Russia signed a ‘military cooperation’ agreement with Pakistan during the visit of Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu to Islamabad on November 20, 2014. This was the first such visit after the break-up of the Soviet Union and came against the backdrop of increased engagement between defence officials of the two countries – all three commanders-in-chief of Russia’s armed forces have visited Pakistan in 2014. The agreement talks about “exchanging information on politico-military issues, strengthening collaboration in the defence and counter-terrorism sectors, sharing similar views on developments in Afghanistan and doing business with each other.”
This watershed agreement raises two pertinent questions: What are the driving factors behind Russia’s Pakistan strategy? And should India be concerned?
Russia’s Pakistan Strategy
It is likely that Russia’s outreach towards Pakistan is substantially driven by the deterioration in its ties with the West. At a time when the Kremlin continues to be isolated over the Ukrainian standoff, there is a concerted push to explore synergies of cooperation with countries that seek to chart an independent foreign policy. Against this backdrop, Pakistan’s geostrategic position at the juncture of South, Central and West Asia and as the lynchpin of US strategy for the region assumes significance. Moscow remains deeply suspicious about US policies in its ‘near abroad.’ Pakistan’s potential in undermining any US design aimed at reducing Russia’s influence in this region is likely to have facilitated this agreement. In turn, the agreement gives Pakistan a bargaining chip in its own negotiations with the US.
Moreover, developments in Afghanistan also appear to have played a key role in determining Russia’s strategic calculus towards Islamabad. Moscow remains concerned about terrorism and drug trafficking from the region spilling over to Central Asia and the Caucasus. It is likely to have concluded that Afghan instability will persist for the foreseeable future. Therefore, apart from shoring up the defences in Central Asia, there is a growing realization that Pakistan holds a key lever for bringing stability to the region. This is likely to be one of the reasons for Russia supporting Pakistan’s full membership of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) as well.
One can also argue that Russia’s rapprochement with Pakistan is in response to India’s perceived drift towards the West and its weapons diversification programme. However, this would tantamount to perceiving India’s and Russia’s relationships with other countries as a zero sum game.
Implications for India
A Russia-Pakistan military cooperation agreement is a matter of concern for India. The Russian Defence Minister spoke about coordinating ‘regional security policies’ and ‘doing business with Pakistan’ – indicating that weapons sales and joint military exercises can be on the agenda. However, there are conflicting signals emerging from Moscow in this regard. While Russian defence officials have asserted that only weapons for counter-terrorist operations will be supplied, yet there are reports of the more offensive Mi-35 helicopters being ‘politically approved’ for sale. Therefore, even though the discussions may be at a nascent stage, one cannot rule out a more ‘productive’ defence partnership between the two countries. Nevertheless, Russia will simply be following in the footsteps of the US and EU who continue to supply weapons to both India and Pakistan. New Delhi’s recent preference for Western weapons anyway does not give it an over-riding leeway to influence Russia’s arms policy towards the region. Even so, these initiatives can be part of a strategy to convey Russia’s disappointment at the US having replaced it as India’s biggest weapons supplier. The size of the Indian arms market, its ability to pay in hard currency and Russia’s special and privileged relationship with India are something that Pakistan is unlikely to match in the foreseeable future.
Notwithstanding the potential sale of weapons, India should take note of the growing convergence of interests between Russia, China and Pakistan over the evolving Afghan regional security situation. Mr. Shoigu had appreciated Pakistan’s efforts to tackle terrorism in the region and vowed to work with Pakistan. This highlights a shift in Russia’s approach towards the Af-Pak issue that used to be similar to India’s policy of condemning Pakistan for perpetuating global terrorism. Such a shift can have wider ramifications for South Asia especially under the ambit of Russia’s pivot towards the ‘East’. One cannot rule out Moscow attempting to mediate in India-Pakistan relations, both bilaterally like it did in Tashkent and multilaterally by taking the initiative in the SCO. This can also subtly balance the active role of China in the SCO and reinstate Russia’s importance in the organisation. Meanwhile, President Putin has supported both India’s and Pakistan’s candidature for the organisation.
India should also take note of the interesting interplay of several geopolitical factors in Eurasia – the evolving Russia-China, China-Pakistan and now Russia-Pakistan contacts. Against the backdrop of the Ukrainian crisis, Russia’s ties with China have reached an unprecedented level. While adding an overwhelming economic foundation to their partnership, military ties are set to be restored. Cooperation rather than competition, even in Russia’s ‘traditional spheres of influence’, will likely be the hallmark of their ties. Incidentally, Mr. Shoigu’s visit to Islamabad was part of a tour that also took him to China. These developments have the potential to redefine the balance of forces in the region. Similarly, Russia has expressed keen interest to participate in building energy and transportation corridors from Central Asia to Pakistan thorough Afghanistan’s Wakhan sector. By linking it with the Karakoram highway China too becomes a part of this corridor. Not only will it provide Russia access to the warm waters of the Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean but also give Pakistan entry into the Russian and Central Asian markets. Russian warships have already made port calls at Karachi in the last couple of years. Meanwhile, Pakistan’s ties with China show no signs of abating. Therefore, a shift of strategic interests in Eurasia cannot be ruled out in the future. These developments can seriously influence India’s Eurasian strategy as well.
Nevertheless, a lot will depend upon the direction of India’s foreign policy under the new government and the priority it attaches to the India-Russia partnership. Ties with Moscow have served India well at critical moments in its history. It has also provided India with a pillar to maintain an independent foreign policy discourse. The two countries continue to share a deep understanding of each other’s capabilities and concerns. Despite attempts to isolate it, Russia remains relevant on the global stage. A strong partnership with India can also provide Russia breathing space in its evolving ties with China. Therefore, the prevailing trends offer India and Russia both challenges and opportunities to find common synergies and engage each other in areas of mutual interest and concern. They cannot afford to dilute the partnership since they both need each other.
(The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author)
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