New Delhi: When Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov took off for Pakistan from India during his whirlwind South Asia tour this week, he was seen to have added a new dimension to the already tense environment in the region, ThePrint has learnt.
According to top sources, with Lavrov’s visit to India and Pakistan, Moscow was perceived to be “hyphenating” its relationship with the two countries. This, along with Russia’s promise of supplying “special military equipment” to Pakistan, has left India “worried”, the sources added.
The tour came amid speculation about strains in New Delhi’s relationship with Moscow over India’s role in the Quad, or the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, which Russia sees as an anti-China initiative.
In diplomacy, hyphenation is a concept where a nation’s bilateral relationship with another is seen to be influenced by the latter’s ties with a third country.
While India and Russia continue to refer to their relationship as “time-tested” and “uniquely strong and steady”, Moscow is clearly aware of the fact that India is now “more aligned with the US than ever before” and a certain “chill” has thus set in bilateral ties, the sources said.
During his trip to New Delhi, which was wrapped up in less than 24 hours, Lavrov met his Indian counterpart S. Jaishankar but not Prime Minister Narendra Modi, as the latter was ostensibly busy campaigning for his party, the BJP, in West Bengal. Modi and Lavrov had last met in January 2020 in New Delhi.
The Russian Foreign Minister then flew to Islamabad directly from New Delhi, something that the Modi government is strictly opposed to.
Speaking to ThePrint, experts were split on whether the absence of a meeting between Modi and Lavrov could be seen as a snub by the Indian Prime Minister. However, they said India didn’t have much reason to worry about Moscow’s relationship with Islamabad just yet, since it is still evolving.
Russia ‘stands by’ Pakistan
Addressing a press conference after his meeting with Qureshi, Lavrov said Russia “stands ready” to support Pakistan in its counterterrorism efforts by supplying it “with special military equipment”.
He also said the armed forces of both countries will hold more regular and rigorous joint military drills, especially in the “mountains”.
He then accused the US of carrying out “divisive strategies” that will impact stability in the South Asian region.
During his meetings in Pakistan, Lavrov also discussed recent developments that have been widely construed as signs of a potential breakthrough in the frosty New Delhi-Islamabad relationship. “We welcome it,” he said.
When he met Jaishankar earlier this week, Lavrov said the two sides did not discuss US and its strategies.
Are Russia and Pakistan getting closer?
Referring to the fact that Modi and Lavrov didn’t meet, Kanwal Sibal, former foreign secretary who has also served as Indian Ambassador to Russia, said the PM was not “obliged” to meet the Russian Foreign Minister unless he had a personal message to deliver from President Vladimir Putin.
He, however, said the use of Russian arms by Pakistan is “certainly a cause of concern and worry” for New Delhi as around 86 per cent of India’s armaments are of Russian origin.
Michael Kugelman, deputy director and senior associate for South Asia at the Washington-based think tank Wilson Center, said “PM Modi not meeting with Lavrov certainly comes across as a snub”.
“Lavrov met with Modi during his previous visits, and given the importance that New Delhi ascribes to the partnership, one would expect a meeting. In this regard, the official explanation that Modi was too busy campaigning doesn’t cut it,” he added.
“The bottom line is that this isn’t a good look,” Kugelman said. “At a moment when the India-Russia relationship appears to have lost momentum, amid growing US-India and China-Russia ties, a Modi-Lavrov meet would have offered some reassurance. The fact that it wasn’t in the cards will raise new questions.”
The Russia-Pakistan relationship, he said, has been on the ascent for quite some time, with the two militaries establishing new mechanisms for cooperation in recent years. As a matter of principle, India “won’t be happy to see its Pakistani rival positioning itself to acquire more arms”, he added.
“But as much as the Russia-Pakistan relationship has grown to this point, it’s still a relative work in progress. So at least, at this still early point, it’s unlikely to trigger alarm bells in Delhi, and especially so long as India retains cordial ties with Moscow, which is likely if not inevitable,” Kugelman said.
Sibal added that India should be warier of Russia-China ties and not so much of the Russia-Pakistan relationship.
“Russia is now wanting to have a share of the pie of the flourishing defence trade between China and Pakistan. Russia has now reconciled with being China’s junior,” he said.
India and Russia did not hold their annual summit last year, apparently due to Covid, and it is expected to be held later this year.
According to Sibal, it is possible that the summit will be held on the sidelines of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) Summit that India will be hosting as chair.
“It is likely that the India-Russia Summit will be held in October around the time when the BRICS summit will take place as Putin won’t come here twice in a year.” he said.
“We have to nurture the relationship. Besides, Russia will now play a larger role on the Afghan talks,” he added, referring to the efforts under way to strike peace between the Taliban and the Afghan government and end the violence that plagues the country.
During this visit, Lavrov was accompanied by Russia’s special envoy for Afghanistan Zamir Kabulov.
(Edited by Sunanda Ranjan)