Russian Policy Towards South Asia
Jyotsna Bakshi, Research Fellow, IDSA
Moscow's relations with South Asia in the present millennium, portray in the most dramatic form the ebb and flow of historical processes and geo-political influence, and yet there has also remained an abiding continuity of interests. Till the attainment of independence by India, South Asia remained under British domination. It is significant that till the entry of the Soviet Union in World War II on the side of the Allies, there was no authorised Soviet national in India.1
The curve of Indo-Soviet friendship began to rise in the mid-Fifties. And Moscow established itself as an important external player in the region. By the mid-Sixties, the Soviet interests and stakes in the South Asian subcontinent had enhanced so much that at the time of the Indo-Pak War of 1965 and subsequently during the 1971 Indo-Pak War also, Moscow enunciated its own security doctrine underscoring its special interest in the region as the theatre of hostilities was in close proximity of the Soviet borders and, therefore, involved the "interests of its security".2
Following the signing of Indo-Soviet Treaty and the support that it extended to India in December 1971 War, resulting in the birth of Bangladesh, Soviet influence peaked in the region. Moscow now had a friendly India and a grateful Bangladesh. Pakistan under Zulfiquar Ali Bhutto also tried to make up with the Soviet Union. But the events of 1975 in Bangladesh showed that a lasting influence is hard to acquire. Following Soviet military intervention in Afghanistan in December 1979, Pakistan became a "frontline" state and a conduit for aid to the forces fighting against the Soviet-backed regime in Kabul. New Delhi disapproved of the Soviet action both on principle and also because the Soviet presence, south of the Oxus, tended to traverse on India's security parameters. Attempts were made to follow a more flexible policy vis-a-vis other great powers and neighbouring countries, including Pakistan and China, but India abstained from openly condemning the Soviet action.
By the Eighties, the process of decline of Soviet power set in, leading to the very disintegration of the Soviet Union into 15 independent states.
The Soviet Legacy
Soviet policy towards South Asia has consistently recognised the centrality and geo-political weight and importance of India. At the same time, Moscow never lost sight of the geo-political importance of Pakistan—the second major South Asian state. Pakistan happened to be situated in close proximity of the southern underbelly of the Soviet Union. Only the 40-km-wide Wakhan corridor separated Soviet Tajikistan from Pakistan. In an exercise of realpolitik, Moscow invited Liaquat Ali Khan in 1949 to visit the Soviet Union when it was reported that Pakistan was nursing a deep grievance at the preferential treatment given to New Delhi by Washington and the US' invitation to Nehru. But Liaquat made use of the Soviet invitation to attract the US attention and extract an invitation from the latter, and chose to visit the USA instead of the Soviet Union, much to the chagrin and disdain of the Soviets.
The history of Indo-Soviet friendship and the Soviet support on the Kashmir issue is well known. However, it is important to note that at no stage was the door totally shut on Pakistan by the Soviets.
The Soviet Union was the only one of the five great powers—the permanent members of the UN Security Council—that accorded to India recognition as a great power as early as in the mid-Fifties. A strong and united India was consistently regarded to be in the interest of the Soviet Union and subsequently Russia also. This underscores a broad compatibility of Indo-Russian geo-political interests. However, Moscow stopped referring to India as a great power following its military reverse with China in 1962. It also tried to play the role of a neutral peace-maker during 1965 Indo-Pak War and the Tashkent Conference that took place after the war. What was more, Moscow stopped giving overt support to India on the Kashmir issue. But it did not go against India's substantive interests on Kashmir. To India's chagrin and consternation, the Soviet Union even went to the extent to giving military equipment to Pakistan in the post-Tashkent period. But in November 1970, it was reported that the supply of Soviet military equipment to Pakistan had stopped. Moscow apparently felt that arms deliveries to Pakistan tended to put off New Delhi, its traditional ally in the subcontinent, without bringing any substantial gains in the form of weaning Pakistan away from China.
In the early Seventies, following India's convincing victory in the war with Pakistan, Moscow again began to refer to India as a "great Asian power".3
While friendship with India remained the cornerstone of Soviet policy towards the subcontinent, Moscow also sought to enhance its presence and influence in other South Asian countries in order to counter the influence of its global and regional rivals—the USA and China. The Soviet government also had a specific ideological agenda i.e. trying to support and strengthen the pro-Moscow Communist Parties and other "progressive" forces that were favourably inclined towards it.
It is significant that in its relations with the other states of the subcontinent like Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, etc., Moscow was consistently guided by its policy of friendship with India. Thus, the Soviet Union abstained from siding with these states in their disputes and grievances against India and also abstained from supporting anti-India sentiment and forces in these countries.
The Himalayan Kingdom of Nepal was regarded to be strategically quite important. The initial objective of the Soviet Union's diplomatic effort in Nepal, for instance, was to counter the influence of the USA in the kingdom. As the Soviet Union's relations with China deteriorated in the early Sixties, countering Chinese influence in Nepal also became a Soviet policy objective. Beginning with 1959, Soviet economic and technical aid was extended to Nepal with a view to attaining these objectives.4
The improvement in Sino-US relations in the wake of President Nixon's China visit in 1972, aroused concern in both Moscow and New Delhi and led to further consolidation of Indo-Soviet relations. Thereafter, the Soviet Union sought to neutralise the Chinese influence in Nepal through India. On its part, the Nepali ruling elite found China a more effective factor in its efforts to neutralise Indian influence. Moscow praised and supported India's aid effort in Nepal and criticised that of China. Pravda (August 4, 1975), for instance, remarked that China is doing everything it can to undermine India's ties with Nepal and Bangladesh. The public in these countries is being frightened with the cries of "Indian expansionism". On issues such as Soviet military intervention in Afghanistan, Nepal was quite critical of the Soviet Union. However, with the improvement of Sino-Soviet relations under Gorbachev in the latter half of the Eighties, the geo-political and strategic importance of Nepal for the Soviets declined.
Moscow was initially critical of the pro-West policy of Sri Lanka. A change in its approach came around 1956, when the newly-elected Bandaranaike government declared its adherence to the policy of non-alignment. There was greater empathy for the Soviet Union in the new regime. Diplomatic relations between Moscow and Colombo were established in 1956. In 1958, the Soviet Union and Ceylon (Sri Lanka) entered into a trade, payments and technical cooperation agreement. The Soviet Union extended significant assistance to Sri Lanka. Long-term Soviet credits were given on very favourable terms. In fact, by 1964, the USSR emerged as the second largest foreign donor to Sri Lanka. The Soviet Union and Sri Lanka developed steady and mutually advantageous bilateral trade, which continued despite changes of government in Colombo or the shifts in the foreign policy orientation of successive governments in Colombo.5
Soviet-Sri Lankan relations did not clash with the Soviet interest in maintaining close and friendly ties with New Delhi. At the time of aggravation of Tamil-Sinhalese ethnic tension in 1984, Moscow suspected that the USA was seeking to entrench itself in the geo-strategically important port of Trincomalee and, thus, encircle India. In general, Moscow tended to side with the policy of India towards Sri Lanka. It warmly welcomed the peace agreement signed between India and Sri Lanka in July 1987.
The Soviet Union had played a major role in supporting the emergence of an independent republic of Bangladesh. In return, Moscow expected a sizeable Soviet influence and presence in Bangladesh. During 1971-75, Moscow committed a significant amount of project aid to Bangladesh ($107.9 million), but it was reported that the actual disbursement was much less because of slow utilisation and delivery of aid. The Soviet Union also helped in building the defence force of Bangladesh. Bangladesh-Soviet trade expanded from $12.2 million in 1972 to $117 million in 1974.6 After the change of government in Bangladesh following the tragic events of 1975, power in Bangladesh went into the hands of pro-West, pro-Chinese and pro-Islamic forces that followed an anti-Soviet and anti-Indian policy. It has been argued that the major guiding principle of Bangladesh's policy was the quest for external aid. The Soviet Union could not shoulder all the aid requirement of Bangladesh. Aid could be expected from the Western countries and the oil-rich Muslim countries of the Middle East. But despite tension in their political and diplomatic relations, cultural and trade relations between the two remained moderate in the post-1975 period.
