Is Russia’s outreach to Islamabad bad news for India and a hint at the erosion of the decades-old Indo-Russian ties?
In November 2014, Pakistan and Russia signed a bilateral defence cooperation agreement aimed at strengthening military-to-military relations, followed by another ‘technical cooperation agreement’ to pave the way for a sale of defence equipment to Pakistan.
In September 2015, Pakistan and Russia reportedly held talks about the delivery of Sukhoi Su-35 fighter jets. Earlier in 2015, a draft contract for the delivery of four Mi-35M ‘Hind-E’ combat helicopters was sent to Pakistan from Russia. According to the Sukhoi company’s website, the twin-engine Su-35 is a fourth generation multi-role combat aircraft which also incorporates technology from fifth generation jets and is also said to be agiler as compared to previous models.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister (FM) Sergei Ryabkov was reported to have said that the increasing military cooperation between Islamabad and Moscow would not negatively impact Russia’s ties with India, while adding that Pak-Russia ties were also improving in other sectors, including energy. Referring to Pakistan as Russia’s “closest partner”, FM Ryabkov and said, “I do not think that the contacts under discussion will cause jealousy on the part of any of the two sides.”
In February 2016, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov reportedly stated, “Pakistan is one of the key countries in the fight against terrorism. In this regard, Russia, of course, attaches great importance to cooperation with Pakistan.” In January 2016, the Russian Army’s Commander-in-Chief Oleg Salyukov had already announced that Russian ground forces will hold its first ever military exercises with Pakistan in the coming year.
However, it is in September 2016, when Indo-Pak relations spiraled into great turbulence following Pakistani terrorists attacking the Indian Army in Uri, Jammu and Kashmir, killing 18 Indian soldiers, that the first ever Russo-Pak military exercise began. Reports in Indian media that this exercise had been called off by Russia, were obviously owing to inspired leaks/speculation.
The reported statements by Ryabkov and Peskov, the visit of Russian defence minister General Sergey Shoigu to Pakistan and his meeting with its Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, as well as various other dialogues/discussions between representatives of the two countries leading up to the military exercise codenamed ‘Friendship’, is perhaps a reflection of a process of erosion of the decades-old Indo-USSR/Indo -Russian ties.
For over 70 per cent of weapon systems, ammunition and defence equipment of India’s Armed Forces, which were supplied by erstwhile USSR from the late 1960s onwards at enviable political prices, its break-up in December 1991 had resulted in major problems of spares for the various systems.
In their bid to rediscover their strategic value to each other and renewing the relationship with a major change from buyer-seller to partners in a joint venture, India and Russia signed an agreement in February 1998 to design, develop, manufacture and market BrahMos missiles. Coined as a combination of Brahmaputra and Moskva rivers, this is a versatile supersonic cruise missile system, which is launchable from submarines, ships, aircraft or land. At speeds of Mach 2.5 to 2.8, it is the world’s fastest cruise missile, about three and a half times faster than the American subsonic Harpoon cruise missile.
On January 20 2004, India’s then Defence Minister George Fernandes and then visiting Russian Defence Minister Sergei Ivanov signed the biggest-ever defence deal for the purchase of the aircraft carrier, Admiral Gorshkov, along with deck-based MiG-29K fighter aircraft and other systems, including torpedo tubes, missile systems and artillery guns, all valued then at $1.5 billion (over Rs. 7,000 crores). The agreement was yet another milestone in Indo-Russian defence cooperation.
Speaking at the widely attended joint press conference held in the rear lawns of South Block, both defence ministers said talks were on to take the buyer-seller relationship to a higher plane that will include joint research and development of military hardware. However, not much later in 2004, a masterfully timed sting by Tehelka had shattered the deals the NDA government had made with Russia. The UPA’s tenure, subsequently, marked a steep nose-dive in decades-old Indo-Russian ties.
In April 2013, Russia’s displeasure at India awarding multi-billion dollar military contracts to other countries was expressed through Ambassador Kadakin, who reportedly said: “We know what gimmicks are used to manipulate deals…Sometimes, terms of tenders are crafted specifically to get the required results.” He also added that his country may not bid for Indian military tenders in the future. Reminding that Russia had stood by India when strictest sanctions were imposed on it after it conducted nuclear tests, he also acknowledged that India, as “an emerging superpower”, had the right to build defence ties with other countries.
He also pointed out that unlike “some newly-acquired partners”, Russia had never hesitated to transfer the most sensitive defence technologies to India.
Referring to the Akula-II nuclear-powered attack submarine leased to India by Russia in 2012, Kadakin had asked “Name a country that will lease you a nuclear submarine. Will the Americans, the British or the French lease you such a platform? This is the unique character of our privileged strategic partnership. Your people have to realise this.” On June 14, 2014, Prime Minister Modi spent a day on board INS Vikramaditya (formerly Admiral Gorshkov), the largest aircraft carrier inducted into the Indian Navy.
While the deterioration in Indo-Russian ties began during the UPA’s tenure, the upswing in Indo-US ties since BJP’s takeover in 2014, was to some extent waiting to happen, given China’s postures towards India, PM Narendra Modi’s reception in his visits to the US, the deals for weapon systems which India vitally and urgently required, and arms and related factors like reining in Pakistan. And no matter how annoyed Russia may be at the rising Indo-US relationship and its opening shop to Pakistan, the Indo-Russian relationship is not going to just crumble away.
In an interview with Russia Beyond The Headlines, Petr Topychankov, South Asia expert, and Associate in the Carnegie Moscow Center’s Nonproliferation Program, tried to dispel the myths surrounding Moscow’s recent outreach to Islamabad.
Disagreeing with an article in The Diplomat suggesting that the rise of Russia-Pakistan relations is linked to some problems existing between Russia and India, he explained, “This is a very simplistic logic. It suggests that India looks for partners in the West, and in response, Russia switches to Pakistan. This is not true. If people in the Russian establishment shared this kind of logic, Russia’s policies in the region would have been very dangerous and most certainly doomed to failure……Pakistan cannot replace or even influence Russia’s strategic partnership with India. This is just impossible. Russia’s priorities are very clear. I think that no matter how long New Delhi will enjoy its ‘honeymoon’ in relations with Washington, both India and Russia understand that their ties cannot be influenced by any third parties. This first of all concerns military cooperation: the building of India’s aircraft carriers, submarines and aircraft, and developing its non-nuclear cruise missile BrahMos. Then there is atomic energy. Despite all existing dialogues between India and the U.S. and France, the only successful foreign-built nuclear power project in India was constructed by Russia. India will always play a very special role in Russia’s foreign policy and Russia is very much interested in keeping the strategic level of its ties with India.”
The recent Russo-Pak moves will be followed shortly by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to India for the annual Indo-Russian summit instituted since 2000. It remains to be seen how PM Modi plays his cards to maintain a fair modicum of strength in the historic Indo-Russian relationship.
And given the track record of Pakistan’s armed forces in past conventional wars with India, in which despite more modern equipment they fared miserably owing to their chronic lacunae in training and leadership/motivation as well as their decades of functioning as managers of force multipliers, they most likely will not be much better off by training with the very professional Russian armed forces.
Meanwhile, India must certainly not be complacent and tread warily, while balancing its bar dexterously on the tightrope.