Home / Opinion / The Russian bull in South Asia shop

It is no exaggeration to state that Russia—previously, the Soviet Union—has been India’s most reliable partner post-Independence. But a gradual shift has been underway for the past few years. Russia’s decision to send a mechanized infantry unit of its southern military command for joint military exercises with Pakistani troops is part of the shift. The Russians were clever to time it with the India-Russia joint military exercises in Ussuriysk district.

But then the Uri attack happened and reports started trickling in that Russia had cancelled its joint military exercise with Pakistan. Given the weight of history, this development was not surprising. Except that it was untrue. Not only did Russia go ahead with the exercises but the state-run news agency TASS even reported that the opening ceremony would be held at an army school in Rattu in Gilgit-Baltistan. Given the disputed status of that territory and the recent war of words between India and Pakistan on the same, this was a red line crossed as far as New Delhi was concerned.

Quickly realizing the diplomatic quicksand they had entered, the Russians took corrective measures. TASS removed the details of Gilgit-Baltistan locations from its website and the Russian embassy in New Delhi issued a clarification that the sole venue of military exercises in Pakistan is Cherat. All other reports, the embassy said, were “erroneous and mischievous".

What explains the Russian desire to strengthen ties with Pakistan but without infuriating New Delhi? A part of the answer lies in the growing strategic and defence partnership between New Delhi and Washington. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (Sipri), the share of the US in Indian arms imports has climbed from 0.18% in 1995-2000 to 13.78% in 2011-15. The surge in arms imports from Israel started even earlier but that too with the US in the loop. The decline in the share of Russian imports is not too great: It decreased from 76.52% during 2006-10 to 70.44% during 2011-15 but it remains roughly similar to the share of 71% during 1995-2000. However, with India being called a “major defence partner" of the US, the Russians see the writing on the wall.

With low commodity prices and Western sanctions following Moscow’s annexation of Crimea, the Russian economy is under tremendous pressure. The desire to diversify its arms market is natural. In June 2014, it lifted an arms embargo on Pakistan and the two countries signed a military cooperation agreement a few months later. Earlier this year, Russia agreed to sell four Mi-35 attack helicopters to Pakistan. Su-35 fighter jets may be next in line.

But the diversification is easier said than done. Moscow fears that overplaying the Pakistan card may accelerate the Americanization of Indian defence supplies. With a sharp contraction in Chinese purchases, the Russian defence industry is today over-reliant on India. The Indian share in Russian arms exports has increased, according to Sipri data, from 23.36% in 1995-2000 to 39.09% during 2011-15.

To round off the complicated picture of Russian arms deals in South Asia, India has recently sold, with Moscow’s nod, four Russian origin Mi-25 attack helicopters to Afghanistan to fight the Pakistan-backed Taliban. India also has an arrangement with Russia to pay for the arms and equipment the latter sells to Afghanistan.

It is not just Russia which is attempting a tightrope walk. India too has taken positions on Crimea and Syria which are more in line with Moscow’s thinking than Washington’s. New Delhi believes the West’s rigid stance vis-à-vis Russia has only achieved a closer Moscow-Beijing embrace. It has also increased the probability of a Moscow-Beijing-Rawalpindi axis evolving.

The India-Russia relationship has had its hiccups. The high point was clearly the bilateral treaty of 1971 which helped India’s offensive in East Pakistan. But in 1962, Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev delayed the transfer of MiG-21 aircraft till the border war between India and China had ended. In an attempt to repair Sino-Soviet mistrust, Khrushchev told Chinese ambassador Liu Xiao that the Chinese were USSR’s “brothers" while Indians merely “friends". Khrushchev assured Liu that there was no question of Soviet neutrality between India and China.

The other major disappointment came when the Soviet Union decided to broker peace between India and Pakistan in the 1965 war. India had to cede all its wartime gains under Soviet pressure at Tashkent. As K. Shankar Bajpai wrote in The Indian Express last September, the threat of withdrawal of the Soviet veto in the UN security council (UNSC) did the trick.

In more recent years, Russia has indeed supported New Delhi’s entry into the UNSC. But its attitude towards the expansion of the council—and hence towards Indian entry—has been found wanting. It obviously helps Russia if its largest arms purchaser remains dependent on it for support inside the security council.

The Cherat and Ussuriysk exercises and the mess that came with them should be seen in the historical perspective of the India-Russia bilateral relationship and the current flux in the arms market. This mess happened because India-Russia cooperation has hardly gone beyond defence. The bilateral trade in 2015 was a measly $7.83 billion. The India-US relationship encompasses a far greater number of areas and bilateral trade in 2015 was more than $132 billion. Clearly, a different world is evolving and so is the new normal of India-Russia ties.

Kunal Singh is staff writer (views) at Mint.

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