Russia’s South Asia Policy – Evolving Changes
Brigadier (Retd.) DR. Ahsan ur Rahman Khan
(Published on 20 April 2021)
Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s visit to India and Pakistan this month (April 2021) did pick up media attention for a while; but its significance has not been amply highlighted. A careful study of the published information (albeit scant in details) assists in discerning the significant implied aspects of these visits. For that purpose two credible publications, one each of Russia and US, are worth studying.
Those publications are Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ (MFA) document (1) of 8 April 2021, and the much prestigious Washington (US)–based Foreign Policy magazine’s report titled ‘South Asia Brief: Russia Makes a Power Play in South Asia’ (2) of 8 April 2021. Michael Kugelman, the author of this report, is senior program associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC.
Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ Document
The report about these visits by Russian Foreign Minister (FM), presented in the document of Russia’s MFA, is obviously couched in diplomatic style and jargon, and not in direct and to the point expression. However some of the noteworthy aspects of required information, revealed from Russia’s FM’s discussion with his Indian counterpart and interview with Indian newspaper, can still be obtained from that document.
Some of the noteworthy aspects of information relating to India, mentioned in this document, are quoted in the following paragraphs.
About his talks with his Indian counterpart Russia’s FM mentioned that “We recognised the need to step up work on the updated intergovernmental agreement on mutual protection of investment and to increase the share of national currencies in mutual settlements”. That reflected Russia’s desire to expand the span of investment/economic interaction with India.
About Russia–China mutual trust and military cooperation, Russia’s FM clarified that though there is no plans for Russia–China military alliance, yet (italics added for highlighting) “Our bilateral documents approved at the highest level during Russian–Chinese summits have it that our relations have reached the best level ever throughout the whole of history but they are not aimed t establishing a military alliance”. That was Russia’s clear cut snub to any Indian delusion of any hope of mustering Russia’s support against China.
About the talk of ‘Middle East NATO’ and ‘Asian NATO’, Russia’s FM mentioned “Today we exchanged opinions on this matter. We and our Indian friends have a common position that this would be counterproductive”. In that context, it has to be kept in mind that ‘Asian NATO’ is the term used to indicate the likely form of further development of ‘QUAD’ (the current Indo–Pacific strategic partnership of US, India, Australia, and Japan). That was a clear reminder by Russia to India against any meaningful Indian participation in QUAD.
About US’ pressure on India against signing any contract with Russia for supply of weapons (a reference to India’s plans to acquire Russia’s S–400 Missile System), Russia’s FM mentioned “American “calls” were not discussed today”. That showed that Indian military planners’ desire to obtain Russian high–tech S–400 Missile System is more likely to remain in lurch.
Noteworthy aspects of information related to Pakistan, mentioned in this document, are quoted in the following paragraphs.
The focal point, of current Russian move(s) for further developing relations with Pakistan, is Russia’s high priority endeavour for arranging peace settlement and consequent stability in Afghanistan. In that context Russia’s FM emphasised (italics added for highlighting), “Russia, just like its Pakistani friends, is seriously concerned about the aggravation of security problems in Afghanistan. Terrorist activity is on the rise there, and ISIS is strengthening its positions in the country’s northern and eastern regions”. It is worthy of note that at the time of the advent of ISIS in Afghanistan Russian authorities, former President of Afghanistan, and many media outlets had reported that elements of ISIS were initially brought to Afghanistan by US in a clandestine manner from Syria, to be employed as one of US’ proxy militias in the country (details of a number of such US/CIA militias in Afghanistan are available in many publications; e.g. the report (3) of Kate Clark published by the European countries’–funded Kabul based research organisation Afghanistan Analyst Network). There is also the possibility that these US’ proxy militias may still operate in Afghanistan even if US withdraws from that country. in that context reports like the one published on 24 November 2020, and republished again on 15th of this month (April 2021), by The Eurasian Times is worthy of note. That report contains the assertion that even if US withdraws from Afghanistan, “there have been enough signs that the incumbent Biden would decide to push the controversial security contractor ‘Blackwater’ (now called Academi) to stay put in Afghanistan” (4). Russia’s concern, that ISIS and other US/CIA proxy militias in Afghanistan pose serious threats to Central Asia and Russia, is therefore understandable.
