Russia balances India and Pakistan
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.
Russia rejects the Indo-Pacific construct
At an international conference in Vietnam (February 25), FM Lavrov took aim at the concept of the Indo-Pacific, calling it an artificially imposed construct promoted by the US, Japan and Australia to contain China and “to get India involved in military-political and naval processes”. He said Russia was comfortable with the Asia-Pacific concept. When questioned by a participant why, in a multipolar world, the objective of balancing China should be considered artificial, he said a more natural format was the RIC grouping, which he said was successful because it reflected complementarity of interests of its participants, unlike the effort to put India together with Japan, “which has no love lost for India”, to counterbalance China.
These are strong public words, coming from a Russian Foreign Minister, implying that India is being dragged helplessly and unwillingly into the Indo-Pacific construct. Russia is well aware of the challenges in the India-China relationship, of India’s self-perception of its pivotal role in the Indo-Pacific geographical region, and the fact that India has often been relegated to the periphery of Asia-Pacific deliberations. It should also be aware (and this figures regularly in bilateral discussions) that India’s Indo-Pacific activities have not impinged on Russia’s interests. As for Japan, its strategic “love” for India dates back at least to 2000, when then PM Yoshiro Mori outlined his vision for a strategic partnership with India.
The choice of Vietnam as the venue for these remarks is curious, since that country also had a difficult history with China and has festering territorial disputes. Seeking some balance to Chinese dominance in its neighbourhood is a Vietnamese strategic objective, not publicly articulated for obvious reasons.
On the other hand, the “complementarity” of interests in RIC was, unfortunately, not in evidence – as far as India is concerned – at the RIC Foreign Ministers’ meeting in Zhejiang, China (27 February). The communique does not even mention the Pulwama terrorist attack, let alone endorse India’s perspectives on it. It contains the usual boilerplate formulations on terrorism, lifted from earlier communiques. It does pat China on the back for the achievements of the Qingdao SCO Summit and endorses Russia’s efforts in the Astana process on Syria, while containing the usual patronizing support of Russia and China for “India’s aspirations to play a greater role in the United Nations”. India needs to seriously consider whether and how its perspectives can be better reflected in RIC deliberations and communiques.
India-Russia defence cooperation
The biennial Aero India show in Bengaluru had its traditional large Russian participation and provided the occasion for expansive claims of defence cooperation prospects. Russian products being showcased included fighter and military transport aircraft, multirole helicopters, air defence and radar systems. Russian Industry Minister Manturov was reported to have presented to Raksha Mantri Sitharaman the unique features of the MiG-35 fighter jet, including competitive life cycle cost and “a brand-new standard of product support services, with the supplier taking comprehensive responsibility for serviceability” – an acknowledgement of the chronic problems of after-sales support with Russian defence platforms. It was also reported that the IAF may place orders of 18 additional Su-30MkI and 21 additional MiG29 aircraft, and that a number of other systems were under consideration.
Moving from the aspirational to the concrete, Russian companies signed MoUs with Indian public and private sector companies for production of parts like fuselages, blades and landing gear for the Ka226T helicopters to be manufactured by an India-Russia joint venture. A joint venture to manufacture assault rifles (Kalashnikovs) at the Korwa ordnance factory in UP is apparently on course; PM Modi laid the foundation stone on March 3. The Brahmos joint venture announced the induction of a lighter version of the air to air missile, which the MiG29s can also carry.
There was some confusion about the status of the contract for the S-400 air defence system, which was signed during President Putin’s India visit in October 2018. Russian Deputy PM Borisov had confirmed that advance payments are being received and the Russian vendor Rosoboronexport announced that the contract had come into effect. However, the head of the arms major Rostec (holding company of Rosoboronexport) indicated on February 18 that the advance payments had still not been received.
Russia remains engaged in an Afghanistan political process
Russia hosted a two-day conference in Moscow of senior Afghan political figures and Taliban representatives (see Review, 1/19). Though projected as a non-governmental meeting called by the Afghan diaspora in Russia and Central Europe, there was no doubt about Russian government backing for it – the final document showed diplomatic drafting expertise and Russian Presidential envoy for Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov, was close at hand to claim credit and to declare that the meeting had shown that US withdrawal will not leave a vacuum: all Afghans, including the Taliban, would reach a peace agreement and then fight ISIS together “in an Afghan manner”.
The attendance from Afghan politics included most strands of the opposition: former president Hamid Karzai, former vice president Yunus Qanuni, former NSA (and Presidential hopeful) Hanif Atmar and others like Atta Mohammad Noor, Mohammad Ismail Khan, and Sayed Gailani.
