Russian FM in South Asia: Is Russia-Pakistan the new Russia-India?

By: Behzad Taimur      Published: 02:22 PM, 11 Apr, 2021
Pakistan visits
Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov in a meeting with Pakistan Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa.

Just this week, the Russian foreign minister, Mr Sergei Lavrov, stopped in New Delhi for just 19 hours, and then flew to Pakistan for a two-day visit. While in Pakistan, Mr Lavrov lent support to Pakistan’s views on the Afghan conundrum and announced many a thing would serve to deepen strategic ties between Russia and Pakistan, including commercial projects that would bring some $14 billion investment into Pakistan, joint military exercises and provision of specialized military equipment to Pakistani armed forces.

While he was in India, Mr Lavrov had launched into a tirade against the “Quad”, a freshly formalizing grouping of US, India, Japan and Australia, that can hardly be seen as anything other than an “Asian NATO”. He called it “counter-productive” and seemed to school India over it becoming far too enticed with, to use his own words, American camp’s “anti-China games”. In addition, Mr Lavrov told the Indians in very thinly padded terms that the path to peace in Afghanistan must have the Taliban treading it. He said this was because the Taliban are a “part of Afghan society” and excluding any group from either the peace process or government “will not lead to a realistic and sustainable agreement, and will include the risk of renewed hostilities”. In other words, the Russian foreign minister made it clear to the Indians that they ought to work with the Taliban and become a part of the solution.

Within the backdrop of Mr Lavrov’s visit has been news of Indian Prime Minister, Mr Narendra Modi, “snubbing” Russia by refusing audience to its foreign minister with his person. In addition, we also know that the annual Indo-Russian summit has been cancelled. Commentators have tied such events into the formalization of the Quad set-up as evidenced by the Quad’s first-ever summit earlier this year and to joint military exercises between Quad countries in November, 2020, and March, 2021. It is believed that the Russians have grown increasingly concerned over this “Asian NATO”-like formation, and have come to publicly oppose it, including by criticizing India over its role in the Quad – thus, throwing a damper on the historically robust Indo-Russian relationship. In response, the Indians are unhappy with Russia for its opposition. In their view, joining the Quad is imperative to Indian strategic interests and the Russians ought to understand this. Indeed, this is why Mr. Modi apparently snubbed the Russian foreign minister. To his mind, he seems to be letting the Russians know that they cannot expect to berate India over its Quad-aspirations. 

Also Read: What is the new Iran-China deal and what it means for Pakistan

Thus, when two is put together with two, or, to offer more clarity, when one juxtaposes Indo-Russian friction over the Quad alongside deepening Russo-Pakistani relationship, it appears, perhaps, to naturally follow that the old friendship between the two countries is breaking apart. In this context, it draws from the preceding, that the Russians will ‘opt Pakistan’ and replace India with us in the region. But is this really so?

The straight answer to that is, unfortunate as it may sound, no. Why? I will be very brief about it. Indo-Russian trade amounts to more than $11 billion. Comparatively, Russia and Pakistan trade to the tune of just $790 million, or just 7.9% of the Indo-Russian trade. Similarly, Russia exports nearly $2 billion worth of arms to India per annum. Or, seen another way, between 2014 and 2020, India brought in 55% of all its military imports from Russia. So deep is the Indo-Russian defence relationship, that, according to a Stimson Center study, 90% of Indian army equipment, almost 66% of Indian air force equipment and 41% of Indian naval equipment, including its nuclear submarine and aircraft carrier, is Russia-origin. New orders from India have not stopped coming. In 2019 alone, India placed new orders for Russian arms amounting to $14.5 billion. In fact, India is still trying to buy the controversial Russian air defence system, the S-400, despite threats of American sanctions. Therefore, to say it simply, neither can Russia afford to lose such a huge market, especially as it faces economic isolation to its west in Europe, nor can India wean itself off of its Russian dependency any time soon.

