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Russia signs naval cooperation deal with Pakistan: Recent warmth in Moscow-Islamabad ties may worry New Delhi

In a far-reaching development for Indian interests in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), Russia has signed an agreement with Pakistan for naval cooperation. The Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between the two countries was signed during a recent visit of Pakistan's Vice Admiral Kaleem Shaukat to Russia. During his meeting with RussianNavy'ss Commander-in-Chief, Admiral Vladimir Ivanovich Korolev at Saint Petersburg, issues pertaining to bilateral naval collaboration and security environment in the IOR were discussed. The naval cooperation agreement comes close on the heels of an accord between Moscow and Islamabad in April this year to increase cooperation in the training of armed forces personnel in the naval field and the conduct of a wide range of joint military exercises.

Relations between Russia and Pakistan are being developed on the basis of mutual benefits and convergence of interests. With Washington suspending and curtailing military aid to Pakistan, a continuation of collaboration with Moscow is going to be pivotal for Pakistan. India has been reasonably concerned over Russia's growing fondness for Pakistan, particularly in the defence field as most of India's military equipment is of the Russian origin.

The warming up of Russia-Pakistan ties is a quite recent phenomenon. A visible tilt can be seen in Russian foreign policy towards Pakistan for some time now, with Moscow making concerted efforts to build strong ties with Islamabad. Pakistan is being recognized by Kremlin as a vital ally in the peaceful settlement of Afghan conflict.

It needs to be recalled that former Soviet Union's support for Afghanistan on the Pashtunistan issue had ensured that the Pakistani leadership entertained deep apprehensions for Moscow's intentions during most of the Cold War era. After Soviet intervention in 1979, Pakistan Army began to provide training and US-supplied weapons to various Mujahideen groups against the Soviet forces in Afghanistan. As a result, even after Russia overcame its past bitterness following the withdrawal of the Soviet forces from Afghanistan, Moscow’s ties with Islamabad remained a low key affair.

Even after the disintegration of the USSR, Russia-Pakistan relations continued to be defined by Moscow’s traditionally sound ties with New Delhi. However, Pakistan has emerged as the new elephant in the room when it comes to India-Russia relations.

Over the past decade, Russia and Pakistan have been building a relationship which was in cold storage. The growing bonhomie is reflected in several significant initiatives taken by Moscow in recent years. The 2010 Quadripartite Summit between Russia, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Tajikistan at Sochi was a significant development which provided an opportunity for Moscow to turn a page on its relations with Islamabad. In 2012, Pakistan's then army chief, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, became the first military chief from Pakistan to visit Moscow.

While Moscow's relations with New Delhi are an outcome of a long evolution, its ties with Islamabad mark a sea change. The two countries did not have much depth in their ties, barring some exceptions. However, Moscow's decision in 2014 to lift its arms embargo against Pakistan had changed this.

It was done to sell military helicopters to Pakistan, followed by other systems. During the first visit of a Russian defence minister to Pakistan in November 2014, both the countries signed a military cooperation agreement. In June 2015, Pakistan's then army chief, General Raheel Sharif, visited Russia and met top Russian leadership. A deal for the purchase of Mi-35M assault helicopters in August 2015 was signed, and Pakistan finally received four helicopters in August 2017. This is a historic first, given Pakistani reliance on American military equipments for over six decades.

The first Russia-Pakistan counter-narcotics exercise was held in October 2014 followed by a second exercise in December 2015. The first-ever Russia-Pakistan joint military exercise was held in the Pakistani province of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa in September 2016. India’s discomfort over these military exercises was evident given that Indian troops were also participating in military exercises with Russia at the time. Moreover, at a moment when New Delhi was spending huge diplomatic capital in trying to isolate Pakistan after the Uri terror attacks, coping with fresh political violence inside Kashmir, Russia's reluctance to postpone its military exercise with Pakistan due to Indian sensitivities clearly indicated a fundamental shift in Moscow’s approach to South Asia. The only concession that India received from Russia was a change in the venue: the military exercises were originally scheduled to take place in Pakistan occupied Kashmir (PoK). The special forces of Russia and Pakistan conducted a two-week joint counter-terrorism exercise in September-October 2017.

Asserting that Russia's 'trust-based' relations with India would not be diluted by Moscow's growing ties with Islamabad, President Vladimir Putin told in an interview in June 2017 that there is no other country in the world, other than India, with which Russia has such deep cooperation in delicate areas including missile technology. But Putin also sidestepped a question on Kashmir, saying it was up to India to assess whether Pakistan was fuelling terrorism in Kashmir. He also praised Pakistan by asserting that “I believe Pakistan is taking immense steps to stabilize the situation in the country.” Anyone familiar with the evolution of Indo-Russian ties would understand the importance of the Kashmir issue in the bilateral relationship. During the Cold War, it was Moscow that often bailed New Delhi out of tricky situations by vetoing UN Security Council resolutions amidst the Anglo-American manoeuvres.

Pakistan provides a potential market for Russian weapons which is a huge incentive for Moscow as Russian economy is heavily dependent on arms exports. At present, the amount of Russian military equipment supplied to Pakistan is still very small and Islamabad does not have the financial wherewithal to make big-ticket purchases from Moscow.

Pakistan's bloated military is not only unsustainable but it also presently lacks the resources to invest financially for purchase of highly advanced military systems for future. But given an obsessive anti-India strand in Pakistan's strategic culture, Pakistan's military establishment can be expected to indulge in any economic adventurism. Negotiations for the purchase of Russian Su-35 fighter jets are in their early stages, and Pakistan has already expressed its desire to acquire T-90 tanks from Russia as part of a long-term deal.

Russia and Pakistan continue to work closely in Afghanistan to challenge the US and, this effectively translates into supporting the Afghan Taliban with greater vigour. Recently, the intelligence agencies of Russia, China, Iran and Pakistan held an important meeting in Islamabad to discuss measures against the threat of the Islamic State (IS) terrorists in Afghanistan. But what is really disturbing is that neither Afghanistan nor India was part of this discussion. Moreover, this Islamabad meeting did not take place under the banner of Regional Anti-terrorism Structure (RATS) of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), as all four countries are either member (Russia, China and Pakistan) or observer (Iran). What prevented Russia from holding the meeting under the banner of the SCO?

The US has sought to expand its relations with India as there has been a convergence of interests between the two on many issues. New Delhi has also been keen to deepen its strategic partnership with Washington. Since 2008, the US has sold India $15 billion worth of arms. The Pentagon recently renamed US Pacific Command as US Indo-Pacific Command to reflect India’s growing role in the Indo-Pacific region. But despite American efforts to convince India not to make defence deals with Russia, the Modi government has decided to go ahead with its purchase of the Russian-made S-400 advanced air defence system, and the deal is expected to be announced before an annual summit between Modi and Putin. Therefore, there is an urgent need to resist the temptation of making the debate less about India resisting under the US pressure and more about safeguarding India’s strategic interests. If India has to break the current stagnation in its ties with Russia, Moscow must also do the same. Jeopardising Indian interests by emboldening Pakistan’s recklessly ambitious military establishment is not the best way forward.

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