The nine-point agenda they adopted is unexceptionable, though many elements have never been implemented in Afghan history: respect for the principles of Islam in all parts of the system … a powerful centralised government with all ethnicities having a role in it … protecting national sovereignty and promoting social justice … keeping Afghanistan neutral in all regional and international conflicts … protection of social, economic, political and educational rights of Afghan women in line with Islamic principles .. freedom of speech in line with Islamic principles, etc.
In sum, the meeting was probably intended to demonstrate that Russia still has some cards to play in the Afghan political process, and allowed the Taliban to claim further legitimacy as a dialogue partner in the process.
Stumbling along on Syria
As US withdrawal plans from Syria remained unclear (and changing), Russia sought to maintain some commonality of purpose among the Astana trio of Russia, Turkey and Iran on the way forward. A summit meeting of the three in Sochi (February 14) resulted in a joint statement, but also revealed their divergent perspectives – the Kremlin website, which normally carries statements and media responses of all leaders interacting with President Putin, carried only President Putin’s statement and responses.
All three countries agree on the need for an early convening of the Syrian Constitutional Committee to set a political process in motion. They agree that conditions should be created for return of Syrian refugees and that international humanitarian assistance to the Syrian people is an urgent imperative. However, the issue of clearing Idlib of “terrorists”, including those who launch periodical attacks on Russian troops in Latakia, and creation of a “safe zone” on the Turkish Syrian border remain contentious issues. Turkey’s insistence on its troops occupying northern Syria on vacation of that area by the US met with strong resistance from both Iran and Russia – the latter offering its military police to patrol the border. Russia separately has been continuing to encourage an accommodation between the Syrian Kurds and the Assad government.
Keeping Turkey on board remains Russia’s main challenge. Energy and economic links with Russia – the Black Sea Turkstream2 gas pipeline, a nuclear power plant with Russian credit, 6 million Russian tourists in Turkey and extensive Turkish business interests in Russia – are important binding factors, but Russia is conscious of Turkey’s global ambitions and its potential strategic value to the US in northern Syria, West Asian politics and in the Black Sea. Turkey’s close relations with Russia have not prevented its agreement to supply armed UAVs to Ukraine, which will significantly enhance the Ukrainian Armed Forces’ capacity to hit the Russian-supported rebel forces (and private Russian mercenaries) in eastern Ukraine.
US launches an onslaught on Nordstream2
While the US leadership, from President Trump downwards, has been strongly critical of the Russian-German gas pipeline project, Nordstream2 (NS2) (see earlier Reviews), the US moved multiple levers in February to block it. Strong pressure was apparently brought to bear on the European Commission through various EU countries, urging it to apply its intra-EU energy rules to the project. EU rules require pipelines operating in the intra-European market to unbundle transportation from production. For NS2, this means that Russia’s Gazprom would have to sell its pipeline to a third party to separate production from delivery. Application of EU rules would also mean Russian gas sold in Europe would be subject to EU pricing regulations.
US Ambassadors to Germany and France wrote to individual companies, warning them that their participation in the project would result in their being barred from business in the US.
Germany and France, whose company is one of the contractors for NS2, had stood strong and were expected to swing the deal through the Commission. However, France did a last-minute volte face, apparently succumbing to threat of US sanctions against its company. Frantic lobbying by Germany with EU partners and a last-minute compromise formula worked out with France, resulted in a EU Commission decision, which would enable the project to proceed. The compromise enables Germany to seek exemption from EU to application of EU rules for the project. While this decision enables construction work on the project to continue, it has to be approved by all EU governments and the European Parliament. These approvals are normally formalities after the European Commission has decided, but continued US government opposition could still throw multiple spanners in the works. And then there is the ultimate weapon of CAATSA, which could scare off companies implementing the project.
Arguments about NS2 and Turkstream2 are often based on the objective of reducing Europe’s dependence on Russian gas. Meanwhile, Gazprom statistics showed that Russia’s share in EU’s gas imports has actually risen by over two per cent from over 34% in 2017 to about 37% in 2018. This trend is likely to continue, since piped Russian gas is considerably cheaper than LNG supplies; moreover, the import capacity of LNG in Europe is still limited. Thus, if through sanctions or other pressures, the US succeeds in stalling NS2 and Turkstream2, it would strike an economic blow to Russia, but also to Europe, by significantly increasing its energy import prices. It would also shift the European energy hub from Germany to Central Europe, with major implications for the EU.