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Foreign Secretaries of Russia, China and Pakistan in their meeting on 27th Dec, 2016 at Moscow decided to seek “flexible approaches” including the lifting of UN sanctions against select Taliban leaders to broker peace with the group in Afghanistan.

The decision comes in the wake of recent attempts by Russia to engage directly with the Taliban amid growing worries about the rise of the Islamic State (IS) in Afghanistan.

“Russia and China, as permanent members of the UN Security Council, reaffirmed their readiness for flexible approaches to the prospect of excluding certain individuals from the list of sanctioned persons as part of efforts to promote a peaceful dialogue between Kabul and the Taliban movement,” said a joint statement issued by the Russian foreign ministry on 27th Dec, 2016.
Most countries including India have long considered the Taliban as Pakistan-backed and supported militant group and have maintained that any distinction between “good” and “bad” Taliban is untenable and is fraught with risks for stability of the region.

Russia has historically supported this position on the Taliban, an organisation which emerged from the mujahideen that was at the vanguard of the fight against the Soviet Union in the 1980s. India and Russia also worked together through the 1990s to prop up the Northern Alliance in the north of Afghanistan as a counter to the Taliban.
Last month, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani asked the United Nations to add the Taliban’s new leader to its sanctions list indicating his deep frustration with the stalled peace process being midwifed by Pakistan. Reacting to these discussions among the three countries in Moscow, the Afghan Foreign Ministry Spokesman said that even if well-intentioned, absence of Afghanistan from the discussions raised serious questions about the purpose and intent of such meetings.
The Afghan government rejected on 29th Dec the call by the three countries to delist some Taliban militants to foster a peace dialogue and said that the Afghan people alone can decide on removing Taliban leaders from UN sanctions lists. It should not come as a surprise that Afghanistan has been angered by efforts by the three countries to work towards some sort of accommodation with the Taliban without including Afghanistan in the Talks. It was mentioned after the Moscow confabulations that Iran would be included in subsequent deliberations. As a concession, the triad stated that Afghanistan will be included in future rounds. Afghan interior ministry spokesman said that the Afghan people can and will decide on this ”if the Taliban accept the peace offer and stop killing innocent people.”

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Afghanistan has not taken kindly to the suggestion from China, Russia and Pakistan that the Taliban should be accommodated to bolster the fight against the Islamic State. Afghan authorities said that they had ”been fighting Daesh, who are all ex-members of the Pakistani Taliban; they have just changed names. They are under pressure. The biggest threat are the Taliban, Haqqani Network and al-Qaeda – that’s the core of the issue. And we can’t differentiate and say some Taliban are better.” Kabul’s stance is in conformity with India’s position that Taliban with ties to the Pakistani security establishment is the biggest threat in Afghanistan. India is also wary of any peace process driven by Pakistan.

This is for the first time that Russia, India’s ”all-weather friend” joined Pakistan and China to collectively ask the UN Security Council to lift sanctions against select Taliban leaders, signalling the growing convergence of these three countries over Afghanistan. This decision has come as an unpleasant surprise if not exactly a shock for Indian policy makers as well as analysts and commentators. The writing of the three countries getting closer has been on the wall for some time but that Russia would unceremoniously jettison India’s deep-rooted concerns and anxieties with respect to terrorism emanating from Pakistan and the destructive role played by it in fomenting terrorist acts in Afghanistan has come as a rude setback. It has also been reported separately that Russia has agreed to become a member of China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), again in total disregard of India’s opposition to it as it passes through Pakistan Occupied Kashmir, a territory that belongs to India. Russia has also agreed to merge the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), a body set up by it in 2010 to check the growing influence of China in Central Asia, with CPEC.

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It was earlier being postulated that Russia was drawing closer to Pakistan in a fit of pique at India’s growing bonhomie with USA. It has however been stated authoritatively at senior diplomatic and official levels by Russian functionaries over the past few months, most recently by the Russian envoy for Afghanistan at the Heart of Asia Conference in Amritsar on 4th Dec, 2016, that Russia does not complain at growing ties between India and USA. Hence India also does not have any right to comment adversely on the growing Russia-Pakistan partnership. This issue has been responded to quite exhaustively and forcefully elsewhere on other occasions on India’s behalf so it would serve no useful purpose to dwell on this at any length in this Article.
This critical, decisive move by Russia is not a question of  ”spiting India” as some distinguished scholars would have us believe. It represents a strategic shift in Russia’s position and India would be deluding itself if it fails to recognise it as such and takes whatever measures it needs to protect its interests. In substantive and bilateral terms, Russia’s cooperation with Pakistan whether supply of weapons or conducting joint military exercises would not have a significant adverse impact or repercussions for India’s security or long-term interests.

