Is Russia intentionally inclining towards Pakistan to upset India? Is India’s growing closeness with the US upsetting Russian President Vladimir Putin? India has gradually weaned away from Russia and embracing the US. Despite Russia being a traditional ally and the biggest arms supplier to India, can Russia stop the inevitable i.e. hampering a strong economic and defence pact between worlds biggest democracies?
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The fact that Russian President Vladimir Putin has been warming up to Pakistan is an open secret. Observers believe that Putin, who is becoming increasingly upset with India’s growing proximity to the US, has reached out to Islamabad in a manner that should make New Delhi pause for thought. The MoU signed by Pakistan’s chief of naval staff Vice Admiral Kaleem Shaukat while he was in Russia, along with the joint military exercises scheduled for September, suggests that Putin, since he took office for a fourth term in May this year, has so far shown more inclination to reach out to Pakistan than India.
There are many reasons why both countries would want to cement bilateral ties. Apart from the growing India-US proximity which has frustrated both Moscow and Islamabad, Russia has now started viewing Pakistan as a prospective buyer of its military hardware. This could be gauged from the fact that in a major policy change in 2014 Russia lifted a ban on arms supplies to Pakistan.
Moscow also signed a defence agreement and technical cooperation agreement with Pakistan in 2015 for arms supplies and sold it four helicopters in August 2017. Today, talks for purchasing Russian SU-35 fighter jets are going on along with Pakistan’s reported desire to buy T-90 tanks from Russia. These talks come as India has focused on expanding its defence trade options and reducing its dependability on Russian military hardware. By reminding India and the world that Russia has other partners, President Putin’s development of strategic ties with Pakistan is being seen as a calibrated move to influence regional politics in South Asia and beyond.
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From Pakistan’s point of view, increased ties with Russia are a welcome development because this will put a strain on the time-tested friendship between India and Russia. Increasing defence ties can also allow Pakistan to endanger India’s security system, as the India military establishment is heavily dependent on Russia. Also, as the US has taken a strong position against Pakistan for its failure to effectively work against terrorist organisations on its soil by imposing military and other restrictions, Islamabad needs the support of other major countries to ensure the bonhomie between New Delhi and Washington and the US’s hard attitude to Pakistan does not possess a security threat to it.
Pakistan’s proximity to Russia makes all the more sense given that its “all-weather friend” China is deepening ties with Moscow. As India and the US will be all too aware, the Moscow-Beijing-Islamabad alliance can play a vital role in shaping the direction of the security environment in South Asia in Pakistan’s favour.
India has already expressed its discomfort over the development of military ties between Russia and Pakistan and has repeatedly requested Moscow not to sell arms to Pakistan. And though Moscow, which is still sensitive to the fact that India is the largest buyer of Russian arms, has stated that Russia-Pakistan ties will remain quite “limited” the recent high profile visits between the militaries of the two countries tells another story. New Delhi is aware of this and in an attempt to redress the balance, India has recently announced the purchase of five S-400 supersonic air-defence systems from Russia, costing $6 billion.
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The deal which is slated to escape US sanctions will help cool the waters but New Delhi will know that unlike the past it cannot take Moscow’s support for granted. This was perhaps why Prime Minister Narendra Modi saw it fit to meet with President Putin for an “agenda-less” set of talks in the Russian city of Sochi before the annual bilateral summit slated to be held in October. The summit, to be held in India, will mark 70 years of India-Russia ties.
India must use the upcoming summit to emphasise its concerns to Russia. It must also remind Moscow that it has continued to support Russia on the international stage by taking careful and calibrated positions on all Russian actions. Be it in Chechnya, Syria, Ukraine and elsewhere, India has tacitly continued to support Russia.
These reminders are important as New Delhi needs Moscow’s goodwill and support for creating a bigger role for India on the world stage. Already, foreign secretary Vijay Gokhale has visited Moscow to ensure that Russia supports India’s bid to get membership in the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG). The Trump administration has already signalled to China that it believes India deserves a seat at the high table but given the fact that mid-term elections in November and domestic problems will keep President Trump busy for the foreseeable future, India will have to rely more and more on Russia. It now remains to be seen if Putin will oblige or continue with his “slow tilt” towards Pakistan.