Russia has been regarded for decades as a reliable “friend” of India. Even after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Moscow and Delhi reached out to each other. Russia has faced a policy of unremitting American hostility and sanctions, while India sees its international role and security being undermined by an aggressive and expansionist China, which uses proxies like Pakistan to contain New Delhi. Russia has, however, joined China to challenge American “exceptionalism”, while China bailed out a cash-strapped Russia in difficult times, by signing a $400-billion deal for purchase of Russian gas. India, in the meantime, has reached out to the US, Japan and others to deal with a resurgent, arrogant and chauvinistic China.
Russia and India have steadily expanded defence cooperation, with Russia strengthening our Air Power, presently made up primarily of some 275 SU 30 MKI multirole fighters. Other Russian supplies include hundreds of T 90 tanks, warships, air defence systems and even a leased nuclear submarine. India is one of the few countries in the world to join Russia in backing the Asad regime in Syria. Both enjoy cordial relations with Iran, in the face of American opposition. But, while Russia makes common cause with China to challenge American “exceptionalism”, India does not do this.
Given these geopolitical realities, Russia now makes common cause with China and its “all-weather friend” Pakistan on a number of issues. The Russians now appear determined to see that the Taliban-Pakistan nexus bleeds the Americans in Afghanistan. Despite their denials, it is widely acknowledged that the Russians have developed a cosy relationship with and even provided arms to the Taliban. All this is being done under cover of what the Russians claim is a growing presence of Baghdadi’s extremist Islamic State/ Daesh, surrounding Afghanistan and threatening former Soviet Central Asian Republics. Iran, which would naturally feel threatened by such a “Daesh” build-up after its forces have fought and eliminated “Daesh” in Iraq, has, however, remained nonchalant.
Russia now backs the Pakistan position on Afghanistan in forums like the Shanghai Cooperation organisation. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov invited his Pakistani counterpart Khwaja Asif to Moscow recently to advertise growing ties with Pakistan. Lavrov proclaimed: “We have confirmed Russia’s readiness to continue boosting Pakistan’s counterterrorism capacity, which is in the entire region’s interests”. This, while the defence relationship with India is large and growing. Russia is India’s largest partner in supplies of nuclear power reactors, with the potential for increased cooperation across the energy sector.
While some may ring alarm bells over these developments and make statements about “failure” of Indian Foreign Policy, New Delhi can deal with these developments in a calm and rational manner. While Moscow may be miffed about our growing warmth with Washington, the Russians are cold and calculating in their diplomacy. They know that given half a chance, Pakistan will again embrace the Americans.
Moreover, despite its growing relations with Washington, New Delhi has responded with understanding, when Russia faced significant international criticism after it intervened militarily in Georgia and Ukraine.
Moscow and New Delhi are both expanding military cooperation with Vietnam, though India could certainly do more on this issue. But, we should realistically bear in mind that Russia is now set to show greater “understanding” of Pakistan’s role in its Afpak neighbourhood, as long as Pakistan keeps the Americans “bleeding” under pressure in Afghanistan.