While Indian foreign secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla met with his Russian counterpart on a two-day visit to Moscow, and Russia and Pakistan scale up military and economic cooperation, a September 2015 paper published in Russia’s top think-tank has revealed Moscow’s highly positive view of Pakistan, which it considers “transformational” for its Eurasian vision, and “alluring” and beneficial for India as well.
However, India’s “sensitivities” regarding Islamabad have prevented Russia from accelerating the partnership, possibly effected by American “information warfare” to drive a wedge between Russia and India, the paper says.
Russian warships – besides Chinese and Iranian vessels – participated in the recently concluded 45-nation AMAN-21 biennial naval exercises hosted by Pakistan in the Arabian Sea on February 16. In November last year, Russian special operations troops held joint drills with their Pakistani counterparts in the ‘Friendship 2020’ exercises at the Tarbela training ground in Pakistan’s Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa.
The paper, titled Pakistan is the “Zipper” of Pan-Eurasian Integration by Andrew Korybko in the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies (RISS) accords highly privileged status to Pakistan as the “South Asian Gatekeeper”, by virtue of its location that connects Central and South Asia, which aids Moscow’s own geopolitical vision espoused in the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU).
The EAEU is a free trade agreement that came into being in 2015 to increase economic cooperation and raise the standard of living of its member countries, including Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan.
EAEU shares the geo-economic vision of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) – uniting the Eurasian landmass through overland trade routes.
Russia and China’s long running strategic rivalry with the US and many other converging interests has seen them close ranks in an unprecedented fashion. For China too, what Pakistan has is the “all-weather ally” and an “iron brother”, being the lynchpin for Beijing’s Asian vision and the center of its crown jewel, the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).
The Greater Eurasian Partnership (GEP) is President Vladimir Putin’s vision that recognises the organic alignment of the EAEU and the BRI, which primarily considers Pakistan as vital for its initial success, while India being key for its expanded form of encompassing the entire Eurasia and Asia-Pacific region.
However, the paper, foreign policy experts and recent statements by Russian leaders bear a severe discomfort with the US influence in India’s diplomacy, which merely shares the strategic overlap of containing China.
A (misunderstood) Russian-Pakistani partnership
At the beginning of the naval manoeuvres, the Russian ambassador to Pakistan candidly described Russia as a “developing country” from which “Pakistan shouldn’t expect a lot of investment” (although against Russian liking), in a webinar organised by the Karachi Council on Foreign Relations (KCFR). Russia has also promised a $14 billion investment in Pakistan’s energy sector, including $2.5 billion for the North-South pipeline project, setting up of coal power plants at Muzaffargarh and Jamshoro, and construction of a railway track from Quetta to Taftan.
But it was five years ago in September 2015, when Russia’s then deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov’s statement about ongoing talks between Moscow and Islamabad regarding the delivery of Mi-35 attack helicopters and Su-35 fighter jets, that made Indian analysts sit up and take notice.
Ryabkov, however, quickly added that it will not have a negative impact on ties between Moscow and New Delhi. While Korybko says such a move will be instantly misperceived as “Moscow sliding away to join the Pakistan-China axis” in India, the view will be peddled further by “US information proxies” to divide India and Russia, painting it as a Russian retaliation for India’s growing ties with the US.
While Russian discomfort with US influence on India’s diplomacy has been quite unusually public of late, Russian-Pakistani partnership is independent of Washington-New Delhi ties, Korybko explains. Deputy chief of mission in the Russian Embassy, Roman Babushkin, on December 22 last year in a press conference while stating the “independent” nature of Russian-Pakistani ties, said, were “not aimed against any other country”, adding “India should not be worried.”
But Korybko fears Russian interests to be endangered by the “US winning over India into viewing the Russian-Pakistani strategic partnership as a threat.” That it was India’s increasing bonhomie with the US, which China perceived as a threat to its own sovereignty that led to its initiating the standoff is a different story.
However, this has also been marked by public Russian disaffection with India’s embrace of the US. Foreign minister Sergei Lavrov on December 9 last year resented India was falling for the US’s “persistent, aggressive, devious…unipolar…anti-China camp” through its Military Technical Cooperation (MTC) – undermining Russian-Chinese efforts towards a “multipolar world” – finally asserting Russia and China were not going to be “subordinate” to the West.
Lavrov, who made these comments to the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC), has also been a vocal critic of the US-led QUAD initiative and it’s Indo-Pacific Strategy, which he said will undermine the centrality of the Association of South East Nations (ASEAN). Before that on November 12, 2020, in an online media briefing, Babushkin, at the height of the standoff between the Indian Army and the Peoples’ Liberation Army (PLA), said that any “escalation could be misused by other players in their geopolitical purposes”.