Since, at long last, US realised its incapability of resolving the Afghanistan imbroglio at its own, it opened the door of ‘Afghanistan–peace’ negotiations to the two other world powers, i.e. Russia and China. This group (US, Russia and China) came to be referred as the ‘Troika’. However in the Troika consultation meeting last Month (March 2021) hosted by Russia in Moscow, the Troika had to invite Pakistan also to join the Troika, which then came to be referred as the ‘Extended Troika’. The fact that out of the regional countries only Pakistan was included as member of the Extended Troika clearly reflected Pakistan’s critical significance in assisting in the Afghanistan peace efforts. Not only that, it is also noteworthy that Pakistan’s important role in furtherance of Afghanistan peace efforts has been acknowledged by the Troika; as evident from Russian FM’s remark. While answering a question and conveying the hope that the consultations in Moscow of the ‘Extended Troika’ will provide impetus to the required intra–Afghan negotiation, he also asserted (italics added for highlighting) “We note the active role of the Pakistani side in the preparation of this event”.
Russian FM has also conveyed that the delayed project of constructing the ‘North–South Gas Pipeline’, connecting Pakistan’s coast area to northern area, will be revived soon. That project was originally announced in 2015, but was delayed due to US’ sanctions on Russia’s State-owned conglomerate Rostec and disagreement over fees. Now this will be launched as Russia’s flagship project along with a series of energy related pacts between Russia and Pakistan. This Russian move clearly reflects Russia’s effort to expand Russia–Pakistan relations in the economic/technological dimensions also.
Russian FM has also highlighted the fact that Russia and Pakistan have friendly relations in the realm of international relations based upon concurrence or similarity of approaches on majority of international and regional issues. He asserted that fact by highlighting that “Suffice it to say that during the 75th session of the UN General Assembly the Pakistani partners supported all draft resolutions submitted by Russia and co–sponsored most of them”. This is a completely turnaround change from the Cold War era Russia–Pakistan unfriendly relations; and is certainly going to be the ‘geopolitical game–changer’.
About his discussion with his Pakistani counterpart Russian FM also mentioned that (italics added for highlighting) “We agreed that we hold identical views on current international affairs. We have a common interest in carrying on and strengthening the coordination of our efforts on the international stage, including at the UN”. Significance of these remarks are self–evident.
Details and cordiality of Russia–Pakistan joint military exercises are already known. And now, Russian FM’s declaration, “We reaffirmed Russia’s readiness to continue providing assistance strengthening of Pakistan’s counterterrorism capability which includes the supply of relevant equipment”, reflects a major friendly step forward in Russia–Pakistan relations through the realm of ‘military diplomacy’.
Foreign Policy Magazine Report (South Asia Brief)
This report is authored by Michael Kugelman, senior program associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC. It has presented analytical comments on Russian FM Sergey Lavrov’s discussions in India and Pakistan during his visits to these countries.
Some of the important points/aspects, relating to both India and Pakistan and highlighted in this report, are quoted in the following paragraphs.
“Russia and India forged a strong friendship during the Cold War era, but it has lost momentum in the last decade as each side has strengthened ties with the other’s rival: India with United States and Russia with China. In the recent years, the partnership has seemed to be driven more by nostalgia than by substance”.
“Strikingly, Lavrov didn’t meet with Modi this week”. That fact is highly significant from ‘diplomatic signaling’ point of view. It certainly indicates that this otherwise a very important visit was diplomatically downplayed, more likely by India.
About Russia–India defense collaboration, this report mentioned (italics added for highlighting), “According to Indian External Affairs minister S. Jaishankar, he and Lavrov discussed existing nuclear, space, and defense sector partnership and pledged to expand security collaborations. Meanwhile, India’s planned purchase of the S–400 missile defense system runs the risk of triggering US sanctions. Lavrov sidestepped questions about the deal during his visit”.
“Meanwhile three decades after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, Moscow has become a key player in its peace process. Russia has hosted multiple meetings on Afghan reconciliation in the last two years, including one last month with Taliban leaders and representatives from Kabul, Beijing, Islamabad, and Washington – but not New Delhi”. Non–inclusion of New Delhi (India) in these meetings is noteworthy.
“New Delhi’s willingness to make a major arms acquisition from a US rival, despite its growing defense partnership with Washington, underscores its continued reliance on Russian military support – and Moscow’s continued influence over New Delhi”.
“Lavrov’s India visit covered two topics that illustrate Moscow’s growing regional clout: China–India border talks and the Afghan peace process”.
“Lavrov’s second stop was Islamabad, the first visit there by a Russian foreign minister in nine years. In private conversations, Russian analysts have played down the idea of a deepening Russia–Pakistan relationship. But Lavrov’s visit, coupled with growing counterterrorism cooperation, emerging energy collaborations, and converging views on Afghanistan, tells a different story. His meetings resulted in pledges to increase military cooperation”.