The first significant Soviet-Pakistan aid agreement was signed in March 1961 for the oil exploration in Pakistan. In September 1966, the Soviet Union and Pakistan concluded an agreement for economic and technical cooperation. At the time of Kosygin's visit to Pakistan in April 1968, the Soviets offered to assist in the building of a steel plant near Karachi and an atomic power plant in East Pakistan. Pravda (April 19, 1968) noted that the Soviet Union was giving aid to Pakistan for the construction of 21 large industrial undertakings. Despite a sharp deterioration in their relations following Soviet military intervention in Afghanistan, Soviet economic aid to Pakistan continued. The two sides also kept the channel of communications open. Beginning with June 1982, proximity talks between Pakistan and the Moscow-backed Kabul regime continued at Geneva, under the UN aegis, till the agreement was reached in April 1988 regarding the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan.
India remained the mainstay of Soviet political, diplomatic, and economic efforts in South Asia. The Soviet media and publicists projected with special pride the role of the Soviet aid in India's economic development and attainment of self-reliance. Figures on the following lines were frequently repeated: the enterprises built in India with Soviet assistance accounted for nearly 60 per cent of the nation's oil, roughly 30 per cent of its oil products, about 20 per cent of its electric power, 80 per cent of its capacity for the manufacture of heavy metallurgical equipment, and about 60 per cent of its capacity for the manufacture of electric equipment.7 What is equally significant, the Soviet Union became the source of the bulk of sophisticated military hardware to India. So much so that 60 to 70 per cent of India's military imports came from the Soviet Union.
The process of Soviet withdrawal from costly involvement in various parts of the Third World began under Gorbachev. Although friendship with New Delhi continued to be valued, one could also discern an unmistakable geo-political priority shift away from India and South Asia in general in view of the paradigm shift in the Soviet policy under Gorbachev.
Afghanistan Emerges as an Area of Indo-Soviet Strategic Convergence Following the Withdrawal of the Soviet Troops
The Soviet backed government of Najibullah in Kabul did not fall immediately after the withdrawal of the Soviet troops from Afghanistan in February 1989 in accordance with the Geneva Agreements of April 15, 1988. The Najibullah government remained in control of the major cities and the communication lines connecting them. All the efforts of the Pakistan-backed Mujahideen to dislodge it by force failed. The Najib government adopted a liberal programme of national reconciliation and nationalism instead of strict adherence to Marxist dogma. It also sought to promote pluralism in the economy and politics. No wonder, there was no moral and ideological barrier, now, in the way of New Delhi warming up to the Najib government. Moscow continued to give the Najib government extensive economic and military assistance. New Delhi extended it political and diplomatic support. Both Moscow and New Delhi tended to regard the Najib government in Kabul as a bulwark against the spread of Islamic-fundamentalist Mujahideen forces. Situated on the cross-roads of Central and South Asia as well as West and East Asia, Afghanistan happens to be of geo-political importance to both New Delhi and Moscow. Both New Delhi and Moscow feared that if the Islamic-fundamentalist Mujahideen came into power in Afghanistan with the help of Pakistan and other countries, they would pose a grave security threat to the adjoining areas—in the case of India, to the sensitive border state of Jammu and Kashmir, and in the case of the Soviet Union, to the Muslim-majority republics of Central Asia. No wonder, support for the Najib government in Afghanistan emerged as an important area of convergence of Indo-Soviet strategic interests.8
Moscow Abandons Najibullah: Long-Term Geo-Political Implications
In the second half of 1991, especially after the abortive coup of August 19, 1991, the Soviet Union moved inexorably towards its final collapse. It seems that in this period of uncertainty and transition, those who were in charge of decision-making in the Kremlin lost sight of the country's long-term and vital strategic interests. Many in the Russian circles began to criticise continued Soviet aid to the Najibullah government.
The first concrete example of change in the Soviet/Russian policy on Afghanistan, to the detriment of Indian geo-political interests as well as to the long-term geo-political interests of Moscow itself, occurred in November 1991. A delegation of Afghan Mujahideen visited Moscow from November 11 to 15, 1991. The delegation held talks with the Soviet and Russian officials. The delegation was also received by the Vice-President of the Russian Federation, Alexander Rutskoi, a veteran of the Afghan War. It was reported that both sides agreed during the talks on the "necessity of the transfer of all state power in Afghanistan to a transitional Islamic government". Significantly, even the five-point plan proposed by the UN secretary general for bringing peace in war-torn Afghanistan only talked of a "broad-based transitional government" and not of an "Islamic government".9 After the talks, the Secretary-General of Foreign Affairs of Pakistan, Akram Zaki, claimed that Najibullah would have no role in the future interim government in Afghanistan.10
Earlier, in September 1991, the Soviet Union and the USA had agreed to stop all military aid to their respective sides in the Afghan civil war, beginning January 1, 1992. The stopping of military supplies, including fuel for military transport, to the Kabul regime by Moscow, negated the edge that the Najib government had by virtue of its air force. There was no ban on Pakistan and other Muslim countries that continued to give aid to the Mujahideen. Significantly, the Vice-President of the Russian Federation, Alexander Rutskoi visited Pakistan from December 19 to 22, 1991 (just at the time when the Soviet Union was breaking up), and issued a joint communique there, which called for a "solution that ensured an independent, non-aligned and Islamic Afghanistan".11 Moscow, thus, abandoned the government of Najibullah for all poltical purposes, mainly to get the release of its prisoners of war (POWs) who were in the hands of various Mujahideen factions. All this gave certain signals to both the friends and foes of Najibullah and four months after the collapse of the Soviet Union, his government also fell and various Mujahideen factions came to power in Afghanistan. The long-term and broader geo-political interests of Moscow as well as New Delhi were completely ignored. India felt badly let down. Ever since the withdrawal of the Soviet troops, Pakistan had been persistently trying to put a pro-Pakistan government in power in Afghanistan. Moscow's new approach tended to help the overall Pakistani objective of attaining "strategic depth" by having a compliant government in Kabul.
The genesis of some of the present woes of India and Russia—both of whom are facing threats to their territorial integrity and peace from Islamic extremism and terrorism with its epicentre in Afghanistan and Pakistan—may, thus, be partially traced to the initial Russian decision to surrender its geo-political interests in Afghanistan to Islamic Mujahideen factions.
Russia's Initial Westward Orientation: Low Priority to South Asia
It is generally agreed that the total orientation of Russian foreign policy in the period immediately after attaining independent statehood was towards the West. According to the pro-West foreign minister of the country, Andrei Kozyrev, the most important task before Russia was political and economic integration into the West.12 Kozyrev also claimed that the "developed countries of the West are Russia's natural allies".13 Moscow hoped to attain all its major foreign and domestic policy objectives with the help of the West. These objectives were the permanent seat of the former Soviet Union in the UN Security Council; sole control over the nuclear arsenal of the former Soviet Union and liberal Western economic and technological help that would help it to bring about easy and quick transformation of the command economy to a market-oriented one. President Yeltsin also hoped to make use of the economic and political support of the West in his struggle with his domestic opponents.
