Few people remember how the 1971 Bangladesh conflict was decisively won by a New Delhi-Moscow partnership prevailing over an Islamabad-Beijing-Washington alliance. As Islamabad brokered a Nixon-Mao honeymoon, Indira Gandhi forged a countervailing Indo-Soviet treaty relationship that led to Moscow blocking moves by Henry Kissinger and Chou en Lai to checkmate India in the UN Security Council. It also prompted Moscow to mass troops along its borders with China, with the warning of dire consequences if Beijing intervened in the Bangladesh conflict. Contemporary Russia does not wield the economic and military clout of the erstwhile Soviet Union. It has nevertheless remained a low key but steadfast partner of India.
The Indo-Russian strategic partnership has seen Moscow add new sinews to India’s strategic potential by supplying cryogenic engines for India’s space programme, while ignoring American calls for sanctions on India. It is Russian cooperation that has enabled the development of India’s sea-based nuclear deterrent by not only leasing nuclear submarines for the Indian navy but also by filling crucial gaps in our quest for building our first nuclear submarine, the INS Arihant. Moreover, it is Russia alone that remained steadfast in its commitment to provide fuel for the Tarapur nuclear power plant in the face of prevailing global sanctions. Despite this, there is scant knowledge in India of the Russian role in bolstering India’s national security.
Ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Moscow has had to deal with bloody Chechen separatist movements in its Caucasian Region, bordering its former Central Asian Republics. The Chechens have received funding and ideological indoctrination primarily from Saudi Arabia and other oil-rich Arab States. The malaise of Salafi Islamic radicalism spread and threatened the stability of moderate secular governments across Central Asia, with radical Chechen Groups and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan receiving shelter and support from Taliban and al Qaeda in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan and tribal areas of Pakistan. The ISI and Pakistani groups like the Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed partnered Taliban and al-Qaeda in backing radical Chechen and Central Asian Groups.
As the US prepares to pull out of Afghanistan, these groups are regrouping along Afghanistan’s northern borders with its Central Asian neighbours, ringing alarm bells across Central Asia and in Tehran and Moscow. Like India, all these countries share concerns about an ISI-backed Taliban assuming significant influence and control in Afghanistan, with the US now appearing more ready than ever to cut deals with the Taliban. These developments have enhanced the need for India to join hands with Iran, the Central Asian Republics and Russia in meeting emerging challenges.
An important outcome of Dr Manmohan Singh’s visit to Moscow was an agreement between Russia and India identifying terrorism as a major threat to Afghanistan’s security and stability which jeopardises peace in the region and the world. India and Russia called for continuing UN sanctions against Taliban as “one of the most important tools for fighting terrorism”. In a clear message to Islamabad, President Putin and Dr Singh condemned “sheltering, arming, training and financing of terrorists”. Alluding to terrorist attacks in 1993 and 2008 in Mumbai and Beslan, they said: “States that provide aid, abetment and shelter for such terrorist attacks are themselves as guilty as the actual perpetrators.”
Moscow and New Delhi have now signalled their readiness to make common cause in seeing that the American “end game” in Afghanistan does not lead to Taliban-style radicalism across Central and South Asia. Moscow reinforces its words with action. It has hounded extremists like Chechen warlord Zelmikhan Yandarbayev, eliminating him while he was living in Qatar. Would New Delhi be prepared to act similarly against the perpetrators of the Mumbai attacks of 1993 and 2008? Moreover, will India act decisively in bolstering the defences of the constitutionally elected Government of Afghanistan to enable it to overcome ISI subversion?