As US Presidential Advisor Ivanka Trump inaugurated together with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi the Global Entrepreneur Summit (GES) at the Indian city of Hyderabad — the first ever GES held in South Asia — Indian Home Minister Rajnath Singh was in Moscow meeting with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Kolokoltsev. Deals were signed between the sides to strengthen intelligence sharing and counter-terrorism cooperation, including an agreement on Cooperation on Security. This agreement provides a comprehensive approach for cooperation in security-related issues, including information technology crimes, counterfeiting currency, illicit trafficking in narcotic drugs and psychotropic substances, trafficking in human beings, economic crimes, and crimes related to intellectual property and cultural property, amongst others.
A Joint Action Plan between the Narcotics Control Bureau for the period 2018-20 was also signed by Pankaj Saran, Ambassador of India to the Russian Federation, and Igor Zubov, State Secretary and Deputy Minister of the Russian Ministry of Interior.
Singh’s visit was soon followed by that of Minister of External Affairs Sushma Swaraj to Russia, this time to attend the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit in Sochi. India regards the SCO as an important platform for direct engagement with the SCO member states on regional security. And it was again Russia that had facilitated India’s entry in the organization. High on Swaraj’s agenda was therefore to discuss terrorism and security with her counterparts from the SCO member states, which she adroitly did.
Both visits underscored the fact that India is now heavily invested in its relationship with its once close friend Russia for counter-terrorism and security.
What has lent urgency to this is the recent release from house arrest of the Pakistan-based terrorist Hafiz Saeed, the founder of the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) — and whose Jamat-ud-Dawa organization is a front for the LeT — and who was behind the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks which left 166 dead and many more wounded, many of them foreign nationals. Not only have the Pakistani courts found him not guilty, they have also been reluctant to continue his detention. Saeed carries a $10 million bounty on his head and was placed in 2012 on a United States Treasury sanctions list of those designated as leaders of terrorist organizations. The LeT, meanwhile, is on the United Nations list of global terrorist groups.
Saeed has often held rallies and demonstrations inciting against India and the US, and has inspired terror attacks across India, especially in Pakistan-claimed Jammu and Kashmir. He had recently expressed a desire to contest national elections in Pakistan and has floated the Milli Muslim League political party. However, as he had been placed under arrest 10 months ago, he was unable to put forth his candidature. With his release now, such constraints have been removed. Though the election commission of Pakistan has rejected his candidacy, what is worrisome is that Saeed has a large following, and together with the increasing mainstreaming of religious fundamentalism in Pakistan — seen earlier in the assassinations of public servants and more recently in the resignation of a minister — these developments have spooked India.
While Russia has had a consistent policy recognizing Jammu and Kashmir as an integral part of India, what has concerned India is the close relationship it has been cultivating with Pakistan in recent times. Not only has Russia concluded defence deals with Pakistan, the two countries held their first joint military exercises in September last year. What was worrisome for India was that these were initially slated to be held in Pakistan-administered Kashmir — a disputed piece of territory which India claims as its own. Furthermore, the drills came on the heels of a major terrorist attack across the Line of Control between India and Pakistan in the Uri sector of Indian Kashmir, to which India reciprocated with the launch of surgical strikes across the border. While there were expectations in India that the joint exercise would be called off, they went ahead nevertheless. This may, of course, be a Russian hedge against a growing India-US cooperation. In private conversations, for instance, Russian journalists are interested only in India’s growing closeness to the US. Indians, however, see this as a reflection of the doctrine of multi-alignment that the country seeks to pursue in its foreign policy.
Recent discussions on India-Russia relations have been focusing on strengthening collaboration between the two countries, especially in defense and trade.
