India is geographically situated in the middle of the huge geo-political divide. Ironically, the partners in the East do not share the table in the West. And those, who did earlier, are now shifting the pole. Russia and India had a strong strategic, military, economic and diplomatic relationship and their partnership has withstood the testing times of the Cold War. Oddly now, the early symptoms of a paradigm shift are being felt at both ends. Keen Russian foreign policy analysts would have observed that the two-day conference held at the Kremlin in February this year, was not a mere photo op, but a silent statement declaring Russia’s ambition to re-assert herself in Southern Central Asia, and Afghanistan in particular.
Russia’s considerations could be purely security-related but it also has strong geo-economic underpinning. The ripples caused by these emerging dynamics could be large enough to unnerve New Delhi. Russians know it very well that the road to Kabul passes through Rawalpindi. Kremlin’s ambitions in Afghanistan cannot fructify without cosying up to the Taliban. And to be with the Taliban, the Pakistan military needs to be won over before the Russians can think of stepping into Afghanistan.
For the Russians, increase in terrorist activity in Afghanistan’s Northern provinces, close to the borders of the former Soviet republics such as Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, cannot be ignored. The Afghan government has always blamed Pakistan for perpetrating terror through the Taliban. Thus, the enemy is literally knocking at the Russian gates. Moscow has no option but to seek an increase in its military presence in Central Asia, while putting in all efforts to win over the Taliban. In its efforts to secure peace, there are reports that Moscow is sending military supplies to the Taliban – a claim that is yet to be backed by concrete evidence. However, NATO Supreme Allied Commander, Europe, Curtis Scaparrotti had recently claimed that he is seeing an increased influence of Russia of late, “in terms of association and perhaps even arms supply to the Taliban.” Scaparrotti did not elaborate on the comment, but Taliban officials continue to insist that Russia’s contacts remained just political.
Russia has “hedged her bets” in Afghanistan. In the process, she is trying to develop relationships with both the Pakistan government and the Taliban. What better opportunity than this, when there is a gradual decrease of US financial and military aid to Pakistan? In view of its increasingly troubled relations with Washington and its already-visible overdependence on Beijing, it would be natural for Pakistan to attempt, however limited it may be, some cooperation with Russia.
It may not be prudent at this stage to agree to the highly speculated view on the future geo-political and related geo-economic contours of South Asia. To many, it seems to be heading into a global alliance swap. India would become the United States’ primary partner (including in military affairs), while Pakistan would side with Russia. Selling a few helicopters and conducting joint military drills neither amounts to Russia making a meaningful headway in its attempts to fill the vacuum created by the rift between Pakistan and America, nor do we foresee Pakistan changing its main global strategic partner that easily as of now.
Nevertheless, notwithstanding this optimism as an Indian analyst I hold this view. We just cannot ignore the winds of change in the past few years. Bilateral relations between Russia and Pakistan have picked up considerably with Pakistan’s accession to the SCO and the ongoing settlement process in Afghanistan. The latest Russia-Taliban conference held in February has been a major step forward. Let us not forget that the Taliban exercises effective control over Afghanistan and all this with sound backing from Pakistan. It is the strategic backyard of Pakistan and the Taliban has been guarding it so successfully for over two decades.
The Russia-Pakistan dialogue has begun to acquire the features of a trust-based partnership. Cooperation between the defence ministries of the two countries has assumed importance. The Friendship – 2018 bilateral military exercises that took place in the mountains of Pakistan last summer, is testimony to the growing warmth between the two. This year, in February 2019, Russia was represented at the Aman international naval drills conducted by the Pakistan Navy. Both the countries are gradually developing their defence industry cooperation. There is new developing synergy through expert dialogues between their think-tanks. It is gaining momentum both in regional security and bilateral relations.
However, let us not forget that the real centre-of-gravity in Moscow-Islamabad relations lies in New Delhi. It is the growing cooperation between India and the United States in the area of defence that prompted the Russians to accelerate this kind of cooperation with Pakistan, apart from the security concerns which were not so acute initially. The signing of a few major Indo-American agreements of cooperation in defence and a few big-ticket purchases of American military hardware by India has caused anxiety and anger in Russia.
The Indo-Russian arms trade still has a lot of potential, and the recent deals and negotiations between Moscow and New Delhi like the recent agreement to sell the S-400 system to India, is the best example. All this is set to change now. Post Balakot air strikes by India, there are indications that Pakistan is seeking to purchase tanks and air defence systems from Russia. In case of a major arms deal like that of the Pantsir Surface-to-Air Missile system and T-90 tanks is signed between Russia and Pakistan, New Delhi will have to either learn to live with it or attempt punitive political action which could result in a further steep decline in the Indo-Russian relations.
Such sales to Pakistan could also be seen as political gesture and leverage in negotiations with India. But this interpretation may be at the risk of being abandoned once a major Russia-Pakistan arms deal comes through. In the ever evolving geo-political scenario in this volatile South Asian region, New Delhi and Moscow are constantly testing each other’s redlines. Thus, the theory of a swap in global unwritten alliances of India and Pakistan may still be premature. But as India’s cooperation with Russia has become pragmatic, far from exceptional and not ideology-driven, New Delhi will also have to come to terms with the fact that probably Moscow is also treating this relationship the same way.
Exploring new geo-economic opportunities, Russia and Pakistan are intensifying their economic cooperation. ‘One Belt, One Road’ pan-Eurasian initiative that was set forth by China and supported by Russia, is likely to have Pakistan as a major contributor. Experts in Pakistan are interested in uniting this Southern route with the potential Northern route that would stretch from the main line of the new Silk Road to the Arctic ports of Russia. In this way, it will be possible to build a trans-Eurasian meridian network through the entire continent from the Arctic to the warm seas of the South − thereby forming a sustainable Russia-China-Pakistan geo-economic line.
Needless to say, geo-economics is driving geo-politics in this troubled region. However, major factors that are enhancing the mutual interest of Russia and Pakistan, are the continued deterioration of ties between Pakistan and the US, and consolidation of strategic ties between India and the US. New Indo-Pacific realities that unite the US, Australia, Japan, and India may lead to a major shift in the balance of power in the region thus pulling together both Russia and Pakistan. Yes, the Russian shift is for real. Already there is a growing mistrust in Delhi due to the excessively close Russia-China partnership. What could be even more worrying will be the Russia-Pakistan alliance or rather a Russia-China-Pakistan alliance!