Given the breadth and depth of the Indo-Russian relationship, the divergence in their strategy for the South Asia region is worrying.
On the sidelines of the recently-held Belt and Road Forum, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in the presence of Chinese President Xi Jinping. Reports indicate that the Russian and Chinese leadership have offered to help mediate tensions between Pakistan and India. This news is emblematic of the divergence between Indian and Russian approaches to their neighbourhood in recent times. The Russian approach identifies ISIS in the Khorasan Province (ISKP), not the Taliban, as the most immediate threat and considers Pakistan a partner for security in the region, along with coordinating its actions in the region with Pakistan and China. This worries India, who maintains that there can be no choice between the ISKP and Taliban, and views Pakistan as a state sponsor of terrorism. Given the breadth and depth of the Indo-Russian relationship, this divergence in their strategy for the region is a worrying trend and one that demands closer attention by policymakers in both Delhi and Moscow.
Moscow’s resurgent role in the Afghan theatre can be traced back to the withdrawal of NATO and US troops, in light of which the first of three Russia-China-Pakistan trilateral consultations on the situation in Afghanistan was held in Beijing on April 2013, with the second and third rounds taking place in November 2013 and December 2016. In the most recent trilateral consultation, the three countries controversially agreed on “flexible approaches to the prospect of excluding certain individuals from the list of sanctioned persons” and took note of the rising activity of the ISKP. Russia’s policy towards Afghanistan, as laid out by Zamir Kabulov, Russia’s presidential envoy to Afghanistan, has evolved into one that identifies the Taliban as a predominantly local force and recognises the coincidence of Russian and Taliban interests against the ISKP. It recognises the latter as a global jihadist force, one that poses the greatest threat to the region. On the other hand, India believes that assessments implying there is a choice between terrorist forces in Afghanistan endanger the gains made in the country and that “a policy of zero tolerance towards violence and terrorism” is essential.
Russia has simultaneously increased its security cooperation with Pakistan. Both nations signed a military cooperation agreement in November 2014, during the first visit of a Russian defence minister to Pakistan. This was followed by a deal for the sale of four Mi-35M helicopters by Russia to Pakistan, to be delivered this year. The first Russia-Pakistan counter-narcotics exercise that included naval participation was held in October 2014 followed by a second exercise in December 2015. The following year, the first joint military exercise, Druzhba 2016, was held in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa in Pakistan, on the heels of the Uri terror attack in India. The resulting strain on the India-Russia relationship was even more pronounced because the initial statement mentioned Rattu in the disputed territory of Gilgit-Baltistan as one of the exercise locations, though a clarification was later issued. This was followed by the first ever Pakistan-Russia foreign office consultations on regional issues in Islamabad in December 2016. India is concerned that Russo-Pakistan cooperation may engender instability in the region and has conveyed “to the Russian side that military cooperation with Pakistan, which is a state that sponsors and practices terrorism as a matter of state policy, is a wrong approach.” Russia’s silence on terrorism and on India’s demand that two Pakistan-based terror groups be named in the Goa Declaration of the 2016 BRICS Summit, along with its declaration of support for the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), has caused considerable disquietude in New Delhi, given India’s position on terrorism emanating from Pakistan and its objection to CPEC on grounds of sovereignty.
In the meanwhile, Russia’s sectoral cooperation with India has continued, with a spate of agreements having been signed in recent years. India and Russia’s cooperation in military technology and nuclear sectors is likely to stay in place for the foreseeable future despite Indian attempts to diversify its dependence on Russia, and further develop indigenous capacity. The eighth India-Russia joint military exercise, Indra-2016, coincided with Russia’s exercise with Pakistan, which was followed by the ninth India-Russia naval exercise, Indra Navy-2016, in December, 2016. Indian defence minister Arun Jaitley has announced the upgradation of this year’s exercise to the tri-service format, a first for both sides. Russia was also one of the few countries to name Pakistan in its statement condemning the Uri attack, expressing concern over India’s statement that the attack originated from Pakistani territory. In light of its recent bonhomie with Pakistan and softer approach towards the Taliban, however, this indicates that while the relationship is no longer driven by a shared approach towards the region, the momentum generated by the earlier existence of such an approach has not yet been lost.
Russia’s efforts to separate its engagements with Pakistan and India are driven by its belief that Pakistan is an influential regional actor and cooperating with it will help eliminate the threat of terrorism, especially the ISKP, in the region. It is also a possible reaction to India’s growing ties with the US and others, along with efforts to reduce its dependence on Russia for military technology. This is not the first time that India has been faced with a Russia-Pakistan conundrum. While the USSR’s overtures to Pakistan in the 1960s gave rise to similar concerns in India, the bilateral relationship could draw on Cold War geopolitical alignments for sustenance. This convergence of Indian and Russian interests in the region is missing today. While joint statements by India and Russia in recent years continue to note the importance of combating terrorism, and of close consultation and cooperation on Afghanistan, both sides have been drifting apart when it comes to action and envision the region differently.
There are limits to how far a relationship can survive based purely on past achievements and sectoral cooperation. While India and Russia will continue to be important partners in the defence and nuclear sectors in the foreseeable future, if their strategic partnership in South Asia is to remain relevant, both sides must go back to the drawing board and recalibrate their divergent approaches to their common neighbourhood.
Sharanya Rajiv is a researcher at Carnegie India.