The changing nature of Russia’s engagement in South Asia

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“I cannot forecast to you the actions of Russia. It is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. But there may be a key and that key is Russian national interest." - Winston Churchill

South Asia prominently features in Russian foreign policy from time to time. Countries of the region have always found a spot in several Russian doctrines and strategies. Russia has outlined the South Asia strategy in its ‘Naval Doctrine up to 2020’ as well as in its ‘National Security Strategy up to 2020.’ In the 2012 keynote article “Russia and the changing world,” Putin talks about the growing role of Asia-Pacific while emphasizing the exceptional economic growth displayed by China and India, referring to new horizons of a fruitful cooperation. The latest Foreign Policy Concept of the Russian Federation (2016) continues to espouse Russia’s strategic interests and priorities in South Asia, dwelling majorly on its relations with India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and other countries in the region, as well as incorporating the US-China dimension. Its policy in South Asia has been largely motivated by a desire for resurgence and establishing a renewed role for itself in the region, while still remaining India-centric in nature. Over the years, Russia’s policy in the region has been gradually shifting – from rethinking its ties with India and Pakistan to taking a more decisive stand on Afghanistan. More recently, Russia is warming up to Pakistan and its interests are finding convergence with those of China’s. Many in India watch this development with suspicion and wonder if the days of exclusive bonhomie between India and Russia are over. However, the year 2017 saw India-Russia relations regaining momentum, with both heads of states choosing to start this year by exchanging New Year greetings and committing to sustain the privileged strategic partnership.

Soviet Union first came in contact with India at the Paris Peace Conference and the UN Conference at San Francisco in 1946. Subsequently, it took steps to initiate relations with India and Pakistan in 1947. That same year, the Soviet delegation attended the Asian Relations Conference in New Delhi. However, it was not until the mid-1950s that Kremlin started to give shape to its South Asia Policy, focusing largely on its friendship with India while Pakistan was already a military ally of the United States. In 1955, Khrushchev and Bulganin offered economic and political support to India as well as made visits to Burma and Afghanistan, marking the beginning of Soviet foreign aid programme and its special relationship with India.

Soviet interest in South Asia amplified especially after the emergence of People’s Republic of China, creation of SEATO and establishment of American bases in South Vietnam, Thailand, Pakistan and Philippines. It was primarily under Khrushchev that the region gained prominence in Soviet foreign policy, largely with the objective to neutralize the growing American and Chinese footprint. It was in the 1970s that the Soviet Union started to gain a more dominant role in the affairs of South Asia than China or the US.  Moscow played a key role in defeating Pakistan in 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War, by signing the Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Cooperation with India and thereafter supplying missiles to destroy Pakistani battleships and vessels. Thus, traditionally Russian interests in South Asia have revolved around countering US and Chinese interests in the region, strengthening its grip and fostering ties with India, with lesser focus on Pakistan and smaller countries unlike during the Soviet period.

The post-Cold War period saw Russia struggling to redefine its interests in the region and coming to terms with its own internal economic and political challenges. During this time, Russia preferred to look westward in order to address its growth and developmental needs. Russia’s Foreign Policy Concept 1993 highlighted the shift in Russia’s approach in South Asia and placed the region at seventh position in Russia’s priority order. With the onset of 21st century and Putin assuming charge, shifts were again observed within Russian policy. Russia and India forged a strategic partnership in 2000 which was later developed into a ‘special and privileged partnership’ in 2010. Conversely, Russian leaders were slow to foster closer ties with Pakistan. The only visit by a Russian leader to Pakistan in the post-Cold War era took place in 2007. As far as other countries in the region are concerned, Russia traditionally has continued to have amicable relations.

In the last few years, Russia’s policy under Putin has experienced a major transformation particularly in its arms deals in South Asia. This is especially true after the annexation of Crimea in 2014. This period witnessed greater engagement between India and the United States – the Nuclear Deal, a closer defense partnership and the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement – all causes for concern for Russia. The data from SIPRI also suggests a surge in the US share in Indian arms imports from 0.18 % in 1995-2000 to 13.78% in 2011-15. This coincided with reduced U.S. military aid to Pakistan, leading Pakistan to diversify its suppliers by bringing Russia into the picture. Russia, facing sanctions in the wake of Crimean annexation (resulting in pressure on its economy), decided to sign a defense cooperation agreement and supply military hardware such as the Mi-35Attack Helicopters to Pakistan. The two countries also kicked off their first joint military exercise Druzhba in 2016.A Russian-built LNG pipeline linking Karachi to Lahore is also on cards.

With regard to other countries in the region, Russia and Bangladesh for the first time collaborated for the construction of a nuclear power plant – Rooppur – which also involves India. Maldives has become one of the top tourist destinations for Russia; the year 2016 saw 46,522 tourists from Russia, a raise of 5% from 2015. Bilateral trade between Sri Lanka and Russia has grown over the years, particularly the tea exports from Sri Lanka and grain exports from the other side. Sri Lankan tea makes up 30 per cent of Russia’s market. Tourism industry is another area of cooperation. In 2016, Sri Lanka witnessed 58,176 Russian tourist arrivals.

The most important aspect of Russia’s realigned policy in South Asia has been Russia’s role in Afghanistan. Its decision to engage with the Taliban is in sharp contrast with India’s idea of peace in Afghanistan. Russia sees Taliban as significant in preventing the growth of Islamic State in Afghanistan and consequently reaching Central Asia. Russia has been hosting several summits on Afghanistan mostly with exclusion of the U.S. to ensure its indispensable place in any future breakthrough. It is believed that Russia’s strategy in Afghanistan speaks of a ‘Greater Eurasian Partnership’ (linking South, Central and East Asia). In this scheme, Russia’s relations with China are also crucial especially from the point of view of countering U.S. influence in the region. Institutions such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and the Russia-India-China trilateral initiative have facilitated harmonization of Russia’s interests and objectives with China’s, prominent examples being issues related to Syria and North Korea. Russia has also expressed its willingness to cooperate with China’s Belt & Road Initiative.

Despite the changing dynamics of Russian policy in South Asia and a speculative Russia-Pakistan-China axis gaining eminence, its relations with India continues to remain stable. Both countries continue to support each other–both voted against the U.S.resolution on Jerusalem at the UN, India voted against a UN General Assembly resolution condemning human rights situation in Crimea and Sevastopol among others. However, it is suggested that the two countries need to broaden their relations beyond defense cooperation and arms trade. India-Russia bilateral trade was a mere $7.83 billion in 2015, whereas India-US bilateral stood at $132 billion. For a more effective relationship, the two countries will have to work towards a greater economic cooperation.

Russia’s realignment in South Asia requires a more balanced outlook. Forging new relations at the cost of traditional, time-tested friendships may not be a good idea. At the same time, focus on smaller countries of the region is vital. The customary objective of using China to counter U.S. influence in the region must be revisited in the wake of Trump’s renewed South Asia policy.