India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi during a press conference, after his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the India-Russia Summit on October 15, 2016, said that ‘old friends are better than new friends’.1 He indicated that Russia should focus on strengthening its time-tested, special and privileged relationship with India as a strategic partner, rather than fortifying Moscow’s relationship with China and Pakistan.
From India’s perspective, it can be interpreted that New Delhi’s growing relationship with the US cannot weaken the time-tested and special and privileged relationship with Russia. India still upholds its relationship with Russia and wants to enhance it further even if India’s ties with the US is growing.
India and Russia have not been happy lately with each other’s growing relationship with the US and Pakistan, respectively.
India and Russia understand the necessity of basing their relationships in contemporary times in the backdrop of the changing atmosphere of international relations. However, given their special, time-tested and privileged strategic partnership, a kind of expectation, on both sides, of not inching closer to their respective adversaries can be observed. Both countries are trying to enhance their relationship and iron out differences, such as in the defence and economic sectors, and also on the diplomatic field. On the diplomatic front, there has been some discomfort between India and Russia. India has shown its dissatisfaction to Russia regarding the latter’s growing friendship with Pakistan, including on the commencement of the Russia-Pakistan military exercise which took place in the last week of September. On the Russian side, India’s leaning towards the US has not gone down well with the Kremlin.
India and Russia is trying to strengthen their relationship based on the contemporary times. Putin, during the India-Russia Summit on October 15, had emphasised on Russia’s determination to back India’s fight against terror.2 The Kremlin also supported India’s surgical strikes on the terrorist camps in Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir.3
At the same time, Russia has also been strengthening its relationship with China and Pakistan. During the Cold War period, Russia shared belligerent relationship with both the countries. However, post-Soviet Union, Russia has shown interest in developing its relationship with both the countries to achieve its foreign policy objectives. Russia, since the late 1990s, has been focussing on developing its Eurasian identity. The development of the Eurasian identity was put forward by the former Foreign Minister Yevgeniy Primakov. In order to build this image, Russia needs to establish its footprint as much in Asia as in Europe, hence relationship with all countries in the continent is important for the objective.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union and a new leadership under Putin in 2000, Russia started to work on the Eurasian identity. The zeal towards developing this identity became strong with Russia’s growing feeling of being treated as an unequal partner by the West in the world order. Russia’s ambitions to resurrect as a superpower and an equally important player in the international community have led the country to adopt a multi-vector foreign policy which helps in fulfilling its ambitions. Hence, Russia’s focus on China and Pakistan is a part of that grand strategy.
In the ‘Concept of Foreign Policy of the Russian Federation 2000’, constructing relationship with China, along with India, featured as a focussed area for Russia. On Pakistan, the ‘2000 Foreign Policy Document’ mentioned the country as an important player for the stability of the Asia-Pacific region. Russia supported Lahore’s signing of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty and its accession to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons.4
Similarly, in the ‘2008 Concept of Foreign Policy of the Russian Federation’, under the tenureship of a former President Dmitry Medvedev, it is mentioned that Russia intended to ‘further’ develop its relationship with Pakistan. With China, it is mentioned in the document that developing friendly relations with China ‘forms an important track of Russia’s foreign policy in Asia’ and Russia would build up the Russian-Chinese strategic partnership in all fields on the basis of common fundamental approaches to key issues of world politics as a basic constituent of regional and global stability. Russia wanted to merge economic interaction with the high level of political relations in order to develop relations between Moscow and Beijing.5 In the ‘2013 Concept of Foreign Policy of the Russian Federation’, developing friendly relations with China is mentioned as a priority for Russia,6 although Pakistan is not mentioned.
In an article written by President Putin on 2012, titled “Russia and the Changing World”, he said that Russia understands the growing strength of China with the capability to project power in various regions. In the article, he stressed that Russia does not see China’s rise as a threat,7 but a challenge that carries huge potential for economic cooperation between the two countries including the latter’s presence in the economic development of Siberia and Far East. Russia’s closeness to China is also based on the common vision, shared by both about the emerging equitable world order.8 The bilateral relationship between Russia and China, especially after the Ukrainian crisis, has become strong. Within the multilateral forums, like SCO, BRICS, ASEAN, G-20, RIC, etc., they have engaged with each other in all the sectors –politically, economically and culturally.
Likewise, Russia and Pakistan have been building their relationships consistently. On May 1, 2016, the relationship marked the 68th anniversary between Russia and Pakistan. The relationship between the two countries intensified up pace after 9/11, especially after Pakistan joined international efforts in the war against terrorism.
Pakistan is strategically located with Punjab and Sindh provinces in its east, while Khyber Pakhtunkhwa forming the link to Afghanistan and Central Asia in the immediate west and PoK in the north towards China. Balochistan, on the other hand, is linked to Iran, Turkey, Arabian Peninsula and Western Asia.9 Russia feels that Pakistan’s geo-strategic location will help the country in reasserting its role in its immediate sphere of influence and beyond. President Putin has shown willingness to adapt Russia’s foreign policy to the new geo-political realities through its multi-vector approach in South Asia.
Russia’s interests in Pakistan are manifold. The strategies behind Russia’s strengthening its engagement with Pakistan can be drawn from Russia’s ambitions, so as to gain a foothold in South Asia; to get an uninterrupted access to the Indian Ocean through its relationship with India, the rim countries situated in the Indian Ocean and Pakistan; to strengthen its mark in Central Asia; to have access to the warm waters that Pakistan’s Gwadar Port10 can offer; and to make the US troops in Afghanistan directly dependent on Russia’s logistics,11 apart from Pakistan’s strategic location.
The sanctions imposed upon Russia by the West, for its role in the Ukrainian crisis since 2014, has helped Moscow to focus on its foreign policy objectives in Asia. With the opening up of the Northern Sea Route in the Arctic region and the coming up of the EAEU project and the INSTC, Russia will be needing the help of all the countries, including Pakistan for uninterrupted access to transit routes, including maritime, and security of Moscow’s economic and energy engagements in the Eurasian region. Kremlin sees Pakistan as a useful country in containing Islamic terrorists emanating from the region, which have an impact on Russia and its neighbourhood.
Russia is also trying to fortify its hold in the Indo-Pacific region through expanding and strengthening its defence market. Both China and Pakistan are lucrative markets, apart from other Asian countries, for Russia’s latest defence hardware. Apart from the economic opportunities, Pakistan’s withering relationship with the US is helping Russia to establish its presence in the region, along with the help of China, who shares Moscow’s view of containing the hegemonic presence of America in Asia.
In order to protect and fortify its presence in the Indo-Pacific region, linking up with the Arctic, and its ambition in the Eurasian region, Russia will try to balance between India, China and Pakistan.
Disclaimer: The Views of the Author is her personal and not of the Council.
*Dr. Indrani Talukdar, Research Fellow at the Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi.