Russia’s Agenda for South Asia

Russia’s Agenda for South Asia
October 2000

The end of the cold war and disintegration of the federation left Russia in the lurch. After a period of preoccupation with internal economic crisis and structural adjustments, the Russian ruling class and the society as a whole are out to search for like-minded countries on the international scene for a possible realignment of sorts that can be a counter balance against what some nations have begun to perceive as increasing American hegemonism in the New World Order. Mr. Putin’s stepped up rhetoric against the U.S. may be reflective of the deep and intensified anti-Western resentment within Russia. Renewed emphasis on strengthening ties with China and India-both are seen as states notching up impressive economic victories- can be taken to be a natural concomitant of Russia’s disappointment with the west after the environment became significantly uni-polar. (Anand K Sahay; The Hindustan Times 1 October 2000) Putin has made common cause with China by advocating multipolarity as the sine qua non for an unborn new world order in the context of their objections to the U.S.’s National Missile Defence System. (Edit; The Hindu 5 October 2000)

This is a view which even China subscribes. Under the disguised attempt to give a regional perspective to Putin’s India visit as leading to peace and stability in the region, China harbors a desire for a new geo-political realignment . “We hope that the development of the India-Russia relationship will be beneficial for preserving regional security, peace and stability,” the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Mr. Sun Yuxi, said. “Both India and Russia are our close neighbors and friendly nations. We want to see the relations between the two countries develop”. (The Hindu 3 October 2000) In this context it is interesting to project India and Russia as Regional Stabilisers drawing a convergence of interest from the facts that India, Russia and China can be natural allies based on old ties, that the situation in Kashmir and Afghanistan hinders regional stability and India and Russia are interested in curbing Islamic fundamentalism (Yevgeny Kozhokin; The Statesman 4 October 2000.) From India’s stand point, a continuing closeness with Russia, despite Clinton and emerging Indo-US bonhomie, is based on immediate needs. Russia cannot any more provide the bulwark of the Cold War era, but it continues to be a P-5 member and a more reliable ally in the UN Security Council than India’s new friends – whether on nuclear issue or Kashmir or India’s bid for a permanent seat in the Security Council. Russia can always be trusted to mute any criticism of India. (The Times of India 3 October 2000.) Between India and Russia, mutually shared dimensions have always determined the bilateral interaction with common geo-political concerns outweighing post cold war differences. (Edit; The Asian Age 3 October 2000). A renewal of ties between cold war’s most intense friends will intensify multilateral initiatives against international terrorism, especially Islamic fundamentalism that poses as much of a threat to India in the Valley as it does to Russia in Chechnya. India as a market for Russia’s defence industry and the benefits that India stands to get from a collaboration in the Information Technology sector comes with the package. (Edit: The Pioneer 3 October 2000)

The visit of the Russian President held significance for the cause of nuclear non proliferation which has subjected South Asia to international condemnation and rendered it a priority area of international concern. Russia held divergent positions on issues arising out of India’s nuclear tests but within manageable proportions. “We would welcome India to sign the CTBT. By joining it, India would do a great service to the mankind and the cause of non-proliferation of nuclear weapons. We are aware of India’s concerns, and India is fully aware of our position. There is a mutual commitment to the reduction of the nuclear threat. But we will not pressure India or introduce any sanctions. More than that – we are ready to continue our fruitful cooperation in peaceful exploration of nuclear energy” The fact remains that even with a change in power equations post cold war India remains central to Russia the same way Moscow continues to be significant to New Delhi. That is the reason why the latest contacts between Russia and Pakistan are under intense scrutiny. (K.K. Katyal; The Hindu 3 October 2000.)

As the Indian and Russian societies undergo rapid change, their world views cannot and will not remain the same. There are new elite rising in both sides that are not part of the traditional framework of Indo-Russian cooperation. In the present context of new polarisations in the world order openness, transparency and intensive communication are the best means available to India and Russia to reassure each other about their diplomatic initiatives towards third countries of concern. (C. Raja Mohan; The Hindu 1 October 2000)

The positive outcome of the visit having relevance for South Asia have been an affirmation about the centrality of the proposed strategic partnership to Russia’s post-Soviet ties with India, a firm Russian disclaimer about the possibility of any defence cooperation with Pakistan or mediation in Kashmir despite Pakistan’s reported suggestion in that regard.

Even with an overt declaration of intent that India and Russia are not seeking to weave a military-political alliance and that their new partnership is “not directed against any other state or group of states” the new bilateral engagement seeks to try and build a multipolar global order. This is a shift from the dominant perception of the seventies of the Soviet Union coming in aid of India against military adventurism by China and or Pakistan. It also takes into account the changes in power relationships. There is no inherent incompatibility between the India-U.S. ‘Vision Statement’ of March 2000 and ‘Declaration on Strategic Partnership between India and Russia.’

