be conversations and we will be open to any such interaction with any of our colleagues in the international community.

And Sandeep Ji aapne poochha ki aisi sthitiyon mein Indian air force ko suchna di jaati hai apane bilkul sahi kaha, ham Ministry of Defence ke saath sampark mein hain, unako hamane puri suchana di hai ki kya sthiti hai aur kya evolving situation hai or hamane ye bhi kaha hai ki agar jarurat pade to hamari air lift capacity ka provision rakhna hoga unko or agar aisi sthiti hoti hai toh hamari air force ke aircraft bhi vahan per ja sakte hain par hamare aur bhi upay hain ki jaise ki hamare commercial aircraft hain to all options are on the table. (Answered in Hindi; Approximate Translation) Sandeep Ji, you asked that in such situations, Indian Air Force is involved, you are absolutely right, we are in touch with the Ministry of Defence. We have given them full information about what is the current situation and what is the evolving situation and we have also said that if need be, they will have to keep the provision of air lift and if such a situation happens, then our Air Force aircraft can also go there, but we have other measures that we can explore such as we have commercial aircraft. All options are open.

Shri Arindam Bagchi, Official Spokesperson: Thank you very much for that. We will just take last couple of questions.

Neeraj Rajput: Neeraj Rajput ABP news se, Sir jis tarah ki paristhitiyan ban rahi hain, hum log dekh rhe hain Russian kis tarah se emerge karke aa raha hai aur Russia ke jo china ke saath jo sambandh hain chin ke saath bahut achchhe sambandh hain aur Pakistan ke Pradhan mantra bhi aaj Russia mein hi the to yeh kya is Ukraine crisis ke baad jo naya world order hoga toh vah bharat keliye chinta ka sabab ban sakta hai, kis tarah se dekhate hain is tarah ke nye world order ko? (Questioned in Hindi; Approximate Translation) Neeraj Rajput from ABP News. Sir, the kind of conditions that evolving, we are witnessing how Russia is emerging and Russia having very good relations with China and the Prime Minister of Pakistan was also in Russia today, So this new world order which will emerge after this Ukraine crisis, can it be a cause of concern for India, how do you see this kind of world order?

Shri Arindam Bagchi, Official Spokesperson: Okay, last question definitely.

Jai Prakash: Jai Prakash, Dainik Jagran se Apne videsh mantra Russia k videsh mantri se bhi baat kar rahe hain ya koi baat karne ki yojana hai aaj? (Questioned in Hindi; Approximate Translation) Is our Foreign Minister also talking to the Foreign Minister of Russia, or does he have any plan to talk to him today?

Harsh Vardhan Shringla, Foreign Secretary: Ek to Jaiprakaash jee ko seedha bata sakta hoon ki jab Pradhaan mantri ki baat ho rahee hai rus ke raashtrapati ke saath to yahee highest level pe baat chal rahee hai. New World order jo aapane kaha, jo neeraj jee ne kaha jaroor sthiti badal gaya hai, globally tanaav hamne dekha hai ki kafi matlab ismein sthiti kafi gambheer ho gaee hai. Iss paristhiti mein hum kya kar sakte hain, hamare jitane bhi options hain wo sab khule hain, sabhee ke saath hamaare sambandh hain, sabhee ke saath hamare sampark bhi hain aur jo karna hai hamare hit mein, hamare deshke hit mein aur hamaare naagarikon ke interest mein ham jaroor karenge. (Answered in Hindi; Approximate translation) One, I can directly tell Jaiprakash ji that Prime Minister’s talk with the President of Russia, is the highest level. New World Order, what you said, what Neeraj ji said, the situation has definitely changed, globally we have seen tensions, that means the situation has become very serious. What can we do in this situation, all our options are open, we have relations with everyone, we have contacts with everyone and whatever we have to do in our interest, in the interest of our country and for our citizens, we will definitely do.

Shri Arindam Bagchi, Official Spokesperson: Sir thank you very much for your presence here today. Glad you could make out time today to brief the general community. I'd also like to thank the presence of Dr. Adarsh Swaika, Joint Secretary looking after Eurasia desk in the division. Thank you in particular to all of you for joining us so late in the evening. Good evening.

Harsh Vardhan Shringla, Foreign Secretary: And let me assure you that we will keep you posted of developments. You know, it is not a one off thing. I'm trying to tell you that it is an evolving situation. You know, things could happen, it's also complicated and we will certainly try and keep you posted with maximum transparency. Already as I said we are issuing advisories, we are issuing statements almost on a daily basis, if not an hourly basis, and we will be in touch with you. Thank you very much.

Shri Arindam Bagchi, Official Spokesperson: Good night. Thank you.

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