It is generally agreed that in the post-Soviet Russia, there are divergent schools of foreign policy thought. In the initial period, the Westerners or the "Atlanticists" led by Kozyrev and his foreign policy establishment were in clear ascendance. Thus, in the initial post-Soviet period, Asia in general, including South Asia, was accorded a low priority in Moscow's scheme of things. In the "Concept of Russian Federation's Foreign Policy" published by Russia's Foreign Ministry in January 1993, South Asia was accorded seventh place in a list of ten priorities.14
Russia expected and called for the unfolding of a new "Marshall Aid Plan" by the Western countries in its aid. But, as Mike Bowker has pointed out, the West was neither in a position, nor willing, to give so much aid to Russia and the other new republics. The reasons were recessionary trends in the post-Cold War world, Germany's preoccupation with the economic recovery of its eastern wing as well as concern and reservations about the manner in which the aid was actually utilised. In 1992, the G-7 offered $24 billion to the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) countries, including $18 billion to Russia. In Tokyo, the following year, the total aid package was raised to $43 billion. But it has been pointed out that the aid was tied to the purchase of Western products. However, increasing reliance on Western imports only contributed to the destruction of Russia's own industries and fall in its Gross Domestic Product (GDP). It was also reported that a large part of the US aid was earmarked for the salaries and travel expenses of US consultants.15 Disenchantment with the West, thus, was bound to set in, and it did. Kozyrev's policy was criticised by his critics among the "Eurasists", the "geo-politicians" and the "nationalists" as a policy of "smiles" and saying "yes" and making one-sided concessions to the West.16
The economic policy of "shock therapy", introduced at this time under the guidance of Yegor Gaidar and other reformers, who were supported by Western advisers like Jeffrey Sachs, Anders Aslund and others, wrought havoc with the Russian economy. It led to 40 per cent and more decline in the GDP, prices sky-rocketted, the rouble nose-dived and unemployment grew. About 40 per cent of the population was pushed below the poverty line while 7 per cent became rich and even super rich. Due to the flight of capital abroad, more money actually left Russia than came by way of aid and loans. The failure of the reforms also led to the growth of anti-Western sentiment in the country.17 Georgy Arbatov, the former director of the Institute of the USA and Canada of the Russian Academy of Sciences, has remarked that three-four years of shock therapy, in fact, caused more harm to the Russian economy than fifty years of the arms race.
No wonder, President Yeltsin and his foreign minister tried to bring about a balance in the foreign policy towards the West and the East after the initial Westward orientation.
Russia Woos Pakistan Initially
India and Pakistan figured prominently in post-Soviet Russia's South Asia policy calculations. Post-Soviet Russia just maintains a much-curtailed diplomatic presence in other South Asian capitals. Trade and other exchange with them have also declined in view of Russia's reduced capabilities and shrinking interest.
It is believed that in the initial period, two approaches existed in Russia regarding the policy to be followed towards the two major states of South Asia—India and Pakistan. One opinion favoured that the traditional "special" relationship with India should be retained and India should be given priority in the country's policy towards South Asia, while, at the same time, developing good relations with other regional countries, including Pakistan. According to the other school, the epoch of "special" relationship with India should be ended, as it was adversely affecting the country's relations with Pakistan. The second view at this time, was regarded to be dominant in the country's Foreign Ministry; the first view was believed to be prevalent among the academic community and the Parliamentary circles.18
Moreover, Russia's foreign policy establishment in the early post-Soviet period was keen to project an image to the West and the world at large that it was following a different policy than the one followed by the Soviet Union. Friendship with New Delhi was intimately linked with the traditional Soviet foreign policy. The new leadership in the Kremlin was not too eager to embrace India. Besides, the Indian stand during the abortive hardline coup on August 19, 1991, had not endeared it to the new Russian regime.
It seemed for some time in the changed geo-political scenario after the collapse of the Soviet Union, that Moscow tended to accord greater attention to Pakistan and other Muslim countries on its southern periphery. Pakistan was considered crucial to a political settlement in Afghanistan, and what was more, seemed to be in a position to help Moscow get back its POWs. The joint communique issued at the time of Rutskoi's visit to Pakistan in December 1992, said that it was the policy of the Russian government "to develop relations with Muslim states on new principles, devoid of ideological obstacles and based on mutual respect, goodwill and mutual benefit".
The joint communique was significant in many ways. It reiterated Russia's support for the Pakistani proposal of a nuclear-free zone in South Asia. Earlier in November 1991, the Soviet delegation had for the first time voted in the UNO for the Pakistan-sponsored proposal for the creation of a nuclear-free zone in South Asia. In view of India's opposition to such a proposal until then, the Soviet Union had consistently abstained from such proposals. India has always maintained that nuclear disarmament is a global and not a regional issue. In the joint communique, Rutskoi also welcomed the Pakistani proposal for a five-nation conference on nuclear non-proliferation in the region.
Moreover, the mention of Kashmir in the joint communique was worded in a manner which was advantageous to Pakistan:
The Pakistan side informed the Russian side about the deteriorating human rights conditions in Kashmir and about Pakistan's principled position on the Jammu and Kashmir dispute. The Russian side acknowledged Pakistan's position and expressed the hope that the issue would be resolved peacefully through negotiations between Pakistan and India on the basis of international agreements.
The mention of "deteriorating human rights conditions" in Kashmir and failure to mention the Simla Agreement specifically as a basis of solving the issue were not to the liking of New Delhi.
At the time of Rutskoi's visit, the two sides discussed a draft agreement for cooperation in the political, economic, commercial, scientific, technical and cultural fields. Belief was expressed that there existed good prospects for "initiating mutually beneficial cooperation in the field of economy and trade". It was agreed to hold regular contacts between the parliamentarians, and between their respective foreign policy and defence establishments.
As a pointer to growing warmth in Russian-Pakistan relations, an international conference was held in Moscow in April 1992 on relations between Pakistan and the CIS.19
The disintegration of the Soviet Union, with whom India shared an uninterrupted friendship for over 35 years, appeared to be a sharp blow to the Indian interests. Pakistan tended to see in it the opening of unprecedented opportunities for itself.
Two main directions and impulses could clearly be discerned in the thinking of Pakistan's strategic community, following the Soviet disintegration. On the one hand, great hope and enthusiasm were aroused at the prospects of the emergence of a bloc of Muslim countries in the region, of which Pakistan hoped to become an inseparable part and even a leading member. It was hoped that such a bloc would give Pakistan the much-needed "strategic depth". It was also hoped that a common market of Islamic countries could be formed in the region on the lines of the European Economic Community (EEC). Some Pakistani scholars envisaged that such a common market would include not only Muslim countries of the region, but also China's Xinjiang province as well as "Kashmir". What is significant from the point of view of Russia-Pakistan relations is that it was envisaged that "Islamic resurgence" would encompass the southern republics of the Russian Federation with large Muslim populations, namely, Tatarstan, Bashkartostan, Chechen-Ingushetia, Daghestan and Kabardino-Balkar, etc. Considerable interest was generated in Pakistani circles in moves calling for the formation of "Volga-Ural and Caucasian Federations". Regarding the formation of these federations comprising the Muslim republics of southern Russia, Hafeez Malik remarked that in view of the fact that the very break-up of the Soviet Union was not predicted by any one, such developments could no longer be regarded as a mere "pipe dream".20 This goes objectively against the interests of the Russian Federation and tends to create a chasm of mutual distrust between Russia and Pakistan.
On the other hand, a serious discussion took place among the top echelons of the Pakistani strategic community about what appeared to be the possibility of closer multifarious cooperation and interaction with the Russian Federation, something which had not been possible earlier because of the preferential treatment accorded to New Delhi by the latter. Pakistan had always been jealous of Moscow-New Delhi ties. Any improvement in Russia-Pakistan relations was regarded as a psychological as well as a material gain in Pakistan's unending rivalry with India. In 1990, US military and economic aid to Pakistan had stopped because of the latter's nuclear weapons programme. China was not in a position to satisfy all the requirements of Pakistan. No wonder, there was considerable interest in the country in exploring the possibility of Russian military equipment. Considering the fact that within the Russian foreign policy establishment at this time, the view dominated that an even-handed policy should be adopted towards India and Pakistan, the hopes and optimism generated by the Soviet fall in Pakistan were not totally misplaced.
The Pull Towards Revamping Ties With New Delhi
At the same time, no government in Moscow could ignore for long the legacy of long and uninterrupted multi-faceted Indo-Soviet cooperation. The basic geo-political factors that lay at the base of Indo-Soviet friendship and cooperation prompted the new incumbents in the Kremlin also to try to revamp ties with New Delhi.
