Be Careful What You Wish For: Legacies, Realignments, and Russia’s Evolving Role in South Asia
Editor’s Note: This is the fifteenth installment of “Southern (Dis)Comfort,” a new series from War on the Rocks and the Stimson Center. The series seeks to unpack the dynamics of intensifying competition — military, economic, diplomatic — in Southern Asia, principally between China, India, Pakistan, and the United States. Catch up on the rest of the series.
Russia rarely comes up when Western analysts talk about Southern Asia. Sure, there was that war in Afghanistan, but the Soviet Union withdrew its forces nearly two decades ago. How is it then, that we’re hearing lately about Moscow talking to its erstwhile enemy, the Taliban, and holding military exercises with Pakistan, all while maintaining its role as India’s biggest arms supplier? What’s happened and who, if anyone, should worry?
Russia is trying to carve out a role in Southern Asia that allows it to exert increasing influence while still hedging its bets and limiting its costs. However, deepening involvement runs the risk of feeding into regional conflicts and increasing the Kremlin’s exposure. This is a particular concern against the backdrop of possible American withdrawal from or ineffectiveness in the region — ironically, the very factors facilitating Russia’s heightened involvement.
Moscow’s increased engagement is rooted in both global and local thinking. Russia thinks most locally when it comes to Afghanistan, where it worries U.S. drawdown and perhaps eventual withdrawal may lead to more conflict, with possible spillover into Central Asia and even parts of Russia itself. It is therefore willing to play a greater role, although it lacks the resources to invest much financially. In line with its more global perspective, Russia also sees in Afghanistan an opportunity to play the role of mediator and problem-solver. An added bonus lies in Moscow’s belief that fixing global problems the United States exacerbated, if not created, will bolster the Kremlin’s reputation as a responsible and competent great power.
When it comes to India, Russia thinks globally, as well as, of course, about itself. Russia wants to maintain India as a major weapons buyer (its top customer for the past decade or so). Moscow also wants at least the appearance of a closer strategic relationship with New Delhi, not least as a demonstration of Russia’s influence and broad network of ties. In this context, India’s increasing closeness with the United States worries Russia. These worries may be a factor in Moscow’s newest flirtation with Pakistan (while Pakistan itself is motivated in part by its own vacillating relations with the United States). Ties with Pakistan also, of course, can facilitate or hamper Russian policy towards Afghanistan.
Put it all together and a complicated equation emerges. For now, the regional situation is working well for Moscow, which is looking for gains both local and global on the cheap. Over time, however, the Kremlin may find itself unprepared to be pulled in multiple directions, especially if the U.S. role in Southern Asia continues to vacillate and, eventually, shrink.
Afghanistan: The Graveyard of Strategic Plans
Russia inherited a program of military, financial, and other support to Afghanistan from the USSR. However, a desire to cut ties with the past, impress Washington, and save money led Moscow to curtail aid in early 1992, resulting in the collapse of President Mohammed Najibullah’s government and a full-fledged civil war. After Kabul fell to the Taliban in 1996, Russia funneled support to the Northern Alliance. But once the United States launched its military campaign in 2001, Russia took a back seat.
More recently, Moscow seems to be back: U.S. officials have accused the Kremlin of working with the Taliban, and perhaps even providing weapons. While Moscow has denied supplying arms, it has made no secret of its desire to involve the Taliban in meetings of regional powers.
In principle, Russia has little desire to see the Taliban control Afghanistan. However, it also recognizes the Taliban’s gains , and, pragmatically enough, prefers the group to ISIL, which has increased its reach within Afghanistan and into Russia. The Russians are being pragmatic: if any settlement is to happen, it is hard to imagine it without the Taliban at the table.
What of the United States? From the start, Moscow has been of two minds about the U.S. presence in Afghanistan. In the early days of the conflict, Moscow hoped that the U.S. would be able to help the Northern Alliance defeat the Taliban and bring a measure of stability to the country. It was even willing to help. At the same time, the Kremlin worried tremendously that U.S. operations in Afghanistan, and the bases and facilities in Central Asian countries that sprung up as a result, were there to stay, part of a broader U.S. policy of increasing its influence in Moscow’s backyard.
