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India, too, has an all-weather friend

Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureishi called his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov on August 14. Qureishi asked for Russia’s support on Pakistan’s move, together with China, in the UN Security Council, to condemn India’s action to amend Articles 364 and 35 (a) of its Constitution. Qureishi’s demarche included the usual Pakistani propaganda about alleged Indian violations of “human rights” in Jammu and Kashmir.

According to the Russian official statement, the phone call to Lavrov, “at the initiative of the Pakistani side,” focussed on India’s decision “to change the legal status of the State of Jammu and Kashmir”. Lavrov, in response, “emphasised the need for de-escalation of tensions”. He added: “There is no alternative to resolve differences between Pakistan and India, except bilaterally through political and diplomatic means. Representatives of Russia to the UN adhere to this consistent position”.

Barely 48 hours later, the Joint effort by China and Pakistan, in a closed door meeting of the UN Security Council, was rejected almost unanimously, by other members of the UN Security Council, including the US, Russia, France and Germany. Some eyebrows were raised on the actions of the British Deputy Permanent Security in the Security Council, who was seen encouraging the Chinese delegation to demand an open meeting of the Security Council.

Given the attacks on Indians and the Indian High Commission in London in the days that followed, it is obvious that the British Government is condoning and perhaps even encouraging, less than friendly actions, against Indian interests. New Delhi will hopefully respond strongly and appropriately on issues like British requests for a Free Trade Agreement, after the UK’s Brexit Divorce, from the European Union.

Russia has consistently supported India on the Kashmir issue. In November 1955, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev referred to the decision taken by the Kashmir Constituent Assembly in 1953, to join the Indian Union. He remarked: “The people of Kashmir had already decided to join the Indian Union”. Russia’s 100th veto in the UN Security Council on June 22, 1962, was against a Resolution moved by Ireland, duly backed by the US and its allies, seeking selective implementation of parts of past UN Resolutions, alluding to a plebiscite in Kashmir. Interestingly, this came a year after a Soviet veto of a US-led resolution in December 1961, seeking to reverse the liberation of Goa, by India.

Bangladesh conflict

The Soviet Union vetoed three Security Council Resolutions directed against India, during the December 1971 Bangladesh conflict. Some non-permanent members, duly backed by a virtual Sino-American alliance, initiated these resolutions.

The UK and France abstained from backing these resolutions. A little known fact is that the Russians warned the Chinese against any involvement in the Bangladesh conflict, with a huge deployment of their mechanised forces and air power, along the Kazakhstan border.

When the US Seventh Fleet’s nuclear powered aircraft carrier, USS Enterprise, entered the Bay of Bengal in December 1971, a Russian nuclear submarine trailed it. When the Soviet Union collapsed, President Clinton persuaded Russian President Boris Yeltsin to halt all cooperation with India’s space programme. Bypassing Yeltsin, Russian scientists passed on designs of cryogenic engines for India’s space programme.

Given American hostility aimed at “containing” Moscow, a cash-strapped Putin’s Russia naturally moved towards a closer relationship with China, while it watched what it believed was an increasingly close embrace of Washington, by New Delhi. While Moscow and New Delhi had cooperated closely in countering the Taliban in Afghanistan, India worked closely with the US, after the US intervention in Afghanistan, post 9/11.

The Sino-Russian global entente today primarily aims at containing American unilateralism. While Putin has opened the door for arms purchases by Pakistan, Islamabad does not have the hard cash to pay for Russian weapons. Russia has also joined China to cooperate with Pakistan, on attempts to broker peace in Afghanistan, as the Americans prepare to wind down their presence there. Putin has, however, consistently held that the Kashmir issue should be resolved bilaterally between India and Pakistan. The Russian position on its border disputes with Ukraine is also that these issues should be settled bilaterally. Moreover, Crimea has historically been a part of Russia. Soviet Leader Nikita Khrushchev had rather impetuously, handed it over to Ukraine, in 1958.

Moscow’s concerns about the India-US relationship were substantially assuaged when, disregarding threats of American sanctions on arms purchases from Russia, India announced that it was going ahead with a $5.43 billion deal to purchase S 400 surface-to-air missiles from Moscow.

It is also clear, especially after Modi’s recent visit, that India is not going to bow to threats of US sanctions on its acquisitions from Russia, including on indigenous production of AK 203 rifles, lease of nuclear submarines, purchase of TU 22 bombers and modernisation/upgrading of current Russian equipment.

Modi’s visit to Russia’s resource rich Far East, including Vladivostok, has given a new “Look East” dimension, to India’s relations with Russia.

While India was already an investment partner in production of natural gas in Russia, Modi’s allocation of $1 billion for Indian investment in Russia’s Far East will set the stage for expanding cooperation in areas like imports of LNG and coal from Russia.

Trade in items like LNG and coal is set to get a boost with the establishment of an energy corridor between Vladivostok and Chennai. India also has a keen interest in imports of Russian diamonds. Russia played a helpful role in ending global nuclear sanctions against India. It now leads the world in building nuclear power plants in India.

Distrusting the Chinese

The Russians have for long feared that large numbers of Chinese would move in and take control of their sparsely populated territories, across their north-eastern borders. This is an important reason for Russia welcoming Indian and other foreign investments and personnel for projects in its Far East. Despite the present Sino-Russian bonhomie, the Russians deeply distrust long-term Chinese intentions. Even today, Moscow hedges its bets and keeps it channels of communication and cooperation open, with both India and Vietnam.

The US also today seeks maritime and economic cooperation with both India and Vietnam, to counter Chinese power and territorial ambitions in the Indo-Pacific region. Indian diplomacy will, in coming years, remain focussed on the emerging power equations between the US, China and Russia, in a world where the US and Russia will be the major players in the global energy sector.

The writer is a former High Commissioner to Pakistan

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