Some in India have expressed consternation that Russia is holding military exercises with Pakistan. First, the world’s militaries are utterly promiscuous when it comes to holding bilateral exercises — India has held exercises even with China. Second, a mild Russia-Pakistan military engagement is in keeping with a broader trend of normalised relations between the two countries that has been evident for at least a decade.
Only those still living in the shadow of the Cold War should be surprised. The Soviet Union had an adversarial relationship with Pakistan, but Russia has no reason to maintain such a posture. The only drawback for Moscow is concern at how much wooing Islamabad will damage its relationship with New Delhi. India itself has long since diversified its military and political relationships away from Russia and is no position to complain too much. Sensibly, India has preferred to draw red lines on how far the Russia-Pakistan relationship should go. For example, this includes Moscow not selling major offensive weapons platforms — no warships or fighters. Nonetheless, Russia’s initial agreement to hold exercises with Pakistan in disputed parts of Kashmir was remarkably ill-conceived and a sign of how much less India counts in its strategic calculus — a situation mirrored in the New Delhi’s worldview.
The India-Russia relationship is still trying to find a new normal in the wake of the Cold War and the surge in Chinese assertiveness. The greatest weakness is the lack of an economic relationship that encompasses the Indian private sector. India’s odd defence purchase and equity stake in a Siberian oil or gas field are substitutes for rather than the basis of a strategic relationship. This is exacerbated by the accident of geography, which means a land route and even sea links between the two countries are difficult, forcing them to concentrate their energies on other nations. People-to-people contacts are parlous.
What is developing is a relationship based on specific areas of convergence, some areas of disagreement but minus the ballast of civil society engagement. The two countries cooperate in helping the Kabul government against the Taliban insurgency. In fora like the BRICS and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation there is also a meeting of minds. However, the main challenge facing the two countries is the slow but steady drift of Russia towards the strategic shores of China. This shift has moved to a new level ever since Russia’s fracas with the West over Crimea and the global collapse in commodity prices. Moscow’s closeness to Beijing, especially in the military sphere, though born of economic necessity, is a genuine concern for New Delhi. The danger is that the present Russia-Pakistan exercises may be seen through that prism and fray a 60-year bond to the breaking point. This is what Moscow must be wary of and be warned about.