From Cyber to Khyber – Russia’s New Footprint in South Asia, Part I

Russia has been rapidly expanding its military and political footprint across South Asia over the past several months. Simultaneously pursuing military exercises with Pakistan and signing bilateral cyber pacts with India, Moscow has found itself as the middle man between two nuclear-armed rivals. But why is this happening now? This series will examine Russia's relations with both India and Pakistan to try to identify what long-term trends are at work in the region.


On the 24th of September, Russia and Pakistan made history with their first ever joint military exercise. Dubbed Friendship 2016, the exercise consisted of a series of wargames in the Khyber province of Pakistan’s mountainous northwest. This region, formerly known as the Frontier Province, has long been one of the most difficult regions for Pakistan to govern. That same week, Russia signed a long-anticipated “Cyber Pact” with India, Pakistan’s primary rival. Moscow appears poised to increase its military-diplomatic footprint across the Subcontinent, on both sides of the India-Pakistan divide.

Russia and Pakistan: Why Now?

India has been vocal in raising concerns about the newfound cooperation between Russia and Pakistan. Rumors that part of the joint exercises would occur in Pakistani-held Kashmir were quickly denied by the Russian Defense Ministry. In an official statement, the Russian Embassy in Delhi said that “the only venue of the exercise is Cherat. All reports alleging the drills taking place at the High Altitude Military School in Rattu are erroneous and mischievous." Indian analysts seemed less-than-reassured.  

The drills, which were also criticized from within Russia, consisted of around 200 soldiers practicing counterinsurgency operations. Looking at a larger geographical context, this fact is quite telling. Just to Pakistan’s north, Tajikistan is experiencing increased turmoil, caused in large part by a re-emerging Islamist insurgency. This Central Asian country has been faced with a degree of Jihadist radicalism largely unseen in the post-Soviet world, with the exception of the North Caucasus. The high-profile defection of Gulmurod Khalimov, Colonel of Tajikistan’s elite police force, to the Islamic State last year made international headlines, bringing international attention to Tajikistan’s troubles.

The International Crisis Group has issued an early warning about the potential collapse of the Tajik-Afghan border, citing increased pressure both domestically and externally. With Tajiks forming one of the largest ethnic groups in Afghanistan, the potential for insurgency to spread across the border (in either direction) is a very real danger.

It is in this context that the Russian-Pakistani drills are especially interesting. Russia has been increasing its military presence in Tajikistan (despite recent cuts) for over a year, hoping to prevent the proliferation of Jihadism into Central Asia. The Tajik government in Dushanbe has been (perhaps reluctantly) supportive of this, as their own military is poorly equipped to handle the problem. The “Afghanization” of Tajikistan is a worst case scenario for all parties involved, but even the Russian military services have little experience fighting in the region since the Soviet war in the 1980s.

Enter Pakistan

Pakistan has a uniquely long history of fighting against (and working with, depending on what was in national interest at the time) militant actors across Afghanistan and South Asia. Pakistan was an active supporter of the Mujahadeen against the Soviet Union in the 1980s, and has maintained close relations with the Afghan Taliban (despite an ongoing struggle with the Pakistani Taliban) ever since. Islamabad knows the militant actors in the region like the back of its proverbial hand, and is in a position to either influence or fight against them (again, depending on what is deemed convenient at the time). For better or for worse, it is the most capable partner Moscow can turn to in the regional context.   

It’s Complicated – but Mostly Business

Pakistan is known to been an active state sponsor of terrorist groups in Indian-held Kashmir, despite maintaining a long-standing counterterrorism campaign domestically. What seems like a contradictory strategy at first glance is actually quite straightforward when looked at through cynical geopolitical lenses (something always handy to keep nearby). In its cold (on-again off-again hot) war with India, Pakistan is constantly facing an enemy which is much larger geographically, much stronger numerically, and increasingly more advanced technologically. Faced with this reality, Pakistan has supported Islamist insurgents in Kashmir in order to augment their numerical disadvantage. So long as these groups limit their armed activities to opposing India, they work to Pakistan’s advantage. When they turn to operate against the Pakistani state, they will be cracked down on. Keeping India tied down in Kashmir in this way has allowed Pakistan room to maneuver in other areas such as, say, Afghanistan and Central Asia.  

And it is precisely here where Russia’s interests converge with Pakistan.    

Russian experts have repeatedly stressed that Pakistan will not come between India and Russia in their strategic relationship. As the new cyber agreement indicates, Russia still views India as its preferred long-term political, economic, and military partner (you can’t spell BRICS without RI). Improved relations with Pakistan can offer Russia an invaluable asset in its struggles in Central Asia, but this should not be seen as some sort of geopolitical pivot.

To be continued in Part II

Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons