How’s this for timing? On September 23, as many as 250 troops from the Indian Army’s Kumaon Regiment arrived in Vladivostok for INDRA-2016, an 11-day joint exercise with an equal number of Russian Army troops. On the same day, 70 Russian soldiers arrived in Pakistan for the first-ever Pakistan-Russia joint military drills named Druzhba-2016.
Coming days after the Uri attack, Druzhba-2016 has caused a collective uproar across the international border, with some media outfits calling it a Russian snub. To most Indians, it appeared to be a betrayal by a long-time ally.
It’s understandable that the average Indian would react with such dismay at a time, when tensions are running high over the Pakistan masterminded attack that left 18 Indian soldiers dead.
However, considering the extensive and strategic nature of the Indo-Russian partnership – BRICS, G-20 and defence – it should be a no-brainer that Moscow’s engagement with Pakistan does not come at the expense of its ties with India.
Those who believe Moscow is flirting with Islamabad because India is drifting into the western camp belong to two categories. One, they probably live under a rock and have no idea about the nature of India’s ties with Russia. The second group comprises western commentators – and their camp followers in India – who want it to happen and are therefore expressing their inner desire.
According to Petr Topychankov, South Asia expert and Associate in the Carnegie Moscow Center’s Nonproliferation Program, “Pakistan cannot replace or even influence Russia’s strategic partnership with India. This is just impossible. Russia’s priorities are very clear. 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.”
Russia-Pakistan ties had plummeted to such abysmal depths during the Cold War that they are only now recovering to normalcy. In 1947, when Pakistan was carved out of India by the retreating British, Soviet strongman Joseph Stalin believed that the emergence of the two countries was just a deal between the Indian elites and the British imperialists.
In fact, the Soviet media did not pay any attention to the proclamation of the formation of Pakistan. Nisha Sahai Achuthan writes in ‘Soviet Arms Transfer Policy in South Asia -1955-81’ that the Kremlin did not deem it necessary even to felicitate Pakistani leaders on the occasion of the formal inauguration of their new state. Stalin told an Indian diplomat: “How primitive it is to create a state on the basis of religion.” He even expressed the view that a federation between India and Pakistan would be the ideal solution, and doubted the survival of Pakistan as an independent nation.
While the Pakistanis didn’t like the negative Russian views on the world’s first Islamic state, the Soviet Union took exception to Islamabad’s denouncing of communism. And when the first Pakistani Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan visited Washington in 1948, and declined Moscow’s invitation, the rift grew wider.
On October 24, 1952 Izvestia wrote: “After Partition…Pakistan began to draw the fixed attention of the United States imperialist circles. The latter were enticed not so much by the country’s natural wealth as by Pakistan’s strategic position, especially its western part. Taking advantage of the United Nations mediation of the Kashmir dispute, the United States ruling circles endeavoured to derive from this ‘mediation’ everything possible for strengthening American position in Pakistan. United States influence on Pakistan’s domestic and foreign policy increased, especially after Liaquat Ali Khan’s trip to Washington.”
The chances of the two countries coming together disappeared when General Ayub Khan engineered a coup and took Pakistan into the Baghdad Pact in 1959. Denouncing the bilateral agreement, Moscow Radio said the Soviet government had several times drawn the attention of the Pakistan Government to the “grave consequences of Pakistan’s membership of the Baghdad Pact which had made that country an American bridgehead for the atomic bombardment of the USSR”.
However, it was after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 that the ties with Pakistan hit rock bottom. Under the dictatorship of General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, Pakistan assumed the role of a frontline state against communism and became the conduit for weapons to be used against the Soviet forces. Over 15,000 Soviet soldiers died as a result of Pakistan’s involvement.
It is a miracle that the mighty Soviet Army did not strike Pakistani supply lines and the numerous training camps where lumpen elements from all over the world arrived for jihad – in reality a one-way mission – against the ‘godless’ Soviets. Indeed, it is a measure of how much Pakistan was disliked in the former Soviet Union that long after the country dissolved, it wasn’t safe for Pakistani students and travellers to declare their nationality in places such as Uzbekistan and Azerbajian, where people held Islamabad responsible for the deaths of their boys in the Afghan War.
Thawing the Cold War
To borrow the words of Indian diplomat Eenam Gambhir, Pakistan has become the “Ivy League of terror”. The Pakistani passport is the third most unwelcome travel document in the world after the passports of Iraq and Afghanistan. Its only friend – or rather patron – is China, which uses it as a test market for its export model weapons. In this backdrop, Pakistan is desperate for new friends, allies or backers.
The country is an excellent example of what happens to a US ally after it is past its use by date. It was abandoned after the Afghan war by all its western backers, to be requisitioned a decade later for the War on Terror, which was in reality America’s War in Favour of Terror. Now that the US is winding down its operations in Afghanistan, America is again jettisoning Pakistan. To be sure, Islamabad has played both sides in the war, so it can’t really point fingers at the US.
Russia and Pakistan have been circling around some sort of agreement for decades. During the 1950s, when communist newspapers were attacking Pakistan, Soviet diplomats left a door open for Islamabad. They said Moscow and Islamabad differed only 10 per cent, while the remaining 90 per cent of their mutual relationship was fine.
Ayub Khan also hinted that Russia was waiting, if the pact with the US didn’t work out. In an interview published in the French newspaper La Monda, he stated that Pakistan might turn to other powers for help if the United States continued to underestimate Pakistan’s needs. He said, “The camp opposed to the Americans attaches great importance to our country both militarily and politically and persistently makes advances to us.”
