The History never ceases despite Francis Fukuyama’s premature predictions about the end of History! Geo-politics brings strange bad fellows together. Since the end of the cold war the world has moved from a bipolar (US vs Soviet Union) balance of power to unipolar dominance by a hyper-power (US) to a multipolar world at this time (US, China, Russia, EU and a string of regional powers including India). The old power equations are continuously being changed and new alliances and trade groupings, e.g., SCO, BRICS, QUAD, RCEP, CPTPP are being formed. There was a time when Pakistan was a staunch cold war ally of the US being part of both military alliances CENTO and SEATO. It was said often that the Pakistan is run by the three As: Army, Allah and America. Pakistan also helped the US defeat the erstwhile Soviet Union in Afghanistan by hosting both Al Qaeda and US logistic troops on its soil. In 1970s, Pakistan opened a window of opportunity for the US led by Nixon and Kissinger to develop bilateral relationship with Communist China to balance the Soviet Union. The US and Communist China, despite their ideological differences became close allies for several decades leading eventually to break up of the erstwhile Soviet Union and emergence of China itself as a superpower.
During the cold-war era, India was non-aligned. However, because of the US hostile stance, she was forced to engage with erstwhile Soviet Union for weapons supplies and other help in the UNSC. India has been battling the US trade and technology sanctions since 1974 onwards following the Pokhran peaceful nuclear test/explosion. After the end of the cold war, India remained good friends with the successor state Russia. India joined the BRICS and was also part of the informal strategic troika of RIC (Russia-India-China trilateral). Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov had the foresight to propose the strategic triangle (RIC trilateral) to counter-balance the Western strategic alliance but initially there was strong resistance from China. Primakov’s rationale was that a Russia-India-China (RIC) troika in a multipolar world would allow some protection for free minded independent nations not allied to the West and would counterbalance the US. China had immediately rejected the proposal stating that China pursues an independent and peaceful foreign policy. China did not wish to annoy the US which was boosting Chinese economy by relocating all the manufacturing into China. China also needed US help to join the WTO. The US at that time described this strategic triangle as a “coalition of weak powers” trying to balance the US super-power. Despite initial hostility from China, the troika has met formally since 2002 at the foreign-minister level and has had head of government meetings also. Meanwhile, India continued to engage with China and Russia and joined the SCO as a full member. Since India’s dalliance with the various incarnations of the QUAD and closer relationship with the US in the last two decades, India-Russia bilateral relationship is under severe stress. India has gone through the vicissitudes of non-alignment, genuine non-alignment to poly-valent alignment, strategic autonomy and issue -based alignment in a multi-polar world.
Russian strategic postures have changed significantly in the recent years and have become manifestly anti-India. Russian is deeply miffed with India for increasing arms purchases from the US. Russia used to be the chief arms exporter for India and still remains the largest arms exporter for India, followed by France, Israel and the US in that order. There is an astronomical growth in US arms export to India from zero in 2008 to $15 billion in 2020. India’s top three arms suppliers during 2016-20 were Russia (accounting for 49% of India’s imports), France (18%) and Israel (13%), followed by the US per SIPRI report. India’s arms imports fell 33 % between 2011-15 and 2016-20, The report on international arms transfers attributed the drop in India’s arms imports mainly to an attempt to reduce her dependence on Russian arms and complex procurement processes. Meanwhile, the Government of India under Prime Minister Modi is encouraging a domestic arms manufacturing industry eventually aiming for total independence from international arms imports. This has become a serious issue for Russia as it does not countenance the loss of a lucrative weapons market. Russia also is upset with India for diversification of her arms import from the West. Russia has started to show its displeasure towards India in more than one way. Russia for the first time cancelled the annual bilateral summit with India on the excuse of COVID pandemic. Russia is rebalancing and recalibrating its strategic relationship with various regional actors.
A de facto Russia-China-Pakistan (RCP) strategic axis has emerged in recent years. Owing to the reincarnation of the Quad 3.0 on March 12th 2021, there is a serious counterreaction from this group of countries that feel strategically contained and threatened. China described the QUAD as a grouping of the “losers”. Sergei Lavrov, the Russian Foreign Minister has been very critical of the US-led Quad initiative and has commented that the QUAD will undermine the centrality of the ASEAN. On December 9th 2020, Lavrov expressed his resentment against India by stating that “India was persistently falling for the US’s persistent, aggressive, devious, unipolar, anti-China camp”. He indirectly accused India of undermining the Russian and Chinese efforts towards establishment of a multi-polar world.