It seemed important to resolve several knotted issues and put relations with New Delhi back on the rails. The former Soviet Union was India's second largest trade partner. And Indo-Soviet trade had come to a standstill following the Soviet disintegration. The former Soviet Union accounted for 60 to 70 per cent of defence purchases of India. The non-supply of defence spare parts after the Soviet demise had adversely affected the operational capability of the Indian armed forces, particularly the air force and navy. Moscow itself was keen to retain India as the biggest purchaser of its defence equipment. Thousands of jobs in the Russian defence industries depended on orders from India. Moreover, the defence industry happens to be the main industry where Russia can hope to successfully compete with the West.
It was becoming increasingly clear that the West would not shoulder the burden of the economic transformation of Russia. Criticism was growing amidst Russia's strategic community against the totally submissive pro-Western, and particularly pro-US policy of Kozyrev and his team. The need to pursue a more balanced approach towards the countries of the West and the East was increasingly realised.
Kremlin leaders could no longer ignore the basic geo-political fact that because of its size, central location, level of economic and technological development, stability and maturity of its democratic system, India was by far the more important partner in South Asia in comparison with Pakistan. India and Russia shared many common interests. At the very minimum, their basic geo-political interests did not clash. On the other hand, Pakistan's inability to keep religion and politics apart and its support to Islamic extremist elements in the civil wars in Afghanistan and Tajikistan as well as other parts of the former Soviet space, tended to put Moscow off.
Moscow at this time of grave economic crisis, was particularly interested in the settlement of the issue of India's nearly 10 billion rouble debt to the former Soviet Union.
By the second half of 1992, Moscow seemed to be veering round to the view that its policy towards South Asia must actually be centred on India. Yeltsin's visit to India was twice postponed in 1992, and finally took place from January 27 to 29, 1993. The visit restored the ties and set the tone for the future relationship.
President Yeltsin's Visit
President Yeltsin's visit to India put an end to the uncertainty and ambivalence of the initial period and made it clear that India retained the central place in the Russian policy towards South Asia.
During the visit, the two countries signed a new 20-year Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation replacing the old Indo-Soviet Treaty whose term had expired. But unlike the Indo-Soviet Treaty (Art. 9), the Indo-Russian Treaty did not include any strategic clause. In the post-Cold War world, the two countries did not seem to need security guarantees and commitments. It seemed that in contrast to the Soviet Union, that was one of the poles in the bipolar division of the world, the Russian Federation had moved closer towards the mentality and position of non-alignment.
Speaking at a meeting of Indian businessmen, President Yeltsin particularly highlighted the difference in the Soviet and Russian policy towards India. He said:
We want to build our foreign relations, including those with India, on bilateral basis, not directed against a third party. In no case that should be directed against a third party. It is a matter of principle in our position, for previously the Indian card was played against the world imperialism and so-called Chinese hegemonism. Yes, indeed this card was played. We do not want to use India in political, I would say, intrigues.
It is particularly significant that President Yeltsin repeatedly made pro-India statements on Kashmir during his visit to India. He said:
We stand for the integrity of India. We support the settlement in Kashmir according to the Indian version so as to maintain integrity and unity of India. We support it. And in whatever international organisations it may be—the UN Security Council or others—we shall stand by this point of view.21
Yeltsin also promised to support India's candidature for permanent membership of the Security Council.
President Yeltsin made it categorically clear that Russia would not give military-technical aid to Pakistan, thereby scotching all the speculation regarding possible supply of Russian military equipment to Pakistan also. At the same time, he said during a Press conference in New Delhi, "We want some kind of relations with Pakistan" and that "we do not want a rupture in these relations over this problem" (meaning Kashmir).22
He seemed disillusioned with Pakistan and voiced a certain unhappiness over the Pakistani role in Afghanistan and its failure to help in the return of Soviet POWs.
While making all the favourable-for-India statements on political issues, Yeltsin was keen to ensure a favourable-for-Russia settlement on the economic issues of debt repayment and rupee-rouble exchange rate, in which he succeeded to a great extent.
There is no doubt that the disintegration of the Soviet Union has caused a diminution of Moscow's weight and clout in world politics. India has found it necessary to come to its own in the defence and promotion of its national interests without relying on any single great power. In fact, India has strongly claimed that it should be recognised as a great power and given the permanent membership of the UN Security Council. It is clear that with the weakening of the economic, political and military power of Moscow, there has taken place a certain shift in the geo-political balance of power towards the East, South and West. Other power centres have gained at the expense of Moscow.
Seeking accommodation with the West and avoiding the confrontation of the Cold War period, may be regarded to be among the cardinal principles of post-Soviet Russian policy. The Western countries happen to be major economic partners of Russia. Russia has repeatedly made it known that it would continue to seek integration of the Russian economy with the rest of the world in contrast to the largely autarchic model followed by the former Soviet Union. However, the increased dependence on Western aid has also made Russia particularly vulnerable to Western—mainly US—pressure.
The USA objected to the Indo-Russian cryogenic deal (initially concluded during the Soviet period) whereby Russia had to deliver cryogenic engines and related technology for India's space programme. The USA claimed that the agreement went against the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) as dual-purpose technology was involved. The Russians felt that the real motive behind the US stand was to protect its commercial interests and prevent Russia from becoming its competitor in this highly profitable high-tech field and also to prevent India—a prominent Third World country—from becoming a "space-faring nation".
Despite his categorical assurance in India that the cryogenic deal would continue, in June 1993, on the occasion of the G-7 meeting in Tokyo, President Yeltsin succumbed to the US pressure on the issue. The scaling down of the deal under obvious US pressure was a big blow to the Russian prestige and position as an independent great power.
However, both Russia and India showed the necessary maturity and resilience and did not permit the scaling down of the cryogenic deal to permanently tarnish their bilateral relations. It was agreed between the two countries that those elements of technology that could be used for dual purposes may not be transferred, but the technology not considered dual purpose would be transferred. Russia also agreed to compensate India by supplying two additional rocket engines.
On the nuclear-strategic issue, post-Soviet Russia firmly sides with the West. The Russian nuclear doctrine has moved closer to that of other Western countries, and the "no-first-use" commitment of the Soviet era has been dropped.
Russia has been seeking adjustment and accommodation with the West even on the thorny issue of NATO enlargement. In July 1994, it joined NATO's Partnership for Peace programme. And in May 1997, it signed the Russia-NATO Founding Act.
Moscow assiduously avoided direct military confrontation with the West over the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia (March end to early June 1999) despite widespread and very strong anti-Western sentiment in the country. It tried to play the role of a peace maker during the crisis and was quick to make up with the West during the G-8 Summit at Cologne (June 18-20, 1999). However, the lessons of the Yugoslav War are not lost on the Russian strategic community and are bound to be reflected in the country's long-term foreign and defence policies.23
The initial policy of total orientation towards the West and "meek submission" to the latter on all issues has been given up. It is being stressed that Russia would be guided by its own national interests and follow a balanced policy towards the West and the East.
India Assigned Central Place in Russia's South Asia Policy
Russia appears to have finally reverted to the Soviet policy of assigning a central place to India in its South Asia policy. A commonality of broad geo-political interests between India and Russia has contributed to further cementing of ties.
It was stressed at the time of Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao's Moscow visit from June 29 to July 2, 1994, that the two countries would remain in the first circle of priorities for each other. The "Moscow Declaration on the Protection of the Interests of Pluralistic States" signed during the visit reflected a certain ideational and conceptual unity arising out of their common interest in maintaining "unity in diversity" in their vast multi-lingual, multi-ethnic and multi-religious states. The two see a threat to their security and stability in the forces of "aggressive nationalism, religious and political extremism, terrorism and separatism".24
Significantly, the joint declaration issued at the time referred to the two countries, "deep interest in promoting peace and stability in the area between the borders of the Republic of India and the Russian Federation". The reference was to Afghanistan and the newly independent states of Central Asia. The region is seen as an area of common geo-political interests for the two.