Now, barring this misalignment over the Quad and, perhaps an odd and occasional other difference of opinion, there is nothing of significance that can upturn the Indo-Russian applecart. Even on Afghanistan, it is only on the Taliban’s inclusion that they differ. On the whole, both share common interests in Afghanistan. More importantly, the Russian foreign minister also talked about strengthening Afghan security forces following the American withdrawal. This is, in its very essence, an anti-Taliban standpoint. A strong Afghan military poses as much of a threat to politico-military strategic interest of the Taliban as to any ‘terrorist group’ that, Russia says, it wants to arm Afghanistan against. Once the withdrawal has gone through, and post-US Afghanistan is before us, it is very likely that India and Russia will find themselves on the same page on how they deal with the various groups inside Afghanistan.

One may say, thus, that the altercation over the Quad is more like a “jhagra” or “narazgi” between two brothers. Both are angry, perhaps Russia more so, and are letting each other know how they feel. Behind this “narazgi” is not the will or the threat to cut-off completely. Behind this is actually an effort to find common ground, develop mutual understanding and move forward. Indeed, while in India Mr Sergei Lavrov was also laying the groundwork for an upcoming BRICS summit that will take place in India later this year. The Russian supremo, Mr Vladimir Putin, is expected to come to India and will likely meet Mr Modi.  This summit is of importance and should be watched. The foreign minister being in India and laying groundwork for a summit-level meeting later is standard diplomatic practice. In this, the hope normally is to sort out differences at a slightly junior level so that when the heads of state meet, they have more agreements to show than disagreements. 

Further, one may ask oneself this: If the Quad at any point decides to adopt a confrontation with Russia, will the Indians ever go along? Not at all. The Indians have joined the Quad to counter China, not Russia – their old, steadfast ally that arms them with tanks and ships to guard their borders. In fact, during the same visit, Mr. Lavrov also pushed more defense deals with India, including licensing India-based production of even more Russian military equipment. Thus, it is more likely that India and Russia will learn to live together despite Indian engagement with the Quad. Surely, their ties might grow cooler but then they have cooled severally in the past. The two have consistently managed to expand their relationship and cooperation. Eventually, changing events and new situations will emerge in time that will more likely bring the two together rather than not. 

Thus, with all said and done, one must ask: Then, what of Pakistan? What is all this in Pakistan about? The answer is indicated by the title of a man who was in tow with Mr Lavrov: Mr Zamir Kabulov, who is Russia’s special representative on Afghanistan. His presence tells us that all the effort in Pakistan is actually about Afghanistan. Two simple things here. Russia views Afghanistan as its underbelly. Instability here is seen as something that can seep into Central Asia and from there into Russia, especially into its troublesome Caucasus region. Thus, Russia has a strategic interest in ensuring the situation in Afghanistan remains under control. In this, Russia is seeking to engage with one of the most influential power players in the region to forge a post-US order that is not trouble for Russia. Next, with the US departing the region, the Russians want to swoop in and fill the power vacuum its departure will leave. As part of this strategy to expand Russian influence, it is bringing investments, exports and cooperation to Pakistan. As Russian money flows in, its influence in the country will grow. When Russian influence in Pakistan grows,  its influence in South Asia grow as a whole, but more importantly, Russian influence in Afghanistan also grows – Which takes us a full circle right back to Russian interest in Afghanistan. 

Should we be wary? Sure – about as wary as an understanding of realpolitik should have us remain on any move by any country. Should we celebrate deepening Russo-Pakistani engagement? Sure – about as much as an understanding of realpolitik would allow us over events that bring two countries together around some or many points of mutual interest. And, do I have a specific suggestion on how should we approach the Russo-Pakistani developments? Yes – Pursue all opportunities; Don’t let hiccups become stumbles; Remain realistic; and, view all things in their correct and wider context. 

NOTE: Lastly, a word of thanks is due to my wife, and my estimable colleague, Ms Fatima Hasan, for her help with this writing and more.