As India Tilts Westwards, Russia Looks to Pakistan to Widen its Strategic Options

For Moscow, Pakistan's rising salience is driven by its fears about the spread of ISIS, and its perception that India has drawn too close to the United States.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi arrive for a photo opportunity ahead of their 2014 meeting in New Delhi Credit: REUTERS/Adnan Abidi

Russian President Vladimir Putin and India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi arrive for a photo opportunity ahead of their 2014 meeting in New Delhi Credit: REUTERS/Adnan Abidi

New Delhi: Russia’s rising hostility with the United States and Europe is the zero-sum prism through which it sees the rest of the world – and its moves in South Asia can be viewed as a sub-set of Moscow’s wider global behaviour.

While closer defence ties with Cold War rival Pakistan is partly a way of signalling its pique at India’s slow dance with the US, Russia is also motivated by the belief that the rise of ISIS in West Asia and Afghanistan may be part of a conspiracy to ‘pin down’ Moscow, Indian officials familiar with the relationship have told The Wire.

When an Il-76 landed with 70 Russian soldiers in Rawalpindi for their first ever joint army exercise with Pakistan, the Russian embassy in Delhi – and India’s external affairs ministry – scrambled to control the damage. In the surcharged atmosphere post-Uri, talking heads and sections of the Indian media angrily wagged fingers at Moscow for going ahead with the pre-scheduled exercise.

The anger was heightened by “confusion” about the exercise being held in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, which had even led India to “rightfully convey its concern” during the India-Russia Intergovernmental Commission Meeting on September 13. The Russian embassy later denied that the exercise was being held in “so-called Azad Kashmir” or in Gilgit-Baltistan. After the Indian government announced ‘surgical strikes’ against terror launch pads into PoK, Russian ambassador Alexander M. Kadakin went on the record to say that India had the right to take any steps to defend itself from “transborder terrorism”.

Despite this endorsement, the fact remains that Moscow’s ties with Islamabad are growing, and the unusual spectre of the Russian worldview clashing with Indian interests in the region is expected to cast a long shadow when Prime Minister Narendra Modi sits down with President Vladimir Putin in Goa on Saturday for their annual bilateral summit.

Diplomatic sources said that Moscow had explained to Delhi that Pakistan was key to checking – or at last keeping a tab – on the spread of militant islam and its ideology to the Caucasus and Central Asia.

The threat is Daesh

The Russians have been one of the earliest to beat the drum about the rising presence of ISIS in Afghanistan. Even as Afghans and the US have estimated Daesh’s strength at a few thousands, Russian officials have consistently given much higher numbers.

In April, the Russian president’s special envoy to Afghanistan Zamir Kabulov claimed that ISIS numbers had seen “spectacular” growth from a base of 100 to 10,000 fighters within a year. He also claimed that the “Afghan branch of IS is definitely specialised against Central Asia”. “Russian is even one of their working languages. They are being trained against Central Asia and Russia,” added Kabulov.

Russia doesn’t consider the Afghan security forces adequate enough to stave off both the Taliban and ISIS – and, therefore, considers ties with Pakistan as essential to get ground support.

But Indian officials say that New Delhi is aware from various interactions with Russian interlocutors that the fear of ISIS in Afghanistan is not just viewed as an Islamist threat, but part of the wider geo-political game.

“After the confrontation with the US and Europe over Ukraine, Russia views much else in the world through this prism. Hence, it believes that ISIS in Afghanistan is largely a creation of the Americans, which has been designed as a Trojan horse in the vicinity of Russia,” government sources told The Wire.

This Russian argument about ISIS’s role in Afghanistan has been made in power circles, said Petr Topychkanov of Carnegie Moscow centre.

“The idea is that among ISIS groups there are some fighters, receiving military assistance and weapons from Western countries and their allies in the Middle East, such as Turkey and Qatar. Yet I would be skeptical about the idea that ISIS could be a [part] of the US efforts in Afghanistan to weaken and even threaten Russia from Afghanistan,” he said.

Within Afghanistan, where conspiracy theories run amok, there are mixed views about the relatively sudden rise of IS. Former Afghan president Hamid Karzai has been vocal about Pakistan being behind the group. But, in other circles, especially among the Hazaras, the dominant origin theory is similar to that of Russians – that the US has encouraged the rise of ISIS. However, the motivation as per this narrative is slightly different – the target of ISIS is not Russia, but Iran.

Indian officials have a diametrically opposite view about the emergence of ISIS, largely linked to Afghanistan’s southern neighbour, which have been conveyed to Russians at various fora.

‘Too tight an embrace’

At the same time, officials admit that some of Moscow’s recent overtures to Pakistan have been motivated by the need to convey a message to India that the Modi government was embracing Washington a bit too tightly. “The Russians were never subtle in their messaging,” an official said.

From inviting Barack Obama as the Republic Day chief guest in 2015 to signing the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement for use of each other’s bases, Modi’s determined pursuit of closer strategic relations with the US has been a striking aspect of his foreign policy, especially in light of the earlier American travel ban when he was Gujarat chief minister.

The fact that Russian animosity over India-US ties is driving Moscow’s Pakistan policy was also the impression gathered by M. Mayilvaganan of the Bangalore-based National Institute of Advanced Studies, who recently took part in a high-level interaction between India and Russian think-tanks in Moscow.

“There is definitely a communication gap,” he said. Pakistan was not on the formal agenda, but featured in lively interactions on the sidelines with top researchers of Russian state-run institutions.

“See, the Russians are focussed just on Syria, Ukraine, Europe, with their eyes firmly on the US. They are not looking at India’s neighbourhood. It’s all about whether India can stand up to the US and they are not sure that New Delhi can do that anymore,” Mayilvaganan told The Wire.

Even when pointed out that India’s position on Syria and Ukraine has been more aligned to Russia, “they feel now that it was a one-time affair”.

With China “promoting” Pakistan, Russia is grabbing the opportunity to gain some leverage in Islamabad at a period when it perceives that Washington’s influence is waning on Rawalpindi, he added.

According to Topychkanov, there were “several experts close to Kremlin who argued that if US – or France, could develop military cooperation with both India and Pakistan, why not Russia?”. “Now it seems that this argument is part of Moscow’s policy in South Asia,” he added.

This argument was also heard by the Indian think-tank delegation, who were told that India should not object to Russian military exercises or defence contracts with Pakistan – especially since Delhi’s “new friend” had been supplying arms to Islamabad for years.

But when the visiting Indian scholars pointed out that India has always objected to US arms sales to Pakistan and that there was long period of estrangement while Russia had been Delhi’s closest friend, there was not much of a response.

“At this moment, Russia is defining friends by their position towards the US. If they ‘stand up’ to the US, they are friends. Otherwise, they are only partners. I mean, they will sell arms but the intimacy is gone,” said Mayilvaganan.

‘Growing disconnection’

Echoing those sentiments broadly, Topychkanov warned, “The malaise is growing disconnection of Russians and Indians. We understand each other less and less. We are unable to be transparent and predictable regarding each other. We can’t explain our steps to audiences in Russia and India in time, or before crucial decisions. It causes growing mistrust between Moscow and Delhi”.

Modi will, therefore, have his task cut out to again give the message to Putin that “a country of India’s size and interests can’t and won’t toe anyone’s line”. “But it’s only an ongoing and wider dialogue with Russians which can gradually dissuade them from thinking so,” added an Indian official.

Topychkanov said that Modi had to persuade Putin to become more involved in Indo-Russian relations in order to manage the “growing disconnection”. “Nobody else in the Russian leadership can manage the mess, created before his visit to India by top-level bureaucrats in the ministries of defence and foreign [affairs]”.

A former Indian ambassador to Afghanistan who has had extensive interactions with Moscow while in service and after, said the fact that the issue of the exercises’ venue was allowed to go down to the wire showed the extent to which India had gone off the radar within the Russian system. “The fact is that the number of people who really know India at different levels of the bureaucracy has sharply dwindled over the years.”