Both India and Russia occupy a position of predominance in their respective regions—Russia in the former Soviet space, and India in South Asia. Both recognise each other's important position in their respective regions.
Indo-Russian Summits have been marked by the conclusion of agreements for cooperation in various fields. These are: space research, science and technology, information, cultural exchanges, trade and economic cooperation, etc. The two sides have a common interest in cooperating in combatting drugs and arms trafficking, international crime and terrorism, particularly externally-supported terrorism.
Indo-Russian military-technical cooperation forms the backbone of their cooperation. India is one of the two biggest purchasers of Russian military hardware. China is the other major buyer of Russian military equipment. At the time of Chernomyrdin's visit to India in December 1994, it was decided to sign a long-term military and technical cooperation agreement upto the year 2000. Speaking to journalists, Chernomyrdin also publicly denied any intention to supply arms to Pakistan.
The Deputy Director of Rosvooruzhenie, Oleg Sidorenko, who visited India in March 1996 told his hosts that his organisation had tried to establish relations with the former Soviet republics and had managed to gain control and bring the production of defence equipment and related spare parts to the previous level. He gave an assurance that there would not be any difficulty in the supply of spare parts in future.25
During the visit of Defence Minister Mulayam Singh Yadav to Moscow in 1997, it was decided to further extend the agreement for ten years i.e. upto the year 2010. The two countries formally signed the long-term military-technical cooperation agreement upto the year 2010 at the time of Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov's visit in December 1998. The value of Indo-Russian long-term military-technical cooperation is estimated at $10-15 billion.
While going into the details of military-technical cooperation between Russia and India would not be possible here, attention may be drawn to an uneasy feeling in both Indian and Russian defence establishments that owing to Russia's current state of economic decline and political uncertainty, its military industrial complex and defence R&D may not be able to keep pace with the state-of-art Western technology. A leading Moscow newsmagazine, New Times, has, in fact, remarked: "Russia's current lag behind the USA in most types of combat material is ten years old and has been growing". The author, Erlen Bernstein, strongly advocated that Russian companies must enter into partnership agreements with the arms manufacturing companies of the Western countries. He gives the example of Russia's Beriyev Science and Engineering Complex having joined efforts with the Israeli ELTA company in production of an early radar detection and warning aeroplane. The Rybinsk Motors Company has joined General Electric (US) and the French SNEKMA in development and manufacture of aircraft engines. The author even advocates that having repudiated confrontation with NATO, Russia should, in fact, seek "techno-economic partnership" with the latter in a big way.26
It is argued that in many areas, Russian military equipment continues to be among the best. It is also cheap and readily available. What is more, there exists a long-standing geo-political compatibility of interests between the two countries that adds to mutual trust which is so essential in cooperation in this sensitive field. At the same time, India needs to do its own calculations and use its judgment while concluding defence deals with Russia. It appears the trend is towards getting electronic equipment from France, Israel and other Western countries, fitted into Russian hardware purchased by India. The author of the above-mentioned New Times article, thus, has pointed out that while concluding the agreement regarding the transfer of the aircraft carrier Admiral Gorshkov from Russia, India has sought to get it fitted with the Western systems.27
Be that as it may, Moscow-New Delhi military-technical cooperation, which began in 1961, has been extensive and important for both sides. Although faced with increasing international competition, Russia would try its best to retain India as a major buyer of military hardware. Defence exports are considered crucial for the very maintenance and development of Russia's vast military industrial complex, as the orders from its own Ministry of Defence have declined because of shortage of funds.28
India and Russia are likely to explore new ways and areas of continuing their military-technical cooperation, including joint production, joint servicing of Soviet/Russian equipment supplied to third countries, cooperation in the field of R&D and modernisation of old Soviet equipment.
In a Press release of the official news agency, RIA Novosti, it has been reported recently that "well informed sources at the Russian Defence Ministry" have denied the possibility of Russia selling nuclear-powered submarines to India as such actions would serve to violate the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and the START-II Treaty. The issue was reportedly discussed in the course of the recent Moscow negotiations between Admiral Vladimir Kuroyedov in charge of the Russian Navy and an Indian military delegation, headed by Admiral Sushil Kumar.29 The report that the issue of nuclear-powered submarines was discussed at the meeting of the naval chiefs of the two countries, strongly suggests that there has been a specific background to it. If the reported denial of the possibility of the sale of Russian nuclear submarines to India is correct, could it be presumed that the very purpose of the above report is Russia's attempt to hold out the possibility of such sales—and not only to India—as a bargaining chip with the USA in order to dissuade the latter from trying to revise the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, or to extract any other concession from the latter or to counter US pressure in areas considered vital for Russian national interests? Or perhaps the above report reflects the existence of strong difference of opinion within Russian circles on the issue.
As regards the political ties between India and Russia, they have continued to grow after the initial uncertainties. The appointment of Yevgeny Primakov as the country's foreign minister in January 1996 resulted in upgrading of India in the overall scheme of Russia's foreign policy priorities. Speaking to journalists soon after his appointment, he named India in the fourth place after the USA, Europe and China in the list of the countries with whom Russia sought to develop relations.
Less than two months after becoming the foreign minister, Primakov visited India. Primakov spoke of India as a "global power" and a priority partner, for Russia. The idea of "strategic partnership" between India and Russia was set afloat. An agreement on the "strategic partnership" between India and Russia is scheduled to be signed during President Yeltsin's forthcoming visit to India.
Primakov visited India in December 1998 again as the prime minister. The joint statement issued at the time underscored a commonality of approach of the two countries on a number of international issues from Afghanistan, Iraq, the Middle East peace process and the problems of the Asia-Pacific to the need of strengthening the UNO. The two sides decided to further boost their multifarious cooperation. The joint statement also specifically said:
Russia considers India, an influential member of the international community, to be a strong and appropriate candidate for permanent membership of an expanded UN Security Council.
Multipolar World, "Strategic Triangle", New Nuclear States
The striving for a multipolar world in contrast to the unipolar world dominated by the sole surviving superpower has become Moscow's new leit motif. The concept was formally voiced for the first time in the Sino-Russian forum. In the communique issued after President Yeltsin's Beijing visit in April 1996, both Russia and China committed themselves to the concept of building a multipolar world. The Indo-Russian joint statement of December 1998 also stresses the need of creating a "multipolar world based on sovereign equality of all states, democratic values and justice".
In order to preserve its strategic autonomy in the face of growing US pressure, Russia needs closer cooperation with large countries like India and China. No wonder, during his visit to India as the country's prime minister in December 1998, Primakov made the "informal" proposal of a "strategic triangle" among Russia, India and China. The proposal did not evoke an enthusiastic response at that time in either India or China. The fact remains that all these three countries have the major share of their economic transactions with the Western countries, rather than with one another. Additionally, between India and China, there is an unsettled border dispute and conflicting interests and mutual rivalry in the region. However, as the Russian ambassador to India, Albert S. Chernyshev told me in the course of a long talk held in the third week of June 1999, Russia has derived immense satisfaction in the fact that even if there is no formal agreement among the three, objectively and for all practical purposes, the stand taken by Russia, India and China on the recent bombing of Yugoslavia over the Kosovo issue by NATO forces, bypassing the UNO, was similar. The three also stand for strengthening the UNO and have criticised the tendency of unilateral use of force on the part of the USA in violation of the recognised principle of national sovereignty.
It is apparent that Primakov's proposal was not an off-the-cuff remark. Other government leaders—including President Yeltsin himself—have repeatedly emphasised the need of greater understanding and cooperation among the three great countries of the region. Primakov's proposal, thus reflected a deeper and long-term thinking among the Russian strategic community and even a degree of consensus among the policy-makers. It would seem that only the confirmed Westerners and Atlanticists, who would like Russia to be an integral part of the West and who, incidentally, happen to be in a minority in present-day Russia, scoff at the idea.