It is significant to note that the Quad virtual summit was followed by a Russian peace conference on the future of Afghanistan on March 18th 2021. Russia did not invite India as a party though China, Pakistan and Iran were invitees. It is presumed that India was excluded by Russia owing to Pakistani reservations and Chinese attempts to contain India in the south Asia region. The Moscow conference was attended by U.S. peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, Abdullah Abdullah, head of Afghanistan’s National Reconciliation Council, and Taliban co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar. The Russian embassy in New Delhi dismissed the media reports stating that Russia has asked India to keep out of Afghan dialogue and stressed that Russia "always stated that India plays a very important role in Afghanistan, and its eventual deeper involvement in dedicated dialogue formats is natural". Russian Foreign Ministry’s spokesperson, Maria Zakharova did some lip-service and damage control stating that the RIC Troika process was an “already established mechanism” and was meeting the same day in Moscow, and that there was no attempt to “leave India out” of the proposed talks. However, the Indian Ministry of External Affairs has refused to comment on these developments.
Russia and Pakistan have scaled up their military and economic cooperation. 1n 2015, Andrew Korybko wrote a paper titled “Pakistan is the Zipper of Pan Eurasian Integration” in a top Russian think tank according a highly privileged status to Pakistan as the “South Asia Gate-keeper”. Russia has already started to sell arms and ammunitions to Pakistan since 2015 despite Indian reservations. Russia wants to cooperate with Pakistan in the diverse areas of trade, defense, energy and power, railways, telecommunications and information technology. The bilateral trade between Russia and Pakistan is currently at $580 million and is considered well below the potential. Russia has now promised a $14 billion investment in Pakistan’s energy sector including $2.5 billion for the North-South (TAPI) pipeline project. Russia wants to integrate Pakistan into its proposed Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) and wants to integrate the BRI, the CPEC into the proposed Russian investments into Pakistani infrastructure. Pakistan has already granted permission to Russia to use its Gwadar port under the CPEC. Both Pakistan and Russia plan to elevate their bilateral relationship to strategic level. Russian and Pakistani special operation troops conducted joint military drills in November 2020 at the Tarbela training grounds in Pakistan’s Khyber-Pakhtunwah province as part of the “Friendship 2020 exercise”. Russian warships along with Chinese and Iranian assets also participated in the recently concluded 45-nation AMAN-21 biennial naval exercises hosted by Pakistan in the Arabian sea on February 16th 2021.
Meanwhile, on March 22nd 2021, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov and Chinese counterpart Wang Yi met in Guilin city in Guangxi Zhuang province in southern China condemning the targeting and the criticism of those two countries over human rights violations. Sergei Lavrov was candid enough to say: “For us, China is a true strategic partner and like-minded friend. Our cooperation in the international arena will have a stabilizing effect on the global and regional situation.” The two countries also discussed the Iran nuclear deal, urging the US to unconditionally return and Iran to resume compliance with JCPOA. They also discussed Afghan peace process, the post-coup situation in Myanmar, UN reforms, climate change, Syria, and Sudan. Both countries demanded a special UNSC summit of P5 countries to establish direct dialogue about ways to resolve humankind’s common problems in the interests of maintaining global stability.
Pakistan and China continue to remain iron brothers and “all weather” allies. China proliferated horizontally nuclear and missile technology, nuclear weapons design and facilitated Pakistan first nuclear test in its Lop Nur testing range in 1990. China has provided emergency funds to Pakistan repeatedly whenever Pakistan has faced a balance of payment crisis. China is constructing infrastructure as part of the $64 billion China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is on record stating that Russia and China are not going to “subordinate” to the West. There is a serious reason to believe that a new strategic troika of Russia-China-Pakistan is emerging in order to counterbalance the US and its allies including India. Akin to the Primakov strategic triangle (RIC), Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is spearheading the new strategic triangle of RCP. The new strategic troika has been in making since 2015 but the emergence of the QUAD 3.0 has led to its formal arrival on the geopolitical scene. This new RCP axis does not bode well for India and her geo-political interests.