Despite such hiccups, defense ties between India and Russia remain strong. The defense relationship between India and Russia has in fact morphed from a buyer-seller relationship to a partnership featuring the joint production of the Brahmos missile. While India has for a while diversified its defense procurement — looking to the US and Israel — India’s defense inventory will continue to demand cooperation with Russia for years to come. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, India, which is currently the world’s largest arms importer, remains one of Russia’s largest arms markets, accounting for 39 percent of Russian arms exports in 2011-15. In Goa last year during the Modi-Putin summit, defense deals worth $10.5 billion were signed, one of which was for the supply of five S-400 Triumf missile systems from Russia to India. Military-to-military cooperation between the two sides has also increased. The first ever joint tri-services exercise “INDRA” was held in Vladivostok in October this year. India has also invested almost $6 billion in Russia’s hydrocarbon sector and the development of the International North South Transport Corridor is further expected to boost trade and energy cooperation between the two.
Indian analysts feel that all this should sensitize Russia to India’s security and military perspective and preempt it from aligning itself too closely with Pakistan to India’s detriment. This comes amidst a constant drift in US-Pakistan relations and Pakistan’s close embrace of China. While India has been looking approvingly at the US censure of Pakistan, it also understands the limits that the Americans face as long as supply lines to Afghanistan have to be sustained through Pakistan. Moreover, India is still figuring out where it stands with the current Trump administration, whose recent proposal of changes in its visa policy will put Indians at a disadvantage.
Afghanistan is another area where India and Russia are pursuing divergent goals. While Russia and India both see themselves as victims of Islamist terrorism, their perception of threats differ. India wants to strengthen the hands of the government in Kabul, supports an Afghan-owned and Afghan-led peace process, and sees the Taliban as the main threat to peace there. It has to that end been actively engaged in capacity-building and development work inside the war-torn country. Russia, on the other hand, sees ISIS, which has managed to gain a foothold there, as a greater threat than the Taliban and has been reaching out to the latter. Here, Russian and Pakistani views converge as Pakistan sees the Taliban as part of the solution, and has been providing safe havens to some of the violent factions like the Haqqani network.
So here too India wants Russian appreciation of its concerns. India’s calculation is that its $2.3 trillion economy — which is poised to grow to $6 trillion one over the next ten years — together with its multi-billion dollar arms market will be powerful incentives for Russia to not disregard its concerns for factors that are not central to Russian strategic interests. Rather, Russia can play a useful role to impress on other regional players of India’s concerns.
Therefore, India is also seeking to leverage its close ties with Russia to influence China, to whom it has been drawing increasingly closer amidst its widening rift with the US. Increasingly, it is China that is playing a bigger role in Pakistan, especially with its promise of $46 billion for the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. For instance, it has been widely interpreted that Saeed’s house arrest ten months earlier had come under Chinese pressure. However, China continues to block adding the name of Pakistani terrorist Masood Azhar to the UN 1267 list of sanctioned individuals and organizations for terrorism. Azhar’s Jaish-e-Mohamad organization has launched multiple terrorist attacks on Indian territory, and for the first time the Xiamen BRICS declaration earlier this year included this organization, along with the LeT, as terror groups. This was widely understood to have been facilitated by Russia. However, at the recent Russia-India-China forum’s ministerial summit in Delhi, the joint declaration again failed to mention any of the India-centric Pakistan-based terror groups.
India is also looking for Russian support for its inclusion in the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG). While India has received approval from both the US and Russia, China has been insisting on the “consensual” approach, indicating that the same parameters should be applied to both India and Pakistan, which is also seeking entry into the NSG. Recently in New Delhi, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov said: “Russia is a firm proponent of India’s entry into such platforms (like NSG, Wassenaar Arrangement) … Russia has always undertaken a particular effort in India’s NSG membership. We are talking to everyone.”
India hopes for similar proactive Russian positions in other major areas of concern. To this end, recent discussions on India-Russia relations have been focusing on strengthening collaboration between the two countries, especially in defense and trade. As Vijay Gokhale, the Secretary of Economic Relations in the Indian Ministry of External Affairs, stated earlier this month in his address at the Second India-Russia Heads of Think-Tanks Forum in Delhi: “We have stood together in good and difficult times … Russia is and will remain the key important foreign policy priority for India. It would not be out of place to state that this is a strong national consensus.” Hence, even as India seeks to draw closer to the US, its ties with Russia will continue to remain strong for the foreseeable future.