Russia, Pak cosy up, a caution for India

Russia, Pak cosy up, a caution for India

Soldiers of the Russian and Pakistani armies are participating in joint military exercises in Pakistan. Such a prospect would have been inconceivable in the past given the extreme acrimony that marked their interaction for decades. Not only were Russia (then the Soviet Union) and Pakistan on opposite sides during the Cold War – Pakistan was an American ally while Moscow warmed to India – but also, in the 1980s, Pakistan was a conduit for American weapons for Afghan mujahideen fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan. Also, the Pakistan military played a key role in Russia’s inglorious exit from Afghanistan. Given this bitter history, few would have expected Moscow to bury the hatchet. That it did and is participating in joint military exercises today in Pakistan is a sign of how dramatically Russo-Pakistan relations have changed. The first signs of such change came in May 2014 when Russia lifted a long-standing arms embargo on Pakistan. This was followed by a defence cooperation agreement that paved the way for greater military-to-military exchanges, a defence deal etc. Joint exercises by their militaries were the logical next step to take this cooperation further.

Should India be alarmed by this growing defence cooperation? The Indian government has clarified that it is not. Indeed, compared to the enormous India-Russia defence relations – despite India’s attempt to diversify weapon sources, Russia meets 70% of India’s defence needs – the Russo-Pakistan cooperation is small. Additionally, commercial motivations and the quest for new markets lie behind Russia’s weapons sales to Pakistan. Given the importance of the Indian defence market, Russia is unlikely to jeopardise its ties by selling weapons to Pakistan that would undermine India’s national security. Still, India should not ignore the Moscow-Islamabad military bonding as this is likely to grow. With India’s own military ties with the US deepening, Russia could accelerate its ties with Pakistan. Motivations for defence trade with Pakistan could then acquire a strategic dimension, which India must guard against.

Delhi and Moscow have repeatedly said that their bilateral relationship is far too strong for other, more recent suitors to threaten. Yet this opti-mism needs to be buttressed with some caution and India and Russia need to take steps to ensure that their long-standing strategic partnership does not suffer on account of misunderstandings and insensitive actions. There was some apprehension in India over reports that the joint exercises were being held in the Pakistan Occupied Kashmir. Russia has done well to ensure that no part of the exercises, even a ceremonial inauguration, would be held in PoK. Sensitivity to each other’s security concerns will go a long way in keeping the India-Russia ties strong despite the recent Russo-Pakistan bonding.

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