Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Oct 25, 2019
Right from 1947, big powers have had their geopolitical interests in South Asia.
Russia’s silently returns to South Asia to balance the US, China

Amidst the New Cold War, the US and China are potentially locked in a mortal combat leading to new bipolarity in international politics. In such circumstances, it is but natural to forget Russia, a former super power with substantial military and diplomatic heft to influence events around the world. As China sidelines Russia and muscles its way to be the sole challenger to American hegemony, Russia under President Vladimir Putin has been carefully projecting its power in different regions around the world including South Asia. Russia has a troubled relationship with the US and Western sanctions have forced Moscow to embrace China, its former adversary. India would be wary of a close Russia-China embrace and therefore, it is important to analyse Russia’s moves in South Asia, an area that India considers its own sphere of influence.

Russia has a painful memory regarding Afghanistan but given its high stakes, Putin has been careful to carve out an independent space for Moscow. The US sidelined Russia in 2016 by excluding it from the Quadrilateral Coordination Group format of talks which included only four countries: US, China, Pakistan and Afghanistan. The US and China also have their independent channels of communication with the Taliban. This collusive arrangement between the US and China sharing the Afghan pie triggered a response from Moscow as Putin not only intensified engagement with Taliban but also launched the Moscow Format of talks on Afghanistan, covering all the relevant stakeholders including India. The US-Pakistan relationship has been in choppy waters ever since Osama bin Laden was killed by US forces on Pakistani soil. China has taken big advantage of this troubled relationship and positioned itself as Pakistan’s all-weather friend. Since Russia has a history of close relationship with India, many sections in Pakistan see Moscow as a doubtful friend. Despite this, Russia has been looking for opportunities to cultivate Pakistan and has supplied four military helicopters to its military and may also construct a gas pipeline between Lahore and Karachi at an estimated cost of $ 10 billion. One might dismiss Russia’s attempts to engage Pakistan as part of its anti-US policy but Moscow would not want Islamabad to be over-dependent on Beijing as well. A Pakistan which is not too dependent on either the US or China would be a beneficial partner for Russia. There is a need for majority of Indian experts to dispassionately analyse Russia-Pakistan relations. Compared to Russia’s nascent military ties with Pakistan, the India-Russia defence relationship is deep and comprehensive. A new version of BrahMos missiles with a range of more than 600 km has been possible after India’s entry to MTCR. This strengthens India’s offensive capability against Pakistan as BrahMos can strike anywhere in Pakistan. Russia’s S-400 air defence system gives India ability to control Pakistan’s air space and hinders ability of the Pakistani air force to move freely in its own air space. Given Pakistan’s serious economic woes and limited diplomatic choices, it would be foolhardy to expect that Pakistan would be able to make big-budget military purchases from Russia, that too by risking American ire via CAATSA. China is the biggest source of military hardware for Pakistan and any increase in Russian arms sales to Pakistan will hurt Beijing’s market share in Pakistan which China would not welcome.

As far as India is concerned, Russia has openly supported New Delhi in the Kashmir issue, going against China’s recent display of support to Pakistan. The US under President Trump would be depending on Pakistan to strike a deal with the Taliban to pull out of the Afghan quagmire and hence, Trump is unlikely to be an honest mediator between India and Pakistan with regards to Kashmir. In such testing times, it is comforting for India that Russia is back to its original position on Kashmir issue. In the otherwise Russia-China bonhomie, their divergent opinions on Kashmir can be seen as the first serious public disagreement between the two Eurasian giants in recent years. It shows that Russia would balance China in certain areas and won’t quietly join its bandwagon. Next, there is a possibility that India would invite Russian investors to invest in Jammu and Kashmir. As China has been trying to get Russia on board to support China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) in order to moderate India’s stance over it, India can also learn from the Chinese playbook and use Russian business presence in Kashmir to soften China’s stand on Kashmir issue. President Putin has a penchant for risky diplomacy and would be willing to play a role to ensure peace between India and Pakistan, both its fellow members in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO).

As far as India is concerned, Russia has openly supported New Delhi in the Kashmir issue, going against China’s recent display of support to Pakistan.

Russia’s increasing footprint in Bangladesh is another case in point. Moscow is building Bangladesh’s first nuclear power plant at Rooppur near Dhaka. China had been eyeing the nuclear sector in Bangladesh and had signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with Bangladesh in 2008 for peaceful use of nuclear energy. However, Russia surprisingly sped up the agreement to build the first nuclear power plant in Bangladesh. Since Russia has been building nuclear power plants in India as well, India and Russia are cooperating in Bangladesh’s atomic sector under a tripartite agreement in areas like training of personnel, experience sharing and consulting support. India had signed a nuclear pact with Sri Lanka in 2015 but since India is not a member of Nuclear Suppliers Group, there are some limitations in the areas in which India can cooperate with Sri Lanka. There is potential for India to emulate its trilateral cooperation model with Russia in Bangladesh and explore the possibility of Russia joining the India-Sri Lanka nuclear pact to make it more effective.

Right from 1947, big powers have had their geopolitical interests in South Asia. The region, at the moment, is witnessing strategic jostling between the US and China. The US, distracted by other issues like Iran and North Korea, lacks a coherent South Asia policy while China uses Pakistan to keep India off-balance in the region. Russian presence in South Asia makes it multi-polar. Some Russian experts believe that Russia would spearhead a Neo Non-alignment Movement that would strive for balance between China and the US; India will be a critical partner for Russia in such endeavours. Over the years, Russia has become a power of consequence in West Asia and Africa while in South Asia, Moscow announced its return by supporting India on the Kashmir issue after New Delhi abrogated Article 370, calling it an internal matter of India. A close look at Russia’s moves in South Asia, from Afghanistan to Bangladesh reveals that Moscow is positioning itself as an independent actor in the region, bold enough to balance both the US and China. This policy envisages India’s primacy in the region and opens new space for India to strategically manoeuvre its options in South Asia at a time when the US is an unpredictable partner under Trump, while China aggressively pushes its presence around India’s neighbours in South Asia.

The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.


Raj Kumar Sharma

Raj Kumar Sharma

Dr Raj Kumar Sharma is a Visiting Fellow at United Service Institution of India New Delhi. Prior to it he was Maharishi Kanad Post-Doc Fellow ...

Read More +