Bear Hug from Mediterranean to Indian Ocean
Russia has unveiled a new strategic paradigm
Lt Gen Rameshwar Yadav Delhi
There is a distinctly visible political flux in the West, Central and South Asian landscape which has the potential of redrawing strategic equations amongst regional as well as global powers. Russia, with its economic and military buoyancy and its underlying desire to rebound as a global power, is at the core of this apparently changing geo-political scenario. The catalyst for this emerging political paradigm is the US withdrawal from the energy-rich Asian region, which has created a strategic vacuum. The strategic compulsion of Russia to have access to warm waters for furthering its economic ambitions and power projections has prompted it to undertake overt politico-military operations in Ukraine, Crimea and Syria in the recent past. While Western and Central Asia are already under their influence, the opportunities in South Asia have come their way courtesy of Pakistan, a close US ally that has reached out to the rival Russian camp seeking military linkages and providing access to the Indian Ocean through the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). This latest development could potentially have a detrimental effect on regional and global strategic dynamics.
The emerging pattern makes it clear Russia is working on a well-planned scheme to become a major arbitrator of energy supply from the Asian landscape and increase its global turf and economic reach. Conceptually, such regional control, in turn, would secure a politically dominant position for it in world affairs as energy security is the life-line of the world economy. It warrants demonstration of political will to use economic and military leverages to influence, intrude and intervene to expand strategic turf.
Russia commenced this campaign by testing the waters with military overtures and economic restrictions in Ukraine in 2014. It was done to coerce Ukraine not to break away from the fold and at the same time convey a message to European countries that Russia is important to them for their energy security. Encouraged by the muted response from the international community, Russia enlarged the mosaic by capturing Crimea. Annexing Crimea ensured full domination of the Black Sea and increased access to the strategically important Mediterranean.
Besides Iran, Russia has substantial influence in Shia-dominated countries that include Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, and so on. The Iranian nuclear calculus, apparently for peaceful purposes, was not particularly liked by the western world as a strong and stable nuclear Iran in the centre of the Middle East had the potential to challenge their predominance which was obviously not in their strategic interests
Subsequently, as pressure on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad increased due to the onslaught of the US-sponsored Syrian rebels and capture of almost one-third of Syrian territory by the Islamic State (IS), Russia felt a threat to its strategic interests in Syria and the Mediterranean Sea. The Russian military base in the Mediterranean Sea that is located close to Syrian territory facilitates its domination of the junction of three continents, namely, Asia, Europe and Africa, and also gives Moscow access to the Indian and Atlantic Oceans. The emerging situation in the region warranted an immediate politico-military action otherwise the US would have checkmated Russia and its allies politically, militarily and economically. While doing the above, the scope and scale of Russian intervention had to be calibrated judiciously as there was a great risk of escalating the ante against the US. Russia chose to take the risk in the backdrop of the commonality of the aim of both countries to neutralise the IS. Russia intervened in Syria in September 2015 in a confrontation with the US, conveying its political will to use military force to safeguard its national interests.
In the current Syrian crisis on the western flank of the region, Russia has exploited the situation to its advantage. With its military intervention in Syria, Russia has also ensured that Assad’s government will stay and thereby the political objectives of the US and the energy security interests of its European allies will need the cooperation of Russia in future. Accordingly, even if a transitional government consisting of representatives of all the sections of Syrian society, including the rebels, is formed, it will have Russian patronage besides that of the US. Russia is already seen to be in the lead in all the consultations to resolve the Syrian crisis, the latest being a conference for the restoration of the situation in Aleppo with Iran and Turkey, where the US was not a participant.
Besides Syria, Iran has been nurtured by Russia ever since it fell out of the US fold after the Islamic revolution. Hence Iran is a strong ally who can be depended upon to take care of Russian interests. Besides Iran, Russia has substantial influence in Shia-dominated countries that include Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, and so on. The Iranian nuclear calculus, apparently for peaceful purposes, was not particularly liked by the western world as a strong and stable nuclear Iran in the centre of the Middle East had the potential to challenge their predominance which was obviously not in their strategic interests. However, of late, with Russian intervention and realising the potential of Iran to help the western world in their fight against the IS, there is an apparent dilution in their anti-Iranian stance. Some sanctions have been removed, and Iran is back in the oil and gas supplier group. What will be the parameters of the new policy on Iran of the Donald Trump administration is a matter of speculation as all depends on the utility of Iran in the western world’s strategic matrix. However, there is unlikely to be a major change given the current US approach to scale down its international presence and concentrate on internal dynamics, besides the reported positive equation between Vladimir Putin and Trump.
