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Sunday, 16 October 2016
RUSSIA PAK INDIA RELATIONS
By Sushant Sareen | Published: 16th October 2016
The first-ever military exercise between Russia and Pakistan titled Druzhba (friendship) would have probably been ignored in India if its one leg hadn’t been in a part of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK). That, coupled with the flaring up of tensions between India and Pakistan after the Uri terror attack, made these exercises a big issue between India and Russia. The Russians were quite apologetic, even embarrassed, at the cock-up of holding exercises in PoK—a red rag to India—and tried to explain it away as a goof-up by junior officials. Clearly, the Russians were being disingenuous in their damage control efforts. And yet, after registering its displeasure, India let things pass, more so after the Russians cancelled the PoK part of the exercises. The reason: despite the recent drift in Indo-Russian relations, both have a lot riding on their bilateral ties that neither wants to jeopardise.
Subsequent statements from the Russian side backing India’s surgical strikes across the LoC and the mega defence deals expected to be signed on the sidelines of the BRICS summit should be enough to puncture the Pakistani delusion that Indo-Russian ties are broken and Pakistan can step into the breach. Even so, it cannot be denied that over the last few years, serious efforts have been made by the Pakistanis to draw closer to Russia, which has reciprocated Pakistan’s overtures. The Russian decision to sell four choppers to Pakistan and their bidding for a few pipeline and other projects in Pakistan signal a thaw in the relations between the two countries, which were adversaries during the Cold War. The Pakistani outreach to Belarus, which has escaped media attention in India, is also part of the Russian-Pakistan realignment. Belarus is a conduit to Russia; a lot of what the Russians can’t do directly or don’t want to do directly can be routed through it.
The Russians make no bones about the fact that there are new alignments taking place. But just as India can no longer expect Russia to not engage with other countries for India’s sake, Russia too will have to learn to live with India’s new engagements with other countries, some of which—the US, for example—are Russia’s bete noire. If Russia’s growing closeness with China is a cause of concern to India, then India’s deepening engagement, especially in the defence sector, with the US is causing heartburn in Russia.
What this means is that the transactional element will play a much bigger role in Indo-Russian relations than it did in the past. With India diversifying its arms purchases, it is natural for Russia to look for new markets. While China is one such, Pakistan simply cannot match up to India as a market for Russian weapon systems, even less so because the latter now needs hard cash and Pakistan isn’t in a habit of paying for what it buys. This will always give India a leg-up over Pakistan in relations with Russia.
Pakistan, however, serves as an important tool for Russia to keep India engaged. But Russia needs to be careful because overuse of this pestilent tool can easily backfire. Apart from using Pakistan as a lever to retain India’s interest, the Russians are also looking at Pakistan as a partner to gain leverage over Islamist terror groups operating in Central Asia and in Muslim-dominated regions of Russia. The Pakistanis are dreaming of a new China-Russia-Iran-Pakistan bloc to take on India and the US. Both Russia and Pakistan are likely to be disappointed in what they expect from their relationship.
For India, Russia remains an important partner, not just in the defence sector but also in other areas. That is why, despite drawing closer to the US, India has not gone against Russia over Crimea or Syria. India has tried to explain the Russian position to its Western interlocutors more convincingly than anyone else. India has also often pointed to the incongruity in the US position, where it readily imposed sanctions on a near superpower like Russia but has been loathe to do the same on a tottering jihadist state like Pakistan. In other words, diplomatically India has done some serious heavylifting for the Russians. All this means that while Russia and Pakistan may continue to play footsie, there is a lot more heft to the Indo-Russian relationship that cannot be unravelled by a few military exercises or even some small weapons sale to Pakistan