President Putin was among the first world leaders to send a condolence message to the Indian President and PM, condemning the terrorist attack of February 14 in Pulwama, asserting that “those who ordered it and carried it out” should be “duly punished”, and offering to further strengthen bilateral counter-terrorism cooperation. The Russian Foreign Ministry statement (February 15) went further, expressing confidence that the crime, “for which the Jaish-e-Mohammed terror group has claimed responsibility, will be properly investigated, and its organisers and perpetrators duly punished”. The statement further reaffirmed Russia's “unwavering support” for India in its “uncompromising fight against terrorism”. The obvious omission in both articulations is mention of Pakistan as the home of JeM.
After the IAF operation in Balakot on February 26, Russian statements changed in tone and substance. An MFA statement on February 27 expressed “grave concern” over the “escalating situation” along the LoC and heightened tensions between the two states “which are Russia’s friends”. The inevitable call for restraint from both sides followed, and offer of strengthening counter-terrorism capacity of both countries. A Russian MFA release on the meeting of the Indian and Russian Foreign Ministers on the margins of the Russia India China (RIC) Foreign Ministers’ meeting in China (February 27) does not mention either Pulwama or Balakot; only that FM Lavrov “expressed hope for a de-escalation” of the India-Pakistan situation. In a further statement of February 28, the MFA drew attention to “dangerous manoeuvres” of both militaries along the LoC, urged maximum restraint, reiterated the offer of counter-terrorism support to both countries, and extended the sage advice to resolve contentious issues through bilateral “political-diplomatic methods”, adding reference to the “1972 Simla Agreement and the 1999 Lahore Declaration” (this sop to India has been used before).
The Kremlin press release on the telephone call to PM Modi by President Putin (February 28) is more sensitive in its wording, but contained the same message. After condemning the terrorist attack and hailing the bilateral strategic partnership, he expressed the hope for a prompt settlement of the India-Pakistan “crisis in relations”.
Pakistan’s Foreign Minister telephoned Russian FM Lavrov on March 1, when (as per MFA), the latter stressed the need for “all countries” to cooperate in implementation of “universal counter-terrorism conventions”, suggesting that the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) could be a suitable forum for this. He also expressed Russia’s “readiness to promote the de-escalation of tensions”. The Pakistani FM naturally expressed great joy at this offer, clubbing it together with statements made by President Trump and the UN Secretary General. The Indian Ambassador to Russia immediately told the Russian media that India has not received a formal offer of mediation and would not accept it even if it did.
Over the years, virtually every major power has shown the temptation (even craving) to play mediator between India and Pakistan. Russia itself has shown it more than once. However, it has desisted from this offer in the recent past, knowing India’s aversion to the idea. In June 2017, Russian MFA moved swiftly to scotch rumours put out by Pakistan about President Putin’s offer (to PM Sharif) of mediation with India. MFA then said that India-Pakistan differences had to be sorted out bilaterally (quoting Shimla and Lahore). The decision to now show even-handedness (“restraint on both sides”) and publicly offer mediation suggests deference to Pakistani wishes, given the close engagement that the two countries have recently entered into, particularly over Afghanistan.
As evidence of the recent transformation of Russia-Pakistan relations, the Russian defence ministry announced in early February that a “small” batch of Mi-35 combat transport helicopters had recently been supplied to Pakistan. This is the first military supply from Russia to Pakistan after the supply of four of the same helicopters in 2016-17. The head of Russian arms major, Rostec, had then said, on the margins of the BRICS summit in 2016, that no further military supplies to Pakistan were in prospect. Asked about the impact of these sales on India-Russia defence cooperation, a senior defence ministry official pointed out that India is diversifying its defence acquisitions, Russia is adjusting to this situation and, further, these supplies are for counter-terrorism, in which India should be equally interested.
February 28, 2019