About Lavrov’s discussion on Afghanistan the report contains the assertion (italics added for highlighting), “Afghanistan topped the agenda for Lavrov in Islamabad, which unlike New Delhi is heavily involved in the peace process due to its close ties to Taliban. (And Russia, unlike India does not oppose Pakistan’s ideal endgame: a future government with a role for the Taliban.) In Islamabad Lavrov articulated shared interests in identifying conditions that reduce conflict, including the “establishment of inclusive power structures”. This was likely a reference to an unelected interim government to oversee the peace process, an idea rejected by Kabul and opposed by New Delhi”.
“Lavrov’s trip shows that Moscow’s footprint in South Asia is poised to deepen”.
Aforementioned important pieces of information, extracted from the highly credible sources of information (i.e. document of Russia’s MFA and the Brief written by Michael Kugelman senior associate for South Asia at US’ Wilson Research Center), clearly reveal that Russian FM Sergey Lavrov’s recent visits to India and Pakistan were the harbinger of the evolving major changes in Russia’s South Asia policy.
In the case of India, Indian government certainly downplayed significance of Russian FM’s visit by restricting his meetings in India only with his Indian counterpart minister, and not arranging his meeting with Indian Prime Minister or any other senior Indian civil/military official. That was most probably under pressure of US, which happens to be India’s Obama–Modi ‘newfound’ strategic partner. However, it is far too difficult for India to get off the hook of Russia’s rather overbearing politico–military influence on India’s decision making. There are two main reasons for that fact: i.e. (a) Almost 70 % of India’s military wherewithal is still of Soviet/Russian origin, which requires regular repairs, replacement, etc. Switching over of this military wherewithal to that of US is not only economically unfeasible, it will also require years in the processes of the changed systems of logistics, training, and operational preparedness; and (b) India’s threat perception mostly relates to ground threats, and not to oceanic/maritime threats. India has a longstanding border dispute with China, from which India got a thrashing defeat in 1962 and now again has a serious military standoff in Ladakh. India knows it fully well that for any ‘face–saving’ arbitration in this matter it is only Russia which can be of help, because of Russia’s deep–relations with China.
In the case of Pakistan, warmth and eagerness of both Russia and Pakistan for developing deeper diplomatic, economic, geopolitical, and military cooperation was clearly visible. In stark contrast with India, Russian FM’s very cordial meetings were arranged not only with Pakistan’s FM, but also with Pakistan’s Prime Minister and Chief of Army Staff – thereby combining the realm of both civil and military diplomacy. That eagerness on the part of both Russia and Pakistan is because of a compelling reason, i.e. the high priority national interest of both Russia and Pakistan to arrange peace and consequent stability in Afghanistan. Peace and stability in Afghanistan is the much needed and highly deserved requirement of the people of that country. Additionally, it will also serve the subsequent national interests of Afghanistan, Russia, and Pakistan. These include: (a) securing Pakistan from terrorist activities launched by India’s proxy terrorist groups based in Afghanistan; (b) securing Russia’s southern flank through Central Asia (CA) from Afghanistan–based US’ proxy militias; (c) providing a trade connection joining Russia–CA–Afghanistan–Pakistan going through the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor right up to the ‘warm waters’ of Arabian Sea at Pakistan’s Gawadar port; and (d) providing the much needed economic uplift to the war–devastated Afghanistan due to its participation in this trade corridor activities.
In essence therefore (as asserted by Michael Kugelman in his South Asia brief) “Lavrov’s trip shows that Moscow’s footprint in South Asia is poised to deepen”. In that context, while India (due to US’ stranglehold) may only be lukewarm to support some of Russia’s geopolitical policies on case to case basis; Russia– Pakistan collaboration in most of the geopolitical issues is likely to be established and increased with much ease due to the mutuality of their policy approaches in most issues, particularly Afghanistan. And subsequently, Russia is also more likely to enlarge its thus formed ‘influence base’ in Pakistan to include the already existing ‘friendly group’ bilaterally bound through Pakistan–China strategic partnership, Pakistan–Turkey deep friendly relations, and China’s recent economic ingress in Iran. Though these developments are likely to take time, yet these changes are surely the harbinger of the emergence of a new power bloc in the world order.
(also available through file:///C:/Users/hp/Desktop/Lavrov%20Visit%20to%20India%20and%20Pakistan%20Reflects%20Russia’s%20Growing%20Influence%20in%20South%20Asia.html)