New equations in S Asia

GEO-POLITICAL SITUATION : This is a perfect time for Moscow to re-establish itself in South Asia. New Delhi will have to watch out for this unfolding

Even as the Donald Trump Administration continues to be consumed by its reported links to Russia, Moscow is busy expanding its global footprint. As Russia tries to emerge a more consequential global security actor, it has now set its eyes on South Asia which may soon emerge as the new battleground between Russia and the West.

Recent months have witnessed a dramatic recalibration in Russia’s South Asia policy with a major outreach to Pakistan and a serious attempt to emerge as a power broker in Afghanistan. With the help of its new found strategic partner China, Russia intends to checkmate the US by dismantling it from its regional pre-eminence.

But it has also brought Moscow in opposition to New Delhi with which it has traditionally shared robust ties. As a consequence, new equations might emerge in the region with some significant long-term implications.

Historically, Russia has been a close partner of India in South Asia. This is a relationship which has stood the test of time even as global structural realties changed after the end of the Cold War.

During the Cold War, the high point of the relationship was the signing of the 1971 Indo–Soviet Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Cooperation which signalled a decisive shift away from the West in response to an emerging US-Pakistan-China axis in South Asia.

Though not an explicit military alliance, this treaty was a sharp departure from India’s professed policy of non-alignment and New Delhi emerged a close partner of the Soviet Union during the Cold War. The treaty, in effect, created deterrence against any form of US-Pakistan-China detente and rendered India increasingly dependent on the Soviet Union for its defence capabilities.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the foundations of the Indo-Russian ties were exposed to new vulnerabilities as the economic dimension of the relationship had never been strong. But the two states continue to recognise the need for each other, especially in the defence sector though Russia’s privileged position as India’s defence supplier of choice has come under pressure with the West opening itself up for India.

Even in 2016, the two nations signed major defence deals worth billions of dollars which included pacts for five S-400 Triumf air defence systems, four stealth frigates and a joint venture to manufacture Kamov-226T helicopters in India. New Delhi as the world’s top defence importer has been undergoing an upgrade of its mostly Soviet-era military equipment. It cannot afford to marginalise Moscow in its defence matrix as Russia even today is the only country selling critical strategic technologies to India.

There have been concerns in India about Russia’s growing closeness to China but it is Russia’s overtures to Pakistan that has challenged Indian diplomacy. Vladimir Putin, intent on viewing South Asia through the prism of Russia’s geopolitical competition with the West, seems to have decided that gravitating towards Pakistan might be a good option at a time when the US is seemingly consumed with multiple domestic crises and US-Pakistan ties seem to have hit their nadir.

Moscow and Islamabad held their first-ever joint military exercise in September 2016 and their first-ever bilateral consultation on regional issues in December. After officially lifting an arms embargo against Pakistan in 2014, Pakistan’s military will be receiving four
Russia-made Mi-35M attack helicopters this year.

As the global arms market becomes a difficult place for Russia to navigate, with China deciding to produce its own weapons rather than procuring them from Russia, Moscow needs new buyers. Russian troops participated in the Pakistan Day military parade this year and it is also likely that the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor might be merged with the Russia-backed Eurasian Economic Union.

But what is causing real consternation in New Delhi is the decision of Moscow to side with China in ensuring that Pakistan does not get isolated globally. At the 2016 Brics summit in Goa, Russia did not back India’s demand to name JeM and LeT, the two Pakistan based terror groups, as perpetrators of terrorism against India, thereby shielding Pakistan from censure.

This shift in Russian stance is also evident in the role that it envisions for itself in Afghanistan. Russia hosted a six-nation conference on Afghanistan’s future in Moscow last month which saw participation from India, Iran, Pakistan, China and Afghanistan.

This was Russia’s second initiative after the first trilateral conference in December last year which only included China and Pakistan. Coming almost four decades after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979, these talks underscore a significant shift in Russia’s Afghanistan policy.

Broadening outreach

After facing flak for not inviting Afghanistan to the December conference on the nation’s future, Russia decided to broaden its outreach by inviting India, Iran and Afghanistan last month.

Russia is now planning to host another round of talks on the conflict in Afghanistan on April 14 for which 12 countries, including the United States and the five Central Asian nations, have been invited to attend.

Moscow clearly views itself as the leading power broker in the conflict ridden country where only 8,400 American soldiers remain after most Nato forces were pulled out in 2014.

As Russia in concert with China challenges America strategic priorities on multiple fronts, regional theatres like South Asia are likely to face the brunt of this geopolitical competition, putting older relationships under strain even as new ones take shape.

The churn in South Asia has only just begun. Washington remains mired in a plethora of domestic crises and the ability and willingness of the Trump Administration to emerge as credible security actor is being questioned increasingly. This is a perfect time for Moscow to re-establish itself in South Asia. New Delhi will have to watch out for this unfolding dynamic.

(The writer is a Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi and Professor of International Relations, King’s College, London)

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