At the same time, it is particularly stressed by all Russian policy makers and commentators that the strategic triangle is not envisaged as a military bloc or a relationship directed against third countries—above all the West.
In response to a question, Ambassador Chernyshev told me that Russia can never become like Germany and Japan, who have accepted US leadership of the Western camp in return for a larger economic role and well-being. He said the central impulse of Russia and its historic role militate against accepting such a role. The overwhelming desire of the country is to regain the status of a great power. The refrain of all recent pronouncements of the present Russian Foreign Minister, Igor Ivanov, is the need to maintain "an independent foreign policy" determined by the country's national interests.
Moscow can hope to attain its goals in the present circumstances by moving closer to large Asian countries like India and China, encouraging nascent tendencies among major European countries towards greater independence, and above all, by fostering domestic coherence and economic development.
It is significant that during Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's recent visit to Moscow, there were references in the Russian media about the desirability of including Pakistan—the seventh nuclear power—in the strategic understanding among Russia, China and India for promoting peace and stability in this part of the world. The compulsions and pulls of global geo-political equations are prompting Russia to pay greater weight to South Asia—mainly to India and Pakistan—in its policy calculations. After his negotiations with the visiting Pakistani Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, in Moscow, Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov told reporters that relations among Russia, India, Pakistan and China are of great importance for stability and security in South Asia. Primakov added that Russia "is interested in that all nuclear states, even not recognised as such officially, join all international documents which limit nuclear weapons and stop nuclear tests". He opined that the appearance of nuclear weapons in South Asia makes the problem of maintaining stability in this region more acute. Russia is interested that relations between the states of this region be built on a normal basis and "is ready to take most active part in this process".30
The Russian media has been referring to India and Pakistan as "new nuclear states". Its policy is to maintain solidarity with the recognised P-5 and not accord recognition to the nuclear status of India and Pakistan. Moscow continues to harp on the need of universal adherence to the NPT and CTBT (Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty). The need to maintain peace between India and Pakistan, and especially so after the nuclear tests by the two, is continuously emphasised. Concern is expressed at the possibility of further spread of nuclear weapons. At the same time, from the very beginning, Moscow has abstained from imposing sanctions on the new nuclear states.
Moscow apprehends that the US-led NATO bombing of Yugoslavia as well as US plans to build its own ABM system in contravention of the 1972 ABM Treaty would only fuel an arms race in the world and encourage more and more states to cross the nuclear threshold. More and more countries are feeling that Yugoslavia would not have been subjected to such bombing in violation of its sovereignty if it possessed a nuclear deterrent of its own.
In private conversations, Russian diplomats and others have shown greater understanding of India's nuclear policy. They admit that a country of India's size, population and resources—which is destined to play an important role in world affairs—is bound to acquire its own nuclear deterrent. An impression is given to the Indian interlocutors that while Russia would be ready to recognise India as a nuclear power, the same approach may not apply to Pakistan. In fact, Pakistan may just be regarded as a "nuclear-weapons-tested state".31 While there is greater readiness to recognise India as a mature and responsible power, it is believed that Pakistan may take some time to mature. Such an image of Pakistan has been further reinforced in the wake of the developments in Kargil.
Moscow has taken the same line as the other G-8 countries urging the maintenance of the Line of Control (LoC) and peaceful bilateral settlement of Indo-Pak issues during the Cologne Summit of the G-8 in June 1999.
The role played by Moscow during the Tashkent peace conference following the Indo-Pak War in 1965 remains a fond memory for the Russians. Hints are given that Moscow would not be averse to playing the same role if the two sides—meaning India and Pakistan—so desire.32 But in all its official formulations, Russia has upheld the principle of peaceful bilateral settlement of Indo-Pak issues in accordance with the Simla Agreement of 1972.33
Russia took an unequivocal stand that the Kargil conflict was caused by the "penetration of armed groups from Pakistan onto the territory of the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir".34 A Press release by the Russian Foreign Ministry on June 17, 1999, made an "earnest appeal" to Islamabad to "refrain from violations" of the Pakistani-Indian accords on "the location of the agreed line of control which separates India from Pakistan in Kashmir region". The Press release added that "any attempt to change this line may have grave consequences" and that "the withdrawal of the armed groups beyond the line of control and the restoration of the status quo would, to a considerable extent, serve to defuse the tension in the region".35
Pakistan's misadventure in Kargil has tended to raise doubts about the civilian government's ability to control the country's generals. Thus, Vladimir Skosyrev of Izvestia remarked that the legacy of army rule for several decades has not been overcome in Pakistan. Without the approval of the army, important foreign policy questions are not resolved. It is known that the generals and Islamic fundamentalists were not satisfied with the Lahore diplomacy. In order to pacify the army and the opponents among the chauvinists, Sharif gave approval to the operation in Kashmir. However, war is a serious issue and should not be entrusted to the generals, added Skosyrev.36
At the same time, one of the unmistakable strands of post-Cold War Russian policy has also been to seek interaction and cooperation with Pakistan in order to impart greater flexibility and manoeuvrability to its South Asia policy.
Overtures to Pakistan
Even while refurbishing its traditionally friendly relations with New Delhi, Moscow thought it important to make certain overtures to Pakistan. Thus, less than two and a half months after Yeltsin's high profile visit to New Delhi, Russian Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev, visited Pakistan from April 6 to 8, 1993. He said that the Russian Federation considered Pakistan to be a very important country in South Asia. He was also reported to have remarked that Russia wanted to do away with the foreign policy legacy of the former Soviet Union and adopt a balanced foreign policy in the context of South Asia. He called on Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and the two leaders were reported to have discussed Kashmir, Afghanistan and Tajikistan. He expressed the hope that his visit would open up possibilities of concrete cooperation between Russia and Pakistan.37
It was also reported that in view of the on-going civil war in Tajikistan between the ex-Communist ruling elite and the Islamic Opposition, Moscow was seeking the help of Pakistan among others, in bridging the difference between the Tajik government and the Opposition forces. The Opposition elements in the Tajik civil war were known to be getting aid from Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, etc. As Moscow did not want to get bogged down in another Afghanistan-type situation, it was pursuing a twin policy of militarily defeating the Islamic forces, but at the same time trying for lasting peace settlement between the government and the Islamic Opposition forces.38
Reports of possible sale of Russian arms to Pakistan continued to appear in the media. For instance, it was reported that during Benazir Bhutto's scheduled visit to Moscow at the end of 1994, the two countries were likely to announce the sale of S-27s to Pakistan. Benazir Bhutto's visit, however, did not materialise because of the "tight schedule" of President Yeltsin and Prime Minister Chernomyrdin.39
The fact, however, remains that Russia and Pakistan were on the opposite sides of the civil wars in Afghanistan and Tajikistan. Moreover, the Russians also suspected Pakistan's complicity with the Chechen separatists.
Speaking to newsmen, the chief of the Third Asian Department of the Russian Foreign Ministry, Yuri Kotov, did not rule out the possibility of sale of arms and other technology to Pakistan "some time in future". But it was made clear that the relations between the two must reach a particular level before this was possible. It was also considered important for the purpose that there was significant improvement in the regional situation, meaning thereby Indo-Pak relations and the situation in Afghanistan and Tajikistan.40
Moscow has emphasised the need of securing the southern borders of the CIS, following take over of 80 per cent of Afghan territory by Pakistan-backed Taliban forces. But in view of its own domestic political and economic problems, Russia has avoided a direct clash or confrontation with the Taliban.
Russia favours a negotiated settlement of the Afghan conflict within the framework of 6+2 (the countries neighbouring on Afghanistan plus the USA and Russia) talks under the aegis of the UNO. On the eve of the recent Tashkent meeting of the 6+2, Russia's deputy minister of foreign affairs met his Pakistani counterpart in Moscow on May 12, 1999, and urged Islamabad to use its influence on Afghan groups—the Taliban, most of all—in order to facilitate a constructive dialogue. The two sides agreed to enhance bilateral cooperation for the settlement of the Afghan conflict.41 Thus, Pakistan is considered particularly important from the point of solving the Afghan tangle.