As far as Pakistan-China nexus is concerned, it has been in existence since 1963 although the texture and contours have undergone considerable transformation with the recent launch of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor and all out support by China to Pakistan in first putting a ”technical hold” and then, on 30th Dec, 2016, vetoing the designation of Jaish-e-Mohammad Chief Masood Azhar as a terrorist by the United Nations, and blocking India’s entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group. This means that China is hell-bent on brazenly supporting Pakistan in its most heinous activities, unmindful of the impact it might have on its reputation as being double faced in abetting terror! India needs to be mindful of this expanding convergence and keep a close watch on the evolving contours of this relationship to ensure that its interests are not harmed.
The real impact will be on India-Russia strategic ties which will lose their durable bedrock and robust foundation. Russia has apparently allowed itself to be persuaded or pushed by China because of its dependence on that country, to mend its ties with Pakistan, unmindful of the impact it will have on its long-standing and solid relations with India. It has been stated in the past that this would be a short-sighted and counter-productive move by Russia. It again brings Pakistan in the centre stage as a significant player, if not an arbiter, of the peace process in Afghanistan. The irony is, as both Afghanistan and India have stated in clear and categorical terms that Pakistan is more a part of the problem and an obstacle to finding a peaceful solution rather than the other way around.
In spite of India’s strong concerns, Russia’s association with Pakistan has kept expanding and growing. Before the Dec 27 meeting, the last salvo in this regard was fired by the Russian Special envoy on Afghanistan who stated at the Heart of Asia – Istanbul Process Meeting in Amritsar on 4th Dec, 2016 that allegations by India and Afghanistan against Pakistan of providing sanctuaries to and supporting terrorists are baseless. This intemperate assertion was preceded by Russian military supplies to Pakistan and joint military exercises just ten days after the Uri attack by terrorists supported and aided by Pakistan army and its spy agency ISI. All this gets compounded by Russia’s participation in CPEC. If EEU were to merge with CPEC as is being reported, India’s association with EEU on which work has been going on for the last more than a year will become untenable.
India needs to factor these developments in its policy formulation. While discussions with Russia to strengthen, as far as possible, the partnership, particularly in sectors of oil and gas, nuclear energy, defense etc should continue, it is clear beyond any shadow of doubt that Russia has decided to throw in its lot surely and irrevocably with China and Pakistan without being mindful of India’s security concerns and sensitivities. Russia as India’s ‘’special and privileged strategic partner” will need to assess for itself as to how its actions will impact upon the future course of Russia-India ties and on Russia itself.

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Russia is surely aware that India has always been mindful and supportive of Russia’s core interests and concerns, ranging from Ukraine and Crimea to Syria, Ossetia and Abkhazia. India has always expressed an understanding of Russia’s actions and refused to join in imposing any sanctions against Russia. India would, therefore, expect Russia also to be cognisant and mindful of India’s core concerns and interests, particularly with respect to terrorism emanating from Pakistan. This alas does not seem to be happening.
India should significantly enhance its cooperation and collaboration with Afghanistan as well as with Iran and Central Asian countries. All these countries are being enticed to join CPEC. There would be enough temptation as well as economic and political pressure on them, both from China as well as Russia. India will need to build on the highly successful visits by Prime Minister Modi to the five Central Asian countries in July last year. India also needs to work pro-actively on the strategically significant Chabahar port in Iran, agreement on which was signed in May, 2016 between Presidents of Iran and Afghanistan and Prime Minster of India. The International North South Transport Corridor also needs to be taken up in right earnest to make significant progress and make amends for the inordinate delays thus far. Progress on these projects will be compared with the rapid pace of construction of CPEC and Gwadar seaport. India and its partners should not be found wanting.

India will need to pay special attention to relations with its neighbours like Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Myanmar where both China and Pakistan will try to expand their influence to the detriment of India.

India should give priority to its membership of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization which should hopefully materialise at the Summit in 2017. This will provide a valuable opportunity to the Indian PM to meet leaders of all Central Asian countries to discuss expansion of bilateral partnership and strategic cooperation.

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India will need to focus on increasing its own national comprehensive power by improving its infrastructure, increasing its economic growth, removing poverty etc. While strengthening its relations with Russia to the extent possible, India should further deepen its engagement with its strategic partners like Japan, USA and others. Relations with Japan have been improving steadily. Close and constant attention will need to be accorded to them in the coming years. Relations with USA under the Donald Trump Administration are expected to move positively. However USA’s evolving ties with China, Russia and Pakistan can be expected to have significant implications for India. India will need to closely monitor these developments and take appropriate measures.

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