When, to the Kremlin’s surprise, the United States showed no interest in sticking around the broader Central Asian region, Moscow had to decide how it felt about America remaining in Afghanistan. Overall, despite occasional statements that the U.S. should withdraw, the consensus in Moscow seems to be that the U.S. presence has its advantages. U.S. presence in Afghanistan helps to keep the Americans occupied and the Taliban weak. And most importantly, it helps keep the conflict confined to Afghanistan. In both Russia and Central Asia, there are concerns that full U.S. withdrawal could lead to resurgent fighting, which would spread to endanger Russia’s neighbors and perhaps Russia itself.
This said, and as my colleague Jeffrey Mankoff has written, if Russia succeeds in facilitating a peace agreement where the United States fails, this would be a tremendous geostrategic gain for the Kremlin while also advancing its interests locally. With the United States failing, it costs Russia little to give it a try. Moreover, if the United States does eventually withdraw, some sort of deal — particularly one that ties down the Taliban — is better than escalating conflict. The danger is that a U.S. departure would leave Russia stuck with even more of a role in Afghanistan, particularly if a deal proves insufficient to prevent another cycle of conflict. Russia would then face a dilemma as its concerns about Afghanistan’s stability demand more active involvement. While Moscow has recently demonstrated a relatively low bar for the use of force, it also prefers to limit its military commitments. And Russia knows well that Afghanistan tends to draw great powers into engagements that are long, painful, and difficult to bound.
Russia and India: An Old Relationship in a New World
Like support to Afghanistan, partnership with India was part of Russia’s inheritance from the USSR. During the Cold War, the relationship served both countries’ needs. For the Soviets, friendship with New Delhi, including a robust weapons sales program, helped counter Washington, and, at times, Beijing. For India, ties with (and weapons from) Russia helped it to balance China and Pakistan.
In the aftermath of Soviet collapse, Russia had neither the desire nor the capacity to compete with the United States in Southern Asia. But there were other reasons to stay friends with India, not least its continued potential as a market for Russian weapons. The 1993 Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation between Russia and India, an update to the 1971 Treaty India signed with the USSR, was an early affirmation that neither intended to cut ties. In the years that followed, India continued to purchase Russian weapons, eventually overtaking China as Russia’s top buyer. Today, over 70 percent of India’s arms imports come from Russia.
But as Russia’s global interests grew, geopolitics returned to the relationship. New Delhi’s relationship with Washington was improving, with the 2008 Civil Nuclear Agreement and then the 2015 10 Year Defense Framework Agreement. Meanwhile, Russia’s own honeymoon with the United States had proved fleeting as successive U.S. and Russian administrations tried, and failed, to improve relations. By contrast, Russia and China’s friendship continued to warm. As the 21st century moved into its second decade, Russian and Indian goals were no longer as well-aligned.
Today, Russia still very much seeks Indian markets for its arms, and India still wants Russian weapons. Although Russia is investing far more in defense, foreign buyers are crucial to financing new systems development. And while India’s own defense industry is growing, Russia continues to offer air defense, submarine, and other capabilities that India cannot match. Outside of defense, though, trade is not particularly high, in contrast to a much closer Cold War-era relationship. The two countries have found no easy ways to substantially boost their economic ties (though Russia does play a substantial role in India’s biggest civilian nuclear power plant, Kudankulam).
If Russia’s increased activity in Afghanistan is partially a response to U.S. policy, in India, Russia is holding its own against U.S. encroachment into its traditional territory. This works in large part because both New Delhi and Moscow are happy with a relationship that is more talk than walk. Symbolic expressions of closeness are consistently paired with an avoidance of actual strategic commitments. High-level visits get a great deal of press and attention: Prime Minister Narendra Modi was guest of honor at the 2017 St. Petersburg Economic Summit. Recent Indra-2017 bilateral military exercises put Indian co-pilots in the cockpits of Russian aircraft. Yet Russia has failed to back India’s longstanding desire for a United Nations Security Council Seat with anything more than rhetoric. For its part, India enjoys the autonomy that strong relations with both Moscow and Washington offer: It does not appear to want a role in Russia’s (or, for that matter, America’s) games of global competition.
One factor that could change this equation is America’s newfound policy erraticism. If the United States were to push too hard on India, demanding greater allegiance or pursuing policies New Delhi sees as counterproductive — such as limiting Indian immigration — we could see a return to a previous pattern, in which India shies away from the United States and Russia tries to exploit the opportunity.
New Friends in Islamabad?