A couple of articles published in Pakistan Horizon in 1995, by Russian scholars and the speech delivered by the Russian ambassador to Pakistan, give an insight into the Russian thinking on Pakistan. In an article entitled "Conflict Over Kashmir: Current Situation and Outlook—A New Geopolitical Context", V. Moskalenko and T. Shaumian of the Moscow Institute of Oriental Studies, noted that in the changed global political atmosphere following the end of the Cold War, the global significance of the Kashmir issue has been reduced. New Delhi, that had very close relations with the Soviet Union, has tried to improve relations with the USA, China and West Europe and other Asian countries. The Central Asian countries, who are not bound by the former Soviet legacy, do not want to put all their eggs in one basket as regards South Asia, meaning thereby that they favour a cooperative relationship with both India and Pakistan. The two authors particularly emphasised the need of good relations between New Delhi and Islamabad, which would save Moscow the difficult problem of choosing between India and Pakistan. It would open up opportunities for the development of relations with both India and Pakistan and "lead to strengthening of Russia's position in South Asia".42 In another article entitled "Central Asia in the New Eurasian Geopolitics: Implications for Pakistan and Russia", Soviet author Vyacheslav Y. Belokrenitsky particularly highlighted the importance of Pakistan in the context of Central Asia. It seemed to the author—a view which is also shared by others in the Russian strategic community—that the main direction of Indian geo-political inclination lies in the Indian Ocean and further east in the Asia-Pacific region. However, Pakistan seems to be destined to follow the land rather than the maritime modus in its geo-political future. Belokrenitsky emphasises that Russia and Pakistan, with their respective positions to the north and south from Central Asia, have a good chance to develop a beneficial relationship so that their foreign policy lines converge more often than collide.43
The Russian strategic community and geo-political thinkers tend to view their role in the post-Cold War world as a vast Eurasian bridge between the West and the East and the North and the South. It is envisaged that trade and surface transport routes would move from the Atlantic to the Pacific coast across Russia and from Siberia to the Persian Gulf, Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean ports and in the reverse direction. Pakistan remains important for Russia in this scheme of things. No wonder, a spokesman of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs was reported to have said in Moscow on June 10, 1997, that although Russia and Pakistan disagree over the Taliban movement, the two could still work together towards helping Afghanistan reach a settlement.44
The speech delivered by the Russian Ambassador to Pakistan, Alexander Yu. Alexeyev, on December 24, 1995, to the Pakistan Institute of International affairs, made it clear that the Russian support in the closing days of the Soviet Union to the Pakistan-sponsored resolution in the UNO for the creation of a nuclear-free zone in South Asia was a well-considered policy decision. The ambassador referred to Pakistani proposals "aimed at preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons in South Asia" as "constructive". He called for a "verifiable halt to all aspects of the nuclear weapons programme of both Pakistan and India".45
Moscow's South Asia policy, thus, may not be regarded as exclusively India-centric. An opinion in this country as well as in Russia believes that closer interaction between Moscow and Islamabad may have a moderating influence on the latter.
Terrorism and Islamic Militants
Pakistan has figured prominently in the list of countries named by the Russian authorities where the Islamic extremists currently fighting the federal forces in Russia's troubled Caucasian region—Chechnya and Dagestan, above all—have received financial and other support from Islamic elements. However, the Russian authorities have so far abstained from blaming the government of Pakistan directly for providing such aid.46 Moscow is keen to avoid its current campaign against Islamic extremists and militants in the northern Caucasus being seen as a war against Islam and Islamic countries in general.
Russia and Pakistan happen to be on opposite sides of the divide on the issue of the growing threat of Islamic extremism and fundamentalism in the region. India promptly condemned the occupation of several border villages in Dagestan by Islamic extremists from Chechnya in August 1999 in which militants and mercenaries from Pakistan and other Muslim countries were also involved. India also unequivocally supported the unity and territorial integrity of the Russian Federation. In the multi-pronged struggle against externally-supported terrorism that happens to pass under the Islamic religious garb and enjoys considerable financial support, drug money and a large assortment of all types of weapons of terror, military measures and strength are as important as deep and extensive socio-economic reforms and development. India and Russia happen to be two large and powerful countries afflicted by this menace. They have the necessary military strength and wherewithal to counter and curb the terrorist threat, especially externally-supported terrorism. The very purpose of the militants is to weaken, create confusion in, and reduce the credibility of, the Indian and Russian states, and recreate the political map of the region. A will on the part of plural and democratic states—that may be construed to be rather soft targets by hardened militants and terrorists—to act in self-preservation is equally important. There is no doubt that there is much scope for mutually advantageous close cooperation between India and Russia in combatting militancy and terrorism in this region.
At the same time, many in Russia also believe that Russia should more assiduously cultivate the government in Islamabad, so that it could be persuaded to exercise its influence on Islamic fundamentalists and extremists to dissuade them from creating trouble in Caucasus and other areas on Russia's southern underbelly.
The end of the Cold War has put an end to exclusive relationships. This is true of the foreign policy moves of all the major powers. However, within a flexible and many-sided foreign policy vector, there remains scope for tilts and closer cooperation with some in comparison to others.
It may be said without doubt that Moscow values India more as a partner in South Asia because of greater compatibility of interests between the two as well as its larger size, resources and greater clout in the region and the world at large. If forced to choose one of the two, Moscow has always tended to make the choice in favour of India. But, at the same time, Moscow has tried to cultivate Pakistan also as the second most important state in the subcontinent.
Russian maps show Pakistan-occupied Kashmir as a part of India, but the Aksai-chin part of Jammu & Kashmir, which is under Chinese occupation, is shown as a part of China. This reflects deeper geo-political thinking and approach. It is in keeping with the traditional Russian support to India on the Kashmir issue vis-a-vis Pakistan. However, on the sensitive issue of Sino-Indian boundary dispute, Moscow is not prepared to antagonise China. Moscow has resolved its own boundary dispute with China, thus, imparting at least legal security to its long border with China across sparsely populated vast stretches of Russian territory in the Far East. Even during the Soviet period, when Moscow's relations with Beijing were quite tense over boundary and other issues and Moscow particularly valued friendship with India as a counterweight to China, the Soviet maps continued to follow the Chinese version of the line of the disputed Sino-Indian border. (One such map taken from Izvestia, May 28, 1999, is given below.
Other South Asian States
As Russia continues to face economic hardships and decline coupled with political uncertainties, it is natural that it cannot maintain its presence in other South Asian capitals at the earlier level. Other South Asian countries do not figure prominently in Moscow's geo-political calculations. Relations with them—mainly trade ties—are likely to be governed by purely commercial considerations. The focus of Russia's geo-political attention in South Asia has mainly remained on India and Pakistan.
Thus, Russia is said to maintain only a symbolic diplomatic presence in the Himalayan Kingdom of Nepal. There are no significant trade or commercial relations between the two.47
Russia's relations with Bangladesh and Sri Lanka have also shrunk, but trade with them continues although at a reduced level. Sri Lankan tea is popular in Russia and constitutes a major export item to Russia. Unlike in the Soviet period, trade between Russia and other new republics is conducted through private individuals and firms. From a traditional exporter of jute and jute products, Bangladesh has emerged as a major exporter of ready-made garments.
Table 1 shows Russia's trade with Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka in the two years, 1996-1997, in terms of dollars. It does not include non-organised shuttle trade.
Exports Imports Exports Imports
Bangladesh 7.1 38.5 7.8 45.6
India 794.0 603.0 917.7 801.2
Pakistan 67.6 14.0 15.6 17.7
Sri Lanka 3.4 63.5 4.5 73.1
(Russia: Foreign Economic Relations Trends and Prospects, Quarterly Review, (Moscow), no. 2, 1998.)