Has India then chosen to cast its lot with an expanding but amorphous league of countries not happy with the present international system? The recent and definitive entente with the U.S. has already widened New Delhi’s diplomatic options. For India and Russia, political opportunities are matched by the avenues for linkages in economic and defence including nuclear energy. Russia is obviously looking for a commercial bonanza in the defence sector, despite its nuanced differences with India on nuclear non-proliferation issues, which have now been brought under the rubric of a bilateral political dialogue on a future international system. A more immediate `strategic’ gain for India, therefore, is the accomplished groundwork for the possible constitution of a joint working group on Afghanistan. The related aspect of international terrorism with direct consequences to India can also be suitably addressed. There is obviously a case for widening this potential forum to include the U.S. Putin has not only acknowledged India’s credentials for a bigger role at the U.N. but also discounted the fears that he might play a so-called Pakistan card. India’s diplomacy and strategic thinking which should not be clouded by a Pakistan fixation if it wants to rise to the status of a world power that a permanent membership in the Security Council implies. (Edit; The Hindu 5 October 2000)

The importance of Putin’s visit and its implications for Indo-Russian relations must be assessed in the context of the developing geo-strategic environment. There have been changes in foreign policy orientations, both of Russia and India in the aftermath of the Cold War. Russia is no longer a superpower on a par with the United States. It has, therefore, re-cast its foreign policy. For Russia, China and the US are higher priorities. From a position of categorical support to India on Russia has drawn parallel with US policies on the Kashmir issue The Russian President, has offered an endorsement of India’s position on Kashmir by calling for a decisive end to “foreign interference” in Jammu and Kashmir. The barely coded denunciation of Pakistan in this specific context was supplemented by his parallel suggestion for a settlement of the Kashmir dispute “on a bilateral basis through compromise”. While a “compromise” is ordinarily possible only if the parties do not insist on pre-determined solutions, it stands to reason that Mr. Putin, in the totality of his brief observations on Kashmir, has not bracketed India with Pakistan insofar as the relative questions of intransigence and enthusiasm for a final settlement are concerned. What is however more acceptable to New Delhi is Mr. Putin’s vigorous insistence on an “unconditional respect for the Line of Control” – a phraseology that has come to denote a special diplomatic onus on Pakistan on account of its last Kargil misadventure. (Edit : The Hindu 6 October 2000). Similarly, while acknowledging that India is a deserving candidate for permanent membership of the UN Security Council, Russia did not announce formal support for India’s candidature for the seat. Even as it has shown a greater understanding of India’s logic of nuclear weaponisation, Russia desires India to fall in line with the international non-proliferation agenda. In substantive terms therefore, Indo-Russian relations are now grounded in more tangible mutuality and equality of interests than Indo-US relations, where expectations from the US are greater than what US expects from it. (J.N. Dixit The Indian Express 5 October 2000.) India should have been pleased with the note of diplomatic empathy that Mr. Putin sounded in support of New Delhi’s move for concerted global actions against the scourge of international terrorism. Against a background of Russia’s commitment to the codes of the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group and India’s enduring opposition to a “fullscope” international inspection of all its nuclear reactors the new India-Russia equation will need to withstand the consequential international pressures.

Pakistan’s isolation was bound to end and nothing much need to be seen by India in Putin’s proposed Islamabad visit. Despite internal problems Russia remains a great power. It is a first rank nuclear weapons state with awesome potential and extensive reach. India never had any dispute with Soviet Union or Russia and must keep it that way. (K Natwar Singh The Hindustan Times 2 October 2000)

The central objective of Putin’s foreign policy now is to facilitate the rapid economic development of Russia. The current external activism of Russia is not about launching a new ideological or geopolitical crusade. The Russian President is balancing the determined pursuit of Russian interests with the imperative of catching up with the West on the social and economic front. Putin has left himself enough political room for a compromise with the U.S. There is appreciation for the enormous shortage of resources in dealing with the new security challenges faced by Russia as well as sustaining external military commitments in Central Asia and the Caucasus. An active diplomacy, then, that protects Russia’s interests without committing too many military resources has become a high priority for Mr. Putin. (C. Raja Mohan The Hindu 1 October 2000 )

Putin spoke of communism as a “road to blind alley” that led his country “far away from the mainstream of civilisation.” The Russian President indicated his foreign policy priorities by visiting Europe and east Asia before coming to the sub-continent. A re-calibration of the Indo-Russian relationship at a more realistic level was meant to dug up common interests in containing the terrorist breeding ground of Afghanistan and cooperating to get middle ranking powers some maneuvering space in the unipolar world.

Dealing with Afghanistan

International terrorism is manifesting itself as one of the biggest dangers in the new world order, the threat even encompassing the dangers posed by nuclear weapons. fortunately there has been an universal recognition to the threat. Most of the terrorism has taken root in Asia thanks to the rise of a new wave of fundamentalism. An international conclave – ‘six-plus-two’ was held recently under the auspices of the United Nations attended by high ranking official dealing with foreign policy matters including Madeleine Albright, the Us Secretary of State and Dr. Kamal Karazi of Iran to discuss the ramifications of militancy in Taliban led Afghanistan. The ‘six’ are Iran, China, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, those that share frontiers with Afghanistan. The U.S. and Russia constitute the component of `two’ within the U.N.-sponsored forum, the historical reason being their involvement in Afghanistan as the Cold War adversaries during the communist experiment in that South West Asian country that borders Pakistan. Pakistan is in as despite its constant efforts to woo the Afghans in its battle of wits with India, the leaders in Kabul have traditionally sought to play the so-called India card in order not to become subservient to Islamabad. It is an irony that India, which has already been a victim of Taliban sponsored terrorism, is not a frontline state recognised by the U.N. In the mid-1990s Afghan Islamic leaders such as Prof. Burhanuddin Rabbani and Masood to try and build bridges with India. Given this historical reality, India may continue to figure in the strategic calculations of the future leaders in Kabul, if Afghanistan can be put back on its feet as a state within recognised boundaries. India needs to be associated with the U.N. caucus on Afghanistan, at least as an associate member, even if the caucus does not turn into an international conference on a failed but not forgotten state. (The Hindu 4 October 2000 )
Compiled by

Arabinda Acharya