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Russia’s zero sum games in Asia

Although President Putin’s extraordinary and somewhat contentious foreign policy initiatives have been the hallmark of his third presidential term, it took the scheduling of the on-going maiden Russian military exercises with Pakistan to focus the Indian strategic community on Russian objectives and power-plays in Asia. This attention has been heightened, accompanied with some alarm and dismay, ever since Moscow decided to go ahead with the planned drills, despite the Pakistani-based terrorist attack in Uri.

This 16 day long exercise being held at a special forces academy at Cherat, in the mountainous Khyber province, has been named ‘Friendship-16’, further aggravating  India’s sense of outrage after the attack. Whilst the military content is limited, with only 200 troops and small arms involved, the drill does carry considerable geopolitical significance and signalling. There are certainly implications to this development. But to understand those, it is necessary to examine the strategic contours of Russia’s foreign engagements since 2012, when Putin resumed his presidency, to get a sense of the broad thrust of Moscow’s recent external endeavours.

Moscow has clearly not come to terms with the prospect of either a U.S.-dominated uni-polar world, or even U.S.-China bipolarity, as the natural order. Putin is making considerable efforts to retain and expand Russian influence within his economic and military constraints. Despite the 2008 global economic downturn and the sharp fall in oil prices, both of which negatively impacted the Russian economy, Putin has chosen to up the ante, and challenge the West in his near-abroad, specifically in the Ukraine and in Syria, in pursuance of Moscow’s perception of its core national interests. Sanctions imposed by the U.S. and the EU, consequent to the annexation of the Crimea in 2014, have impacted Russia’s economy, as have Russia’s counter-sanctions on Europe, especially on food imports.

To offset the chill of cooling relations and trade embargoes with the West, Moscow has been assiduously cultivating warmer relationships and economic ties with the East, and the fractured community of Asia, without letting zero-sum equations inhibit relations with hyphenated or hostile neighbours.  No better example illustrates this than the simultaneous Russian overtures to China and Japan.

Over the last few years, Moscow has strengthened its ties with Beijing. Consolidation and militarization of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, construction of a $600 million gas pipeline, enhancement of trade, supply of over $2 billion in military equipment, joint naval exercises, and support for Beijing in the South China Sea, are all indicators of Moscow’s intentions to loosely ally with China.

However, here Russia has much to be concerned about, not only with China’s increasing economic and political clout in Central Asia, but especially in regard to the security of its sparsely populated Far East, where over two million Chinese illegal immigrants already populate the desolate stretches of Siberia. There is also the possibility of ceding all influence in the Western Pacific community of nations.

President Putin has therefore concurrently embarked on mending relations with Tokyo, presently the Middle Kingdom’s arch-rival, despite the vexed issue of the Kuril Islands, which has thus far prevented complete Russo- Japanese rapprochement. On the sidelines of the recent Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok earlier this month, Prime Minister Abe and President Putin deliberated on an eight- point economic agenda designed to consolidate bilateral ties, and even lead to a possible peace agreement, bringing an end to the hostilities which are officially still on between the two countries since the end of World War Two. Clearly, the two leaders have not let zero-sum equations inhibit their gambit for balancing strategic concerns, despite Tokyo and Moscow risking U.S. and Chinese disapproval respectively.

A similar Russian approach can be seen in its relations with Iran and Saudi Arabia. Whilst the Syrian war has drawn Moscow and Teheran closer, Russia is engaging Riyadh in oil diplomacy to further its own economic interests. Again, deep and abiding rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia has not prevented Putin from engaging with both.

The thaw in Moscow’s relationship with Islamabad can be viewed in this broader context. For Russia, embracing a country slowly moving out of the U.S. orbit clearly affords strategic gains which can be translated into advantage in Central Asia and the Islamic world vis-a-vis both China and the United States. Moreover, it could simultaneously provide leverage with India, by serving as a constant dampener and brake  for  New Delhi’s burgeoning ties with Washington, most recently reinforced by the LEMOA agreement. The last 18 months have seen a flurry of high-level visits between Moscow and Islamabad, including that of General Raeel Sharif in 2015, and negotiations for the sale of military hardware, such as the Mi35 helicopter gunships,  and even the Su 35 fighter. Russia is also constructing an LNG pipeline between Karachi and Lahore for over $2 billion.

Russia is, of course, banking on the premise that its tango with Pakistan will be recognised for what it is by India, and not affect the  substantial military and economic ties established between New Delhi and Moscow over half a century. However, by not calling off the military exercises after the recent terrorist attack in Uri, Kashmir, Moscow may have miscalculated the long- term effect of the same on Indo-Russian ties, in which nostalgia and emotional bondings often still override strategic and commercial considerations.

Whilst realpolitik is the order of the day, national sensitivities continue to play a major role in influencing ties between states. Moscow may well rue its decision not to postpone or cancel the drills with Islamabad. It is debatable whether gains through Pakistan can offset the public goodwill Russia stands to lose in India, even if New Delhi policymakers factor in its strategic gambits. The ghost of zero-sum games may find itself resurrected.

Vice Admiral Anil Chopra is Distinguished Fellow, International Security and Maritime Studies, Gateway House. He was the former Commander- in-Chief of both the Western Naval Command and the Eastern Naval Command, and former Chief of the Indian Coast Guard.

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