Factors Hindering Indo-Russian Trade
Despite the stated desire by both governments, Indo-Russian trade has not only not expanded, but has actually declined. Figures depicting the direction of India's trade in the years 1996-97 and 1997-98 (April-January) show that Russia accounted for just 2.4 per cent of total Indian exports and 1.6 per cent of imports in 1996-97 and 2.6 per cent of exports and 1.7 per cent of imports in 1997-98 (April-January). (See Fig. 1).
In the year 98-99, Indo-Russian trade stood at just $1.4 billion, which also includes the rupee trade by way of repayment of India's debt to the former Soviet Union. Almost 50 per cent of the trade turnover between the two countries is covered by rupee trade.
Lack of convenient and cheap transport routes is a major hindering factor. Russia's economic woes, lack of proper banking system and legal infrastructure hinder the development of trade and economic ties. There is great interest in Russia for Indian pharmaceuticals, computer software, electronic goods, consumer durables, etc. But the Russian importers lack adequate money to buy these goods from India. Russia's main oil and gas supply lines go to Europe. Oil and gas are Russia's main export earners. And the European countries happen to be the country's major trade partners. Russia's nouveau riche also have a vested interest in business dealings with the Western countries, because they keep their money in the Western countries.
It may be said by way of conclusion that considerations of global balance of power largely determine Russia's policy towards India. Faced with the increasing pressure of the US-led Western military-political bloc, Moscow has adopted a twin policy of avoiding confrontation and seeking accommodation with the former, but at the same time, moving closer to India and China to counter-balance it.
India and Russia have a common interest in maintaining their respective strategic autonomy and contributing to the emergence of a polycentric or multipolar world.
Both India and Russia occupy important geo-political locations—India in South Asia astride the Indian Ocean and on the cross-junction of important trade and communications routes that link important regions inhabited by vast multitudes of humanity, and Russia in the huge Eurasian land mass from Europe to the Far East and from the Arctic circle to the Caspian and Black Sea regions. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the power and reach of Moscow have declined, but Russia still contains immense energy and other natural resources, and its scientific potential and resources cannot be ignored. A compatibility of basic geo-political interests bind India and Russia together. But in the post-Cold War world politics, Indo-Russian friendship is not exclusive, nor does it need to be so.
Due to its geographical location and close nexus with the Islamic elements and drugs and arms traffickers, Pakistan seems important to Russia in the context of maintaining peace and stability in the volatile region of Central Asia, Afghanistan and the Caucasus on the sensitive southern underbelly of the country.
It is not easy to predict what course the future developments in the region are likely to take. One can envisage two different scenarios. One, all the major players in the region—both state and non-state actors—pursue cooperative geo-politics in the interest of peace and development. In that case, Pakistan can be an important link in a system of important trade and transport routes and gas and oil pipelines running across Central Asia to the Arabian Sea ports and onwards to the large Indian market. However, in case the region continues to be rocked by religious extremism, attempts at new map-making and cross-border terrorism—connived at and supported by Pakistan—Russia, the CARs, India and possibly Iran may find it imperative to form a protective ring around Pakistan and the Pakistan-backed Taliban government in Afghanistan in order to defend their vital interests.
1. It was only during the war that some Soviet officials were permitted to visit Calcutta and several other industrial centres in India for the purchase of war material. During the war, India emerged as an important source of war supplies to the Soviet Union.
2. Tass statements, September 7 and 13, 1965; December 5, 1971.
3. Jyotsna Bakshi, Russia and India from Ideology to Geopolitics (Delhi: Dev Publications), 1999, p. 135.
4. See, for instance, Narayan Khadka, Foreign Aid and Foreign Policy, Major Powers and Nepal (New Delhi: Vikas Publication House), 1997, pp. 315-321, 328-329.
5. Chandrakant Yatanoor, Sri Lanka's Foreign Policy Under Presidentship of J.R. Jayewardene (Delhi: Kalinga Publications), pp. 109-114.
6. Golam Mostafa, National Interest and Foreign Policy, Bangladesh's Relations with the Soviet Union and its Successor States (New Delhi: South Asian Publishers), 1995, pp. 167-168.
7. Soviet Foreign Policy, vol. ii, 1945-80 (Moscow: Progress), pp. 495-496.
8. APN, November 18, 1988, pp. 2-3. Press release by the Information Department, USSR Embassy in India.
9. Kesava Menon, "Afghan End-Games, After the Moscow Round", Frontline, December 20, 1991, pp. 48-49.
10. Pakistan Horizon, vol. 45, no. 1, January 1992, p. 89.
11. The text of the joint communique in Pakistan Horizon, vol. 45, no. 1, January 1992, pp. 168-171.
12. Cited in Alexei Arbatov, "Russia's Foreign Policy Alternatives", International Security, vol. 18, no. 2, Fall 1993, p. 11.
13. Izvestia, January 2, 1992.
14. Anita Inder Singh, "India's Relations with Russia and Central Asia", International Affairs, RIIA, vol. 71, no. 1, 1995, p. 72.
15. Mike Bowker, Russian Foreign Policy and the End of Cold War (Aldershot, England: Dartmouth Publication), 1997, pp. 220-222.
16. Joseph L. Nogee and R. Judson Mitchell, Russian Politics, The Struggle for a New Order (Boston: Allyn and Bacon), 1997, p. 157.
17. Georgy Arbatov, "Eurasia Letter: A New Cold War?", Foreign Policy, no. 95, Summer 1994, pp. 91-94.
18. T. Shaumian, "Russia's Eastern Diplomacy and India", World Affairs, December 1993, p. 55.
19. Ramesh Thakur, "South Asia", in Ramesh Thakur and Carlyle A. Thayer, eds., Reshaping Regional Relations, Asia-Pacific and the Former Soviet Union (Boulder, Colo: Westview Press, 1993), p. 176.
20. Hafeez Malik, Soviet-Pakistan Relations and Post-Soviet Dynamics (London: Macmillan), 1994, pp. 316-328.
21. See the text of the speech in Strategic Digest, vol. xxiii, no. 4, April 1993, pp. 586, 593.
22. Text in Ibid., p. 598.
23. Greater stress is now being laid on strengthening the country's security and defence preparedness, in particular the air defence system in view of the Yugoslav experience. The West-99 strategic command exercise took place all over the European part of the country in June-end and early July 1999. Russia has also reportedly further strengthened its military-technical cooperation with China in the wake of the Yugoslav crisis.
24. Text in Bakshi, n. 3, Appendix I, pp. 290-291.
25. Times of India, April 2, 1996.
26. New Times, August 1998, p. 43.
28. Krasnaya Zvezda, September 15, 1999.
29. News from Russia, issued by the Embassy of the Russian Federation in India, September 24, 1999, p. 12.
30. News from Russia, April 23, 1999, p. 21.
31. The author's conversation with the Russian ambassador in New Delhi in June 1999.
32. See, for instance, Izvestia, May 28, 1999.
33. Subsequently, the Lahore Declaration of February 1999 has also been added in the Soviet statements as providing the basis for the peaceful settlement of Indo-Pak issues along with the Simla Agreement.
34. News from Russia, June 11, 1999, p. 16.
35. Summary of World Broadcasts, Part I, June 19, 1999.
36. Izvestia, July 14, 1999.
37. Pakistan Horizon, vol. 46, no. 3&4, July-October 1993, pp. 150-151.
38. Ibid., p. 153.
39. Kalim Bahadur, "Pakistan's Arms Deal with Russia", The Pioneer, December 5, 1994.
40. Bakshi, n. 24, pp. 235-236.
41. News from Russia, May 14, 1999, p. 18.
42. Pakistan Horizon, vol. 48, no. 3, July 1995, pp. 21-24.
43. Ibid., p. 38.
44. Pakistan Horizon, vol. 50, no. 3, 1997, p. 141.
45. Pakistan Horizon, vol. 49, no. 1, January 1996, p. 31.
46. The Hindu, August 25, September 22, 1999.
47. Khadka, n. 4, pp. 339-340.