Interestingly, rather than being aimed against India, Korybko explains that strong Russian-Pakistani ties will overcome Russia’s “blind spot” with “Pakistan” allowing it to mediate between Islamabad and New Delhi, like it can during a major crisis between China and New Delhi. “It could mirror the role that it plays between India and China in also helping to balance the tension between India and Pakistan…(eventually) pushing the US out of the playing field…(while allowing) India to retain its current level of ties with the US,” Korybko said in the paper.
A “trust deficit” between India and Pakistan has been identified as the “weakest link” in the ‘Zipper Vision’. “Pakistan and India’s unique geostrategic connectivity potentials for mainland and maritime Eurasian integration is a win-win outcome without any zero-sum risks,” Korybko said, when asked about the synergy between the EAEU and the BRI.
While the CPEC, the leading leg of Beijing’s BRI is being considered by Russia to participate in smaller ways to give shape to the GEP vision, India too figures in the vision. The Vladivostok-Chennai Maritime Corridor (VCMC) was announced during the September 2019 Eastern Economic Forum, which Prime Minister Narendra Modi attended.
Geo-economic integration of the EAEU and the BRI
Russian, Chinese strategic and geo-economic thought flows from western colonial history, which colonises far off regions through sea lines of communications and maritime trade. Atul Bhardwaj, a former Indian Navy officer and presently an honorary research fellow at the University of London’s department of international politics, said, the US, a naval power, will lose its traditional means of global supremacy if Russia (or China) challenge this centuries’ old order by building alternative overland supply/trade lines, making sea lines redundant.
“British and American sea power ensured that 90% of international trade flowed through the sea by fostering conflicts because of which land borders remained sealed,” Bhardwaj explained.
India’s own regional initiatives are fundamentally based on overland integration, but are difficult to be achieved, ironically owing to US reservations. If the stated goal of the Chabahar Port project in Iran was to access Central Asia, the importance of the region for influence through trade for the Indian leadership would be implicit. But Iran dropped India from the project in mid-July last year, owing to US sanctions on Iran that slowed New Delhi from proceeding with the financial modalities.
Iran, a month later in August, signed a 25-year $400 billion investment deal with China, as a part of the BRI. Even more ironically, Iran’s prime strategic and political rival Saudi Arabia, mentions the BRI as an important part of its Vision 2030 document.
Seventy-three years ago, an elaborate plan to connect with Iran and Afghanistan would not have been needed as the undivided Indian subcontinent shared land borders with both, until the partition during the final days of the departing British. England wished to keep the communist Soviet Union away from India’s borders. After Independence, “India’s elite were drawn in by the US to effect the Sino-Soviet split. In the late 1950s, India-China relations too took a downturn when the US recruited India into conducting covert operations inside Tibet,” Bhardwaj added.
“The underlying aim of initiatives like the EAEU and the BRI is that the geo-economic integration and complex economic and institutional dependence raises the stakes for any conflict, especially between neighbouring nations. Thus, countries are forced to overlook, if not completely resolve, their territorial and regional disputes, automatically ensuring stability,” Korybko explained.
Pakistan’s ‘pivoting’ location
Pakistan lies in this unique geographic location, balancing the Western, Middle Eastern, Persian, Central Asian and South Asian dynamics, but often disparaged as a “backward land of terrorism and poverty”, says Korybko in the paper. “Pakistan is also the pivot state capable of zipping together the various forces of Eurasia and becoming the convergence point of the Eastern Hemisphere’s many diverse civilizations,” Korybko wrote in another article, Pakistan: the Global Pivot State on February 14, 2019 in Eurasia Future.
Pravin Sawhney, editor of Force India magazine, a leading defence and strategic affairs publication, tweeted on February 16: “Pakistanis…geopolitical & military standing is firmer than ours.” Former Indian ambassador M.K. Bhadrakumar described Pakistan’s growing regional clout being on, “spectacular display”, adding “India’s campaign to isolate Pakistan (was) not taken seriously by the international community” and how “AMAN-21 makes a mockery of India’s aspiration to be a ‘net security provider’ for littoral states in the Indian Ocean.
The participation of Bangladesh and Sri Lanka speaks for itself,” in his blog published on February 14.
Korybko, Sawhney and Bhadrakumar recommend a pragmatic foreign policy for India, free of nationalist concerns, engaging China and Pakistan on areas of shared interest and steering clear from US-led military/strategic alliances.
Parth Satam is a principal correspondent with the Fauji India magazine. With his tenure at The Asian Age and Mid-Day, he has covered India’s security and military establishment for a decade. His Twitter handle is @ParthSatam.