Russia’s overtures to Islamabad and the Pakistan army started about five years ago, when Moscow was concerned at the impending foreign troops drawdown in 2014 and the Taliban was taking the fight towards the Central Asian borders. These moves had raised eyebrows in Delhi at the time – especially given the fact that the Pakistani military had been largely responsible in supporting the arming of the Mujahideen by the CIA against the Soviet army in Afghanistan.

Russian officials began to forge contacts with Taliban officials, which has become handy now for Moscow in its fight against ISIS.

However, when Pakistan announced that Vladimir Putin would visit Islamabad for the quadrilateral summit in September 2012, India was taken by surprise. After India conveyed its sharp objections, Pakistan was told that Putin would not be attending the summit. In fact, Indian officials interpreted Putin’s letter to President Zardari as indicating that he would not visit Pakistan, ever. “I am confident that in future we shall be able to find opportunities for arranging our personal meeting. We shall always be happy to receive you in Russia,” Putin wrote.

Though the symbolism of joint exercises is in many ways more potent than a presidential visit, this time around, India did not attempt to dissuade Moscow from holding the exercise even after troubles broke out with Pakistan over the situation in Kashmir. The key objection India raised was only in term of the venue, and not the dates, sources said.

Interestingly, the account suggested to Indian think-tank officials during their interaction in Moscow was that the decision to hold the exercise in Gilgit-Baltistan was apparently taken at a relatively lower level in the Russian foreign ministry. “We were told that it was changed after Putin was made aware of Indian protests,” said Mayilvaganan.

To some Russia watchers, the counter-terror military exercise with Pakistan, even though highly visible, was not such a “big deal”.

As part of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, Pakistani and Indian troops will have to take part in counter-terrorism exercises alongside Russia, China and other Central Asian countries, it was pointed out. Also, Russia and Pakistan have already conducted two maritime exercises in 2014 and 2015 against drug smuggling.

India’s main concern, however, is the prospect of defence deals. In 2014, Russia removed its embargo on the sale of military hardware and arms to Pakistan. After its army chief, General Raheel Sharif, chief visited Moscow in July 2015, Pakistan signed a deal to buy four Mi-35 attack helicopters, with more sales not ruled out.

‘Wrong approach’

A working paper released by a state-supported think-tank on India-Russian relations in September justified Russian’s overtures to Pakistan by drawing a parallel to India’s neighbourhood security policy.

“This transaction does not endanger the military strategic balance in the region and is not directed against third countries. What should be noted is the unique parallelism between the foreign policy processes in South Asia and in the post-Soviet space, and the identical situations that Russia and India find themselves in in their respective regions, which determine the very similar approaches of Russia and India to the problems of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) and South Asia respectively,” said the Russian International Affairs Council’s in its “100 postulates on Russia-India-relations”.

The Indian side, however, looks at the matter differently. “We have conveyed our views 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. It will only create further problems,” Pankaj Saran, India’s ambassador to Russia told a Russian media outlet recently.

Saran’s view was echoed by Ajai Malhotra, a former Indian ambassador to Russia, who said that Modi had to draw the line – that further defence sales to Pakistan would impact relations.

“Rumours about likely Russian defence sales to Pakistan are swirling around in the media. Russia has always been very attentive to India’s concerns about weapon deliveries to Pakistan and Prime Minister Modi must emphatically reiterate them to President Putin at the forthcoming bilateral Summit in Goa,” Malhotra told The Wire.

He noted that “at this sensitive moment” for India-Pakistan relations, Moscow must “step back from progressing its defence ties with Pakistan, a state that has long been active in abetting, financing, sponsoring and exporting terrorism”.

“Russia needs to continue to firmly hold the line on this issue or face significant dilution in the tremendous goodwill it presently enjoys amongst the people of India,” he said.

The “sense” that Moscow has officially conveyed to Delhi is that they “are not in it for defence deals and money”. “It is Islamist militancy and terrorism where they want to work with Pakistan,” sources said.

On India taking steps to reassure Russia on its ties with US, Topychkanov said that India’s pro-active stance in bilateral relations and multilateral fora like the SCO and BRICS “would be a strong demonstration of India’s intention not to be part of the US plans to militarily deter Russia, or China”.