Will longevity trump the attractions of a new closeness? New Delhi will certainly hope the answer to that question is in the affirmative in light of the emerging hyphenation of India and Pakistan by its once-upon-a-time allweather ally, Russia.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s two-day visit to Islamabad ~ where he flew straight from Delhi ~ has certainly made India a little nervous, perhaps as it was intended to. That Moscow and Islamabad have been drawing closer since 2014 when Russia lifted the embargo on supplying weapons and military hardware to Pakistan, with its decision to supply attack helicopters in 2016 being described as a “paradigm shift”, has been apparent for a while now.
Mr Lavrov’s current visit to Islamabad is expected to deepen military cooperation. “We stand ready to strengthen the anti-terrorist potential of Pakistan, including by supplying Pakistan with special military equipment,” he said.
Pakistan foreign minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi, on the other hand, underlined the potential for a strategic ~ as opposed to merely transactional ~ Russia-Pakistan relationship as he tweeted: “Pakistan and Russia share convergent positions on several issues on multilateral agenda including peace & stability in Afghanistan. Shared w/FM#Lavrov our perspective on larger questions of peace & security in S Asia and worsening human rights situation in Jammu & Kashmir.”
Moscow, to be fair, has been upfront that just as India works out a balance in its relationships with major powers in a multipolar world, Russia needs to do the same. To that extent, it would be unsustainable for the Kremlin not to deepen its relationship with Pakistan; that Russia now supplies over six per cent of Pakistan’s conventional weaponry is also not an insignificant factor.
In strategic terms, President Vladimir Putin has been explicit that he sees Russia as the inheritor-state of the USSR and the global counter-balance (in a loose alliance with China) to the USA and its allies. Moscow has also over the past few years been taking a hard look at its Afghan policy and has come to the conclusion that forging a multidimensional relationship with Pakistan given its strategic location and influence is imperative.
Russia has built its contacts with the Taliban, unlike India, which is a change from its earlier position of supporting the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan ~ a shift which is thought to have begun in 2016 when China, Pakistan and Russia come together to discuss the Afghan issue. As always in any longstanding relationship, Indo-Russian ties have had their ups and downs.
In absolute terms ~ trade, arms supplies, and even a convergence of strategic interests ~ the relationship far surpasses Russia’s newer relationship with Pakistan. Moscow is also aware that if New Delhi senses a firming up of the Russia-China-Pakistan axis, it could be deeply detrimental to Russian interests.
It is a delicate balance for Moscow. Not only is India a time-tested strategic partner, it is also a significantly larger market than Pakistan. Charting a clear plan for India-Russia ties, therefore, ought to be a priority for South Block to moderate Russia’s perceived tilt towards Pakistan.