The recent two-day visit of the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, to India was followed by a similar duration visit to Pakistan. While in India he held discussions with his counterpart, S Jaishankar, however there was no interaction with the PM. In his press conference, post the visit, he stated, ‘We discussed prospective and additional manufacturing of Russian military equipment in India within the concept ‘Made in India’. So here, I didn’t see any changes from our Indian partners and friends.’ He implied that currently there was no impact on Indian procurements despite threats of sanctions from the US under CAATSA.
The visit also aimed to set in place the summit between the Indian PM and Russian President, Vladimir Putin, which had to be rescheduled from Dec 2020 due to COVID. There were also discussions on Afghanistan, its way forward as also South Asia. He denied any military alliance with China while commenting on the QUAD, which he termed as the Asian NATO.
Russia has been vehemently opposing the QUAD, which India justifies being a member off. On the QUAD Jaishankar stated, ‘Such cooperation also reflects the multi-polar and rebalanced character of global politics. India is strongly committed to ASEAN centrality and this is underlined by the Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative that it has been advocating at the East-Asia summit.’
Indo-Russian relations are largely centred around defence and nuclear collaborations. Economic trade amounted to just USD 10.11 billion in FY 2019-2020. Jaishankar also stated in his opening remarks at the joint press conference, ‘We talked about longstanding partnership in nuclear, space and defence sectors. We assessed positively our economic cooperation, noting the new opportunities in Russian Far East.’ India has to maintain cordial ties with Russia as a large part of its forces use Russian equipment.
From India, Lavrov proceeded to Islamabad for a two-day visit. He interacted with his counterpart, SM Qureshi, PM Imran Khan and the army chief, General Bajwa. This is his first visit to Pakistan since 2012. Moscow and Islamabad have been moving closer since 2014. The current visit resulted in Lavrov promising supply of military equipment to Pakistan. He stated, ‘We stand ready to strengthen the anti-terrorist potential of Pakistan, including by supplying Pakistan with special military equipment.’ India has always opposed Russian military supplies to Pak.
There have been reports that India is concerned about deepening ties between Moscow and Islamabad. The fact we tend to miss is that the current area of global focus is Afghanistan, where US and NATO forces are bound to withdraw in some time. Both Russia and China seek to be influential players in Afghanistan, mainly to exploit the country’s geo-strategic location and resources by collaborating with the Taliban, which is bound to emerge as the main player, if not form the government. The US has long accused Russia of providing equipment and funds to the Taliban, including bounties for targeting US forces. Hence, ties with Pakistan would benefit Russia.
Further, India is evidently in the US camp and has accepted upgradation of QUAD, against the desires of Russia. Russia believes the QUAD is directed against China, which India denies. With a bipolar world, dominated by US and China, nations have to choose. India, based on growing security challenges from China, has sided with the US, while Russia, based on US economic sanctions and other pressures, is a junior partner of China.
India has always claimed that its relations with the US are not at the cost of Russia. In a similar tone, Russia claims that its relations with Pakistan are not at the cost of India. The Russian Ambassador to India, Nikolay Kudashev, stated, ‘Russia’s ties with Pakistan are independent in nature similar to our ties with India. It is based on the same values based on which we have ties with India.’ However, both India and Russia continue to support each other on the global stage. India has never criticized Russia for any of its actions, whether Crimea or Syria. Neither has Russia commented on Indian decisions on Kashmir. India is also a member of the BRICS, SCO and RIC groupings with Russia.
Simultaneously, Russia provided the opening for India and China to hold discussions to resolve the Ladakh crisis in Moscow. It is rumoured that Russia laid down the groundwork for initial discussions. Both nations are also cooperating in vaccine production. The Russian vaccine, Sputnik V, is being manufactured in India. Lavrov had stated in Islamabad, ‘We have a number of foreign partners to produce the vaccines. Vaccine production is up and running in India, Korea, Belarus, and other countries. These vaccines can be supplied to Pakistan.’ Lavrov had also stated in Delhi that Indian vaccines would also be manufactured in Russia.
Global equations are changing and so are global alignments. Russia and China are both under US pressure, albeit for different reasons. It is, but natural, for them to come closer. Pakistan is a Chinese lackey state and would need support from every quarter. Its only trump card currently is Afghanistan, where it has maintained close ties with the Taliban. It would seek to exploit this to remain relevant on the global stage. With the Taliban likely to get control of the country, nations like Russia and China would seek to be relevant in the region. Hence, ties with Pakistan bear relevance.
India, on the other hand, has moved closer to the west. Indo-US proximity is well established. Its active membership of the QUAD is viewed negatively by Moscow and Beijing. India may sign multiple agreements with Russia as also seek its presence in the Indo-Pacific, however, Russia would never intend to irk China. The message during this visit was clear when Lavrov termed the QUAD as an Asian NATO.
The fact remains that both nations are acting as per their national interests. With both chartering courses which suit their interests, there is bound to be a divergence. This divergence must be controlled and not permitted to grow. This will depend largely on Indian foreign policies and acceptance of the fact that both countries will charter their own paths.
The author is Major General (Retd)