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Russia Recalibrating South Asian Policy Formulations? – Analysis

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By Dr. Subhash Kapila

“Quietly and unobtrusively a Russo-Pakistan rapprochement has been developing behind the scenes of world politics for the last two years.

Russia also fully understands that Pakistan is a crucial player in Afghanistan and that as NATO withdraws it becomes all the more urgent for Moscow to seek some sort of ‘modus vivendi’ with Islamabad” — Prof, Stephen Blank, USA, June 08 2012

Russia is obviously recalibrating and resetting its policy buttons in South Asia. Russia and Pakistan seem to have simultaneously calibrated moves in the last two years to end the frosty relationship that existed between them over half a century. The stimulus seems to be the perception that both can develop strategic convergence on a post-2014 Afghanistan when the United States exits Afghanistan.

Putin in 2011 had publicly endorsed Pakistan’s full membership of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, a position steadfastly till then pursued by China. Presumably China would have been able to convince Russia that in the emerging security environment in Afghanistan and Central Asia, a Russian recalibration of its South Asia policy whereby Pakistan’s strategic devaluation by the United States is offset by a Russian-Chinese strategic revaluation of Pakistan with consequent gains by all three nations.

Russia
Russia

The Russia-India Strategic Partnership was the corner-stone of Russia’s foreign policy formulations in South Asia for the last four decades or so. Co-terminus with Russia’s South Asia policy formulations and the privileged position and priority that stood attached to the centrality of India in South Asia was Russia’s scrupulous adherence to respecting India’s strategic sensitivities on Pakistan’s contentious and adversarial relations with India. So much so that Russia maintained no substantial political relations with Pakistan. No Russian President has ever visited Pakistan.

Recent events do however portend that with India embarking on a more proximate strategic relationship with the United States, Russia too has set about recalibrating its South Asian policy formulations. The Russian President’s Special Envoy visited Pakistan in May 2012 in what seems to be a preparatory visit for President Putin’s visit to Islamabad in September 2012—the first ever visit to Pakistan by a Russian President. The Russian President has accepted the Pakistan invitation for a bilateral visit to Islamabad preceding the 4th Quadrilateral Meeting on Afghanistan being hosted in Islamabad on September 26-27, 2012 and being attended by Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Pakistan and Russia.

Coincidently or not Pakistan witnessed back-to back-visits in May 2012 by the Chinese Foreign Minister and the Russian President’s Special Envoy. Is there a political and strategic message for India from both Russia and China? Two messages seem to be emerging from these portentous developments.

Russia seems signalling to India that Russia too has political and strategic options in South Asia in response to India’s visibly moving closer to the United States strategically. In my Papers of the middle of the last decade one had analysed the “Reverberations” in Russia and China of India’s foreign policy changing tack as far as global power-play was concerned. Till the middle of the last decade Russia was inclined not to get strategically rattled by developments in the US-India Strategic Partnership and moreso the increasing military-to-military contacts between United States and India.

Retrospectively it seems that the US-India Washington Summit that was held in 2005 and the agreements that flowed from it including defence cooperation and the Indo-US Nuclear Deal was a wake-up call for Russian foreign policy planners, Russia had to await the return of President Putin to the Russian presidency to recalibrate Russian foreign policy formulations in South Asia.

President Putin has set the ball rolling with the announcement of the first ever Russian President’s visit to Pakistan in September 2012. The Russian President’s visit to Islamabad in September 2012 can emerge as a game changer for Pakistan substantially if not substantially for Russia.

Pakistan would be gleefully mulling over its foreign policy success in now possibly having two major countervailing powers in the form of China and Russia to offset the on-going devaluation of Pakistan in United States policy formulations.

With China already strongly embedded in Pakistan strategically, militarily and politically, would India now witness that Russia’s strategic ballast will now get added to the Pakistan –China strategic nexus? Or is Russia only limiting these policy initiatives towards Pakistan to politically signalling to India from moving to a far more intense strategic partnership with the United States?

The on-going recalibration of Russian policy formulations in South Asia presents a major strategic conundrum to India’s foreign policy establishment in that any Russian initiatives to entice Pakistan into a substantial relationship with Russia would ultimately boil down to the power-game in Afghanistan. Pakistan can be expected to leverage Russia’s new found love for Pakistan to further its strategic interests in Afghanistan.

On Afghanistan, China and Pakistan already have a strategic convergence in that both these nations desire that the United States exits Afghanistan soonest. India on the other hand fervently hopes that the United States continues to stay militarily embedded in Afghanistan beyond 2014.

Russia expectedly has a similar strategic priority despite offering the Northern Route grid for sustaining US Forces in Afghanistan to offset US logistics dependency on Pakistani routes. But Russia has even a bigger strategic priority in ensuring that the United States does not get deeply embedded militarily in Afghanistan with consequent impact and influence in Central Asia on Russia’s periphery.

Does India have any foreign policy options to offset a possible China-Pakistan-Russia strategic convergence on Afghanistan and the follow-up situation emerging in the wake of a possible US exit from Afghanistan?

Nothing is visible on the radar of any Indian policy moves to counter Russia’s recalibration its South Asian policy formulations. Can India count on the United States to conjure strategic offsets against a possible strategic convergence of China-Pakistan-Russia in South Asia?

Russia’s recalibration of its policy formulations in South Asia where India is no longer a prime focus but that the Russian gaze now also envelops India’s strategic adversary Pakistan carries deep implications not only over Afghanistan but also in many overlapping strategic, military and political dimensions.

Russia’s resetting its policy buttons in South Asia may be presently only a trend-in-the making but it has ominous strategic overtones and implications for India’s regional and global postures.

India’s political leadership therefore needs to devote greater time and effort to craft policy options that while Russia has a sovereign right to enlarge its political relationships in South Asia it does so in a manner respecting the historic strategic ties that existed between Russia and India and in a manner that Russia does not disturb the existing military and strategic balance in South Asia.

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SAAG

SAAG is the South Asia Analysis Group, a non-profit, non-commercial think tank. The objective of SAAG is to advance strategic analysis and contribute to the expansion of knowledge of Indian and International security and promote public understanding.

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