While Russia’s ties to India are the result of a decades-long evolution, its relationship with Pakistan marks a sea change. With some exceptions, the two countries had little in the way of ties prior to Moscow’s decision to lift its arms embargo against Islamabad in 2014. It did this explicitly to sell military helicopters and jets, with other systems to follow. But the relationship has evolved beyond the merely commercial: it has since been supplemented with military exercises, though on a smaller scale than those with India.
Russo-Pakistani rapprochement emerged as both countries’ relations with the United States were deteriorating. If America’s policies in Afghanistan created both concerns and opportunities for Russia, and its India policy forced Moscow to defend its somewhat limited turf, the growing tension between Washington and Islamabad presented a new area for cautious exploration. Pakistan had reason to fear that its main weapons supplier and partner was becoming less reliable. Buying Russian aircraft sent Washington the signal that Islamabad has other options. And while Russia was eager to sell some arms, it also surely saw an opportunity to make inroads with a traditional U.S. partner.
A closer relationship between Russia and Pakistan lines up nicely with China’s longstanding friendship with Islamabad. Although Moscow and Beijing are far short of alignment on all things, the two do seek to cooperate where possible. Talk of a trilateral alliance is premature and exaggerated. That said, if Moscow improves its relations with Islamabad, it creates one more area of congruence.
Finally, of course, there’s Afghanistan. Pakistan has, to put it mildly, its own ties with the Taliban (as has been discussed by others in this series). While Moscow and Islamabad may not see eye-to-eye on their preferences for Afghanistan’s future, they have enough in common to coordinate some policies and approaches in the near term — and closer ties provide that opportunity.
How far this newfound friendship can go depends to some extent on how far the falling-out between Islamabad and Washington goes. Even from the standpoint of weapons sales alone, while Russian systems are cheaper than U.S. ones, Pakistan would face some challenges with a wholesale shift to a new supplier. In the strategic context, Islamabad must do some crucial cost-benefit analysis, economic and political, of what it wants and can expect from all prospective partners.
India’s response is another factor. New Delhi seems willing to tolerate, albeit nervously, the current, relatively limited state of Russo-Pakistani ties. Substantial improvements, however, could put a real damper on New Delhi’s willingness to maintain its long-standing status quo with Moscow. The Kremlin is aware of this challenge and takes a certain amount of care to balance the relationships, as illustrated by its recent decision to upgrade both countries from observer to member status in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.
It’s the Americans, Stupid
Historical legacies have driven Russian policies in Southern Asia for most of the last quarter-century. Today, changes in the strategic environment are creating opportunities for Russia to play new roles while holding on to old ones. Particularly important is the impact of the United States — with its shifting interests, its failure to stabilize Afghanistan, and its newfound unpredictability. How Russia’s actions in the region evolve therefore depends a great deal on what the Americans choose to do, and how well they do it. Moscow appears to be hoping for, and thus far enjoying, substantial gains at little cost: friendship with India, a developing relationship with Pakistan, and a role in resolving Afghanistan without having to spend much money or shed blood. It succeeds in part because its goals are modest: the appearance of continued closeness to India, which is also an eager weapons market, creating ties with a Pakistan that may be searching for patrons, and a potential mediator role in Afghanistan, where U.S. failures have left a clear opening. If it also wants to sell weapons to everyone who’s buying without taking sides, well, this is an area in which Russia has excelled in its own neighborhood.
But Moscow’s ability to continue to enjoy these spoils depends on continuing U.S. activity in Southern Asia. Indeed, while the Kremlin may want the Americans to fail, it needs them not to fail too much. The current U.S. role allows Moscow to present itself as the alternative partner, but keeps it from having to take responsibility should things go wrong. If, however, the United States withdraws from Afghanistan (or fails there utterly), downgrades its relationship with Pakistan, or frustrates India, Russia’s role will increase. (China’s may as well.) Greater Russian involvement in the region means more demands from partners, more friction, and more of a chance that its activities in one country will exacerbate tensions with another. If, for example, Russia finds itself drawing closer to India while China continues to back Pakistan, the two partners may find themselves at odds.
Ultimately, the Kremlin may have a far more difficult time keeping its involvement in the region cheap and beneficial. Afghanistan, with its volatility and proximity to Russia’s neighborhood, presents the greatest challenge, as Russia will have little choice but to fill at least some of the gaps the United States might leave. It is not clear that these are eventualities Moscow has fully prepared for — or can afford.
Olga Oliker directs the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. You can follow her on Twitter @OlyaOliker.