The Pakistan Times in an editorial commented: “Our foreign aid requirements are vital and urgent, and we cannot be expected to wait indefinitely in the hope that opinion in America will eventually be persuaded to view our needs with greater sympathy and understanding. Some other states in a position to help, have in the recent past repeatedly expressed their desire to give us substantial aid without political strings, and America should have no grouse if we turn to those countries to make up the shortfall between our needs and the aid available to us from our major allies.”
History repeats itself. With America withholding military and economic aid, Pakistani generals – who form the deep state that runs the country – are interested in building bridges with Russia.
What Russia wants
The United States’ retreat from the Middle East and its pivot to the Asia-Pacific has created several low-hanging opportunities for Russia in the region. Moscow is moving into Egypt with advanced MiG-35 jets. Iraq is buying Russian attack helicopters after a 25-year gap. Weapons sales are being considered for Saudi Arabia. Pakistan is among these new opportunities.
For the first time ever, Russian and Pakistani interests have converged – in the backdrop of a resurgent Taliban. America’s slow motion exit from Afghanistan has got the jihadis salivating at the prospect of regaining power in the war-torn country. While the Taliban may not have won more than a handful of battles in America’s longest war, in the popular Afghan narrative they have defeated yet another superpower. If, and when, they storm the gates of Kabul, the emboldened Islamists are likely to target Pakistan next.
This has set off the alarm bells in Moscow. The Russians are paranoid about waves of Islamic terrorists attacking their soft underbelly in Central Asia. “First, they will hit Tajikistan, then they will try to break into Uzbekistan… If things turn out badly, in about 10 years our boys will have to fight well-armed and well-organised Islamists somewhere in Kazakhstan,” current Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin had warned way back in 2009.
The Pakistanis are worried too. Not only will they lose the hundreds of millions of dollars in compensation that the United States doles out for the use of Pakistani military bases, Islamabad feels it is being abandoned in the midst of its fight with the Islamists.
Although, it is a fact that they created the Islamist genie in the first place, for once, the Pakistanis are right in saying they are bigger victims of terror than India. For instance, in a joint attack in 2011, the Pakistani Taliban and al-Qaeda nearly totalled the Karachi Naval Base. While India suffers a major terror attack once or twice a year, across the border bomb explosions are a weekly or sometimes daily occurrence. It has got so bad that Shia mosques in Pakistan don’t have regular prayer times for fear of being bombed by Sunni terrorists.
So, whether India likes it or not, Pakistan is really at the frontlines in the battle against the Taliban. The Pakistanis are, therefore, looking at extricating themselves from the US-created mess. For Russia, there could be no better time to pry Pakistan away from the Americans.
The Mi-25 saga
Druzhba-2016 isn’t the first instance where India has behaved like a jilted lover. In 2014 there was considerable anger among the Indian public, when Russia announced it would supply Mi-25 helicopters to the Pakistan Army. Since, Indians have for decades considered Russians as friends, many felt the sale was a betrayal. However, it is very likely Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin had sounded out South Block before green lighting the deal.
At any rate, New Delhi wasn’t upset over the sale of a few 1970s vintage gunships to the rust bucket Pakistani military. In a previous era, despite being equipped with better weapons than the Indian side, the Pakistanis botched both the 1965 and 1971 wars. P.V.S. Jagan Mohan and Samir Chopra describe in their book Eagles Over Bangladesh, how the Indian Air Force neutralised the Pakistan Air Force “in less than 72 hours”. Today, the Indian military is a behemoth and the balance is skewing – in India’s favour – by the day.
Besides, the IAF itself operates two Mi-25 helicopter squadrons (No.104 Firebirds and No.125 Gladiators) and so the gunship is hardly a secret weapon.
The reason why the Russians offered the Mi-25 helicopter is significant. During the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s, Russian pilots nicknamed the Mi-25 the “Flying Tank” because it was not only extremely survivable, it also created terror among the Afghan mujahidin. The gunship was so effective that the fear-stricken Islamic fighters called it the “Shaitan-Arba” or Satan’s Chariot.
While a handful of gunships to Pakistan won’t change the military balance vis-a-vis India, the Mi-25 can be the game changer in battles with the guerrillas up in the mountains. Also, in Afghanistan, where airfields are as rare as hen’s teeth, helicopters are the only way to get out and about. By supplying these gunships to Pakistan, the Russians got the Pakistanis to continue with the job of clearing up Islamist opposition.
In fact, the proven effectiveness of Russian helicopters was the reason why the US Defence Department – no less – paid Moscow $1 billion for supplying the Afghan military with their gunships.
As the world’s largest arms importer, India has considerable leverage over Russia. Moscow is hardly likely to risk its strategic relationship and defence trade amounting to dozens of billions of dollars by allying too closely with Pakistan.
So long as Russia doesn’t cross the red line by supplying strategic weapons like the long-range jet fighters, submarines or missiles to Pakistan, India doesn’t have any reason to be alarmed by low-key joint military exercises. Sergey Chemezov, the CEO of the Russian state-run technologies corporation Rostec assures, “Our strategic partner has always been, and will be, India.”
And finally, a note to the media: do not label every new development as a “landmark deal” or a “strategic decision”, as you did, when Russia announced in 2014 that it was lifting its unofficial arms embargo on Pakistan. Here’s why: between 1996 and 2010 Russia had sold 70 Mi-17 transport helicopters to Pakistan. There was nothing “landmark” about the Mi-25 deal.
Joint military exercises are essentially confidence building measures. For Russia and Pakistan, considering their bitter history, defence contacts are necessary for erasing their past distrust in order to start over.
The India-Russia relationship is quite stable; so the Indian public and the media have no reason to get worked up over 70 Russian soldiers conducting drills with poorly motivated soldiers of the Pakistan Army. According to Topychankov, “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.”