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Is India menaced by Russia’s apparent partnership with Pakistan?

By M. K. BHADRAKUMAR (India)

Is India menaced by Russia’s apparent partnership with Pakistan?

The Russian news agency Sputnik has featured a commentary by Moscow-based expert, Andrew Korybko signalling an imminent leap forward in the Kremlin’s strategy toward ties with Pakistan. Unsurprisingly, Sputnik claims that it has nothing to do with the opinions expressed in the commentary, which are the author’s personal opinion, but then, such things do not appear accidentally in the government-funded Russian media.

At the very least, the commentary does some kite-flying, presumably to assess which way the wind is blowing, especially the Indian reaction. In a nutshell, Korybko argues for a visit by Russian President to Pakistan (and India) in the first half of this year before the summit meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which is due to be held in Astana in June. Such a visit by the Russian leader is seen as overdue for a variety of reasons, which include:

  • Growing geopolitical importance of South Asian and Indian Ocean region;
  • Russia’s hopes of pre-positioning to tap the “coming economic bonanza” from “the game-changing flagship project” of China-Pakistan Economic Corridor;
  • Russia’s desire to diversify its “pivot to Asia” in the downstream of the continuing chill in ties with the West;
  • Russia’s “fast-moving and unprecedented rapprochement” with Pakistan;
  • Russia’s growing need to do “balancing act” between India and Pakistan so that its “military diplomacy” with both can be optimally pursued; and,
  • Pakistan’s admission as full member of the SCO.

Interestingly, Korybko rounds off by quoting a rhetorical remark by Russia’s special envoy on Afghanistan Zamir Kabulov: “India has close cooperation with US. Does Moscow complain? Then why complain about much lower level of cooperation with Pakistan?” Sounds reasonable? Ironically, it is the familiar faces in India with a track record of rooting for US-Indian “defining partnership” who today claim to be most upset about the Russian-Pakistani thaw and are full of Russophobia.

Couldn’t they have known that the US-centric foreign policies and the steady erosion in the country’s strategic autonomy would get noted by Russia at some point and a blowback might become unavoidable? What have we gained, after all, through the Logistics Agreement with the US? Russia now hopes to strengthen ties with Pakistan so as to make its presence felt in the Indian Ocean.

Russian Deputy PM Rogozin meeting the PM Modi in New Delhi, Dec 2016

The Sputnik has featured Korybko’s commentary soon after the visit by Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin to India during which he held a brief meeting last Monday with Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the sidelines of the Vibrant Gujarat spectacle in Ahmedabad. It is a fair guess that the Rogozin-Modi meeting turned out to be unproductive. If so, it should not be surprising at all. Rogozin should have known beforehand that like in the Samuel Beckett play, Waiting for Godot, the Indian tramp is waiting for the arrival of someone named Donald Trump. If Beckett’s existentialist play is primarily about the futility of hope, that is also the plight of the Indian foreign-policy establishment today.

The Sputnik article puts forth a stunning proposal to broaden India’s negotiations with the Russia-led Eurasian Union (EAU) for a free-trade agreement by making it a “bloc-to-bloc deal” between SAARC and EAU. Korybko analyses that the advantages are two-fold. One, Pakistan (which is billed as the “fastest-growing Muslim country” currently) can also be brought into an institutional tie-up with EAU, which in turn would promote Russia’s business interests in Pakistan.

Two, ”Although SAARC is presently fractured as a result of Indian-initiated moves late last year, Russia could breathe some restorative life back into the organization and encourage its revival by publicly entertaining the possibility of an EAU-SAARC free trade agreement, which might succeed in bringing India and Pakistan back to the negotiating table and breaking the ice between both countries.” In sum, Russia hopes to play a mediatory role in India-Pakistan tensions. Now, what about Masood Azhar? What about India’s NSG membership? What about SAARC’s future? What about India’s rejection of CPEC?

It is a reasonable guess that Putin is seriously considering the long-awaited visit to Pakistan, which Islamabad has been patiently seeking for years. This can only be due to a growing conviction in Moscow that the time is overdue for forging a strategic partnership with Pakistan. The Sputnik piece has appeared within weeks of the trilateral meet in Moscow between Russia, China and Pakistan on regional security.

India will be hard-pressed to dissuade Russia from proceeding in the new direction of “de-hyphenating” its relationships with the countries in the South Asian region. One way of looking at this is that Russia is merely following the footfalls of the US and China in this regard. But then, this leap of faith in the Russian strategic calculus is also to be related with the emergent tensions in Russia’s relations with the US, with the Obama administration invoking the language of war against Russia.

Without doubt, a visit by Putin to Pakistan would signify a shift in the tectonic plates of regional politics. It will render hopelessly unsustainable the Indian establishment’s zero sum mindset that characterises the present course of foreign policies toward China and Pakistan. In the changing scenario, it will be small comfort even if Trump were to continue with the US’ friendly posturing toward India. Simply put, a new thinking is needed in India’s policies toward both China and Pakistan.

All this talk of “surgical strikes” and “cold start” that we are hearing in the Indian discourses nowadays only exposes that our strategies are bankrupt of fresh ideas and are turning and turning in an archaic policy groove that is out of sync with the flow of regional and international politics. However, the likelihood of new thinking is virtually nil at the present time when the leadership is so hopelessly distracted by the turbulent domestic politics. In any case, the likelihood of the Deep State and the one-dimensional Hindu fundamentalists who are joined at the hips going back on the government’s “muscular diplomacy” toward China and Pakistan is also very low.

Ambassador M. K. Bhadrakumar is the former career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service.

Source: Author’s blog

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