In the late 1990s, the Indian envoy to Moscow met the then Russian foreign minister, Yevgeny Primakov, to protest against Russian plans to provide weapons to Pakistan. Primakov explained Moscow’s motives, “If we are with you always, then we lose leverage with Pakistan. We also lose leverage with India because you take us for granted.”
Broadly, this still motivates Russia’s recent decision to provide Mi-35 Hind attack helicopters to Pakistan and their defence minister, Sergei Shoigu, to sign a military cooperation agreement last month.
The need to engage with Pakistan as US troops withdraw from Afghanistan is the official Russian explanation. Tatiana Shaumian, head of the Moscow-based Centre of Indic Studies, said,“We need to be in touch with Islamabad... our interaction with Pakistan would also reduce their dependence on the United States and China.”
Two former Indian ambassadors to Russia agree this is certainly one reason for Putin’s decision. “They want to keep open their options regarding Afghanistan, post-withdrawal,” said one. But the second argument — that Moscow needed to engage with Islamabad to keep New Delhi in line — was also true.
In the 1960s, Moscow argued that in keeping with “the Tashkent spirit”, it should provide arms to Islamabad. Russia went as far as to offer Islamabad MiG 21 fighters and T-55 tanks.
Post-Cold War, the “special” Indo-Russian relationship began to change: India diversified its weapons sources and Moscow began peddling its arms to China — and now Pakistan. This has accelerated under Putin.
While Putin’s predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, allowed arms sales to China, he put a ban on third-country transfers. Putin has lifted that ban and Pakistan is the obvious beneficiary.
Calcutta University professor and Russia expert Hari Vasudevan explained, “The Russian military-industrial complex is very close to Putin’s inner circle and has increasingly been allowed to play the field with minimal political controls.”
Moscow’s policy shift regarding Pakistan seems to go back to 2011. In 2010, Putin had said he would not develop strategic ties with Pakistan because of the importance of India. Next year, he sang a different tune saying Pakistan was an important partner for Russia in South Asia and the Muslim world.
Yet, there is a major difference between what India is doing and what Russia has done, former Air Vice-Marshal Kapil Kak remarked: “When India buys arms from other countries, it does not pose a direct threat to Russian security. PM Modi should convey this to Putin when he meets.”