The India-Russia relationship is not a marriage made in heaven but it is indeed one of the longest standing international alliances between two major countries. It is also one that is facing testing times and risks derailment due to policies of Russian leadership apropos its orientation and engagement with India’s principal adversary Pakistan. The issue of Russia’s first ever bilateral military exercise with Pakistan in Pakistani territory is likely to figure in discussions in the upcoming BRICS nations’ summit in Goa on 14-15 October between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Despite India’s opposition to Russia conducting the exercise, notably at a time when Indian troops were also participating in bilateral military exercises in Russia, has left many in New Delhi disillusioned with Moscow’s foreign policy going forward.
South Asia has seen historic blocs from the Cold War turn on their head in recent years in the light of growing terrorism emanating from Pakistan, India-Pak tension, India’s growth as a major regional power and China’s emergence as global force. This is seen most prominently with regard to four countries – India, Pakistan, Russia and China.
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Historically, US had allied with Pakistan. Russia naturally leaned to India as a partner and the India-Russia relationship has been one of the longest standing international alliances between two major countries. The two superpowers–US and Russia–have changed their focus now as geopolitical scenarios and economic conditions change.
Russia and Pakistan have carried out naval exercises in the past as well but they were strictly counter narcotic operation drills. The exercises dubbed Arabian Monsoon-2014 and Arabian Monsoon-2015 were led by the Federal Drug Control Service of Russia. However, these recent drills named Druzhba-2016 were proper military exercises with combat troops that engaged in combat and target elimination operations. All measures of advanced assault rifles, short range machine guns, sniper rifles, and other combat gear were used to train the Pakistani troops and Pakistani Air Force took some part in the concluding events at Cherat training range.
Pankaj Saran, India’s envoy to Russia, said on October 7: “We have conveyed our views to the Russian side that military cooperation with Pakistan, which is a state that sponsors and practices terrorism as a matter of state policy, is a wrong approach. It will only create further problems.”
India-Russia relations were healthy till now but Russia has initiated negative actions that seek to undermine India’s position in the region. These incidents need to be seen in the light of India’s cosying up to the US and the American support to India’s fight against terrorism, entry into NSG and the UN Security Council, defence and economic cooperation and the fact that India-US partnership changes the power dynamic in Asia completely. US-Russia fallout has done little to pacify the situation.
Had Russia chosen to hold off the military exercise till the BRICS summit took place, India’s scorn would’ve been much subdued. But, Moscow’s seemingly reckless attitude towards India and its situation shows rigidity and insensitivity.
Russians are likely to be seeing this as a one-up over Pakistan by forging a relationship with one of US’ old partners–Pakistan–that was part of US-led military blocs, namely Southeast Asia Treaty Organisation and the Central Treaty Organisation. It was also a non-NATO ally of the US. Moscow would see this as a victory over Washington in regional influence. This is, however, a clear sign of age-old complexed defence and foreign policy formulated by Russian bureaucrats.
Russia has always weighed international alliances in relation to its competitive relationship with the US and this view has served it well for some time, but not now.
Russia’s Ambassador to India Alexander Kadakin stated recently that military cooperation with Pakistan will teach the “Pakistani army not to use itself for terror attacks against India.”
New Delhi will find it hard to gulp these word. History has proven that sustained military aid and training have not deterred terrorist attacks from Pakistan into India. India’s previously trusted ally Russia didn’t account for India’s security interests when it signed the military cooperation agreement with Pakistan in 2014. Sharing combat knowledge with Pakistan that it threatens to inflict on India is something that Russia needs to factor in as an Indian concern and something that Russia shouldn’t ignore. Limited military aid and economic assistance can be understood and digested but all out exercises are aimed at shifting the power balance in the south Asian region and provokes India from rethinking its previously robust relationship with Russia.
If Russia continues to formulate its south Asia policy in relation to its competition with the US, it risks losing one of its oldest allies. One that it cannot afford to lose at a time when much of the West stands against the Putin regime.