Russia's Role in South Asia

Background

After the implementation of Western sanctions affecting the Russia’s financial markets, military industry and natural resource sector, the Russian government has focused on boosting ties to old and new partners in Latin America, East Asia and South Asia.

In this concept, South Asia plays a crucial role as Russia’s relations to the region are rooted in troubled historic links. Early explorers and discoverers such as the Russian Afanasy Nikitin belonged to the first Europeans helped to establish trade links with India. The Russian empire and the Soviet Union bordered Afghanistan. It propped up pro-Soviet governments in Kabul, maintained close relations with Delhi, while Pakistan looked to Moscow suspiciously. Although the region was long marred by poverty and volatile political environments, states such as India and Pakistan are emerging markets whose share of the global economy is expected to rise substantially for the foreseeable future. As the West pursues a strategy of alienating Russia, Moscow’s strategic interest in South Asia is an increasingly important dynamic to analyze.

 

Relations between Russia and India

India, the world’s third largest economy, is one of Moscow’s main allies. The Soviet Union was a staunch supporter of Indian independence from the British Empire. In the 1970s and 1980s the Soviet Union has backed India’s crisis torn economy. Besides, the Soviet-war in Afghanistan and the old conflict between India and Pakistan about Kashmir fostered an Indo-Russian alliance. India regarded the Islamist rebels in Afghanistan as a threat to its own security and as a proxy of Pakistan. An India-friendly Afghanistan would bolster India’s aspirations in the region and limit Pakistan’s offensive potential. Nuclear cooperation was another area of cooperation between the two countries. Russia has built and is building various power plants in India, while the West criticizes India’s nuclear build up.

 

Delhi’s reaction to Crimea

India did not formally react to the Crimea Crisis and abstained during the UN General Assembly Resolution condemning Russia’s annexation of the Crimea Peninsula. However, some statements of India’s government officials were interpreted as India’s support for Russia. In fact, several trade deals and negotiations were conducted after the annexation. Economic relations have strengthened while military ties improved as India concluded key military deals for helicopters and potentially minesweepers. The conservative government of newly elected Prime Minister Narendra Modi reaffirmed India’s close partnership with Russia. Modi’s personal relations with the West were strained by visa restrictions. During a meeting at the BRICS summit in Fortaleza, Modi stated that "even a child in India if asked to say who India’s best friend is will reply it is Russia because Russia has been with India in times of crisis."

 

Potential of the Russian-Indian Partnership

India’s emerging market status and economic development has accompanied large energy and crude material consumption. This compliments Russia’s interest in diversifying its hydrocarbons customer base and Moscow regards India as a future market. Instability in the Middle East and elsewhere encourages Delhi to shift suppliers. Another area of cooperation is military goods and nuclear industry. Russia accounts over 60% of military hardware imports to India. Additionally, several projects are focusing on joint development of interceptors such as the Sukhoi/HAL FGFA and missiles such as the short-range BrahMos. Facing a dominant China and the spread of Islamist ideology in the region, India is prone on ramping up its military capabilities. Besides those traditional branches, Russia and India have the potential to cooperate in the high tech fields such as the space industry and electronic manufacturing. In foreign policy, both India and Russia support a multipolar world order and alternatives to Western institutions such as the BRICS bloc of emerging economies.

 

Russia’s relations to Pakistan

Historically, Russia’s relations to Pakistan have been inferior to relations with India. Further, Russia’s meddling in Afghanistan and the close American-Pakistani ties contribute to a strained relationship. However, recent interactions between Washington and Islamabad are in crisis while Beijing’s growing role in the region may facilitate rapprochement between Moscow and Islamabad.

 

Islamabad's Reaction to Crimea

Similar to India, Pakistan abstained from the UNGA resolution on Crimea, although statements issued by Islamabad condemned Moscow’s actions. Like India, several trade agreements were recently signed. Moscow and Islamabad have agreed on building a gas pipeline from Lahore to Karachi, the first project of its kind in the history of both countries. Additionally, both countries inked a military cooperation deal and Russia lifted arms embargoes on Pakistan.

 

Potential of Russian-Pakistani Relations

Although the recent developments have been titled as a milestone in the history of both countries, Moscow will have to pay heed to its alliance with India. In times of major sanctions imposed on Russia, jeopardizing its relations to the Delhi could play out to be a strategic blunder. However, Russia could also become a broker in the conflict between India and Pakistan. Lastly, Russia may profit from rapprochement between the two as new energy supplies to the subcontinent open.

 

Afghanistan

Russo-Afghan relations share a long and often difficult history. The decade long Soviet occupation and resistance against the pro-Soviet regime in Kabul resulted in about 1 million civilian deaths and over 14,000 military casualties. After the defeat of the Taliban government in 2001, relations between Kabul and Moscow improved. Russia is engaged in the conflict against Islamist extremism, has offered assistance to Afghanistan, and discussed a range of economic development projects with Kabul.

 

Afghan Reaction to Crimea

Afghanistan is counted among the few countries that openly supported Russia in the UNGA vote. President Karzai backed Russia’s annexation of Crimea and stated that it was the free will of Crimea’s population to decide their own fate. Since the annexation, Afghanistan has garnered Russian economic support and increased investment. Russia has also launched several cultural exchange programs with Afghan universities. The rapprochement between Afghanistan and Russia counters strained relations with Washington and the official withdrawal of combat troops from Afghanistan.

 

Potential of the Russian-Afghan Relations

Kabul and Russia have several common interests, not least of which are: the fight against extremism, combating illicit drug trafficking, and building a functional, federal government in Afghanistan. Russia maintains considerable influence over Tajikistan and Uzbekistan and this may assist in the consolidation of federal power when considering the large number of ethnic Tajik and Uzbeks in Northern Afghanistan. Additionally, Tajikistan is a likely future member of the EEU and hosts Russian military bases.

For Russia, filling the vacuum of power after the US withdrawal may give Moscow a better access to the Indian energy markets. However, the success of Russian investment in Afghanistan depends on a victory of the Afghan government against the Taliban, the outcome of which is far from certain.

 

Summary

Russia recently fostered its relations to the main countries in South Asia India, Pakistan and Afghanistan. As the partnership between Russia and India stands on solid grounds, trade between the two nations is further enhancing. However, Russia’s rapprochement with Islamabad might challenge its relations with Delhi. Russia must pay close attention to avoid a split with Delhi, while encouraging partnerships with Kabul and Islamabad. The threat of terrorism in the region may unite the regional players India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Russia, and arguably even China to combat the spread of Islamist ideology. In this scenario Russia could play a leading role as broker between the three states.