Coming further east, the Central Asian Republics (CAR) have been part of the old Russian federation and have reasonably positive synergies with them. They could not expand their oil and gas trade to its full potential due to structural deficiencies and the rigid stance of the Taliban in Afghanistan despite 15 years of US efforts to connect them to the Indian Ocean.
Russia has been looking for connectivity and domination of the Indian Ocean since the czarist era, and that’s where South Asia figures as a permanent feature in their political aspirations. They could not succeed in their ambitions due to resistance by the western bloc and their hold over Afghanistan and Pakistan all these years. The upcoming “North-South Corridor”, passing through old Russian republics and Iran, is a manifestation of Russian motivation to the partner countries including CAR for their connectivity with the Indian Ocean through Iran. However, both Iranian ports, Bandar Abbass as well as Chabahar, are located in the Persian Gulf, hence susceptible to a naval blockade in military contingencies as witnessed in the recent past.
Gwadar, a new port constructed by China in Pakistan, facilitates domination of the entire region with comparative ease. Consequent to Pakistani complicity in terrorism and tacit support to the Taliban in Afghanistan, the US has scaled down the supply of crucial military hardware and imposed conditions for utilisation of military aid to them. Pakistan, as an alternative, appears to have approached Russia to fill the emerging strategic gap. Russia, grabbing such an opportunity, has lost no time in initiating aggressive military diplomacy including conduct of a military exercise with the Pakistan Army and supply of Mi-35 attack helicopters. Talks are on with Russia to supply the Su-35 to fill the shortages in the PAF due to denial of F-16s by the US.
The Indian Ocean is important to Russia as it serves two emerging world economies, India and China, besides other countries of the Asia-Pacific and Africa wherein 45 percent of the world’s population resides. Approximately 50 percent of the container traffic and half the energy supply of the world pass through this region. Therefore, for a country with global ambitions, it is important to have an effective politico-military presence in the Indian Ocean region. Russia has shown an interest to participate in the CPEC as it facilitates its own access to the Indian Ocean. It would be a gamechanger for both Russia and Pakistan politically as well as economically.
To reach CPEC through troubled Afghanistan, Russia is known to be in touch with the Taliban to seek their cooperation to facilitate safe passage through their areas to enter Pakistan. While it has not been appreciated by the US-backed Afghanistan government as it provides legitimacy to the rebels, there are no indications by Russia of relenting on this issue.
China, a conceptual and executive partner of CPEC, is also on board as they see this as a platform for forging a Russia-China-Pakistan axis which would be a gamechanger in the global strategic matrix. It is well-known now that China is likely to have a substantial naval presence at Gwadar port along with the Pakistani Navy apparently for its security. Russia would also have force projection on its mind, and in all probability is likely to have some form of military footprint sooner or later.
Pakistan, by endorsing Chinese military presence, has managed to enhance military deterrence against India in all its dimensions. India may have to handle joint multi-directional Chinese and Pakistani threat post the availability of another road axis to China through Pakistan. Moreover, the Indian leverage against China in the Indian Ocean would certainly get diluted with its naval presence at Gwadar. It may also affect the Indian advantage of addressing the vulnerable Pakistani southern flank which has the potential to dislocate Pakistani forces in certain military contingencies. Any military confrontation in the region would also impact Russia. Hence they may have to calibrate their response appropriately as they have strong Indo-Russia ties on one side and at the same time there is an increasing military linkage with Pakistan. A strategic tilt of Russia towards Pakistan and China, as a response to increased Indo-US engagements, may further impact on politico-military deterrence against India given the known collusiveness of China and Pakistan. In consequence, one can expect Pakistan to continue to be belligerent in approach towards India and indulge in politico-military adventurism.
The Indian armed forces are heavily dependent on Russian arms and equipment to include air power, mechanised forces, strategic missiles and the naval component. Therefore, there is a degree of vulnerability as regards Indian operational preparedness at the time of national emergency if Russia does not step in. The silver lining is that the Indian defence industry is already geared up for manufacture and sustenance of Russian-origin equipment to a reasonable extent. Besides this, India has conscientiously diversified its supply base over a period of time to retain political flexibility in times of crisis. The Make in India campaign also envisages further self-reliance in the manufacture of state-of-the-art weaponry and equipment within the country. India has opened its defence production field to foreign OEMs with lucrative incentives for joint ventures with nominated Indian private and public sector companies.
A strategic tilt of Russia towards Pakistan and China, as a response to increased Indo-US engagements, may further impact on politico-military deterrence against India given the known collusiveness of China and Pakistan. In consequence, one can expect Pakistan to continue to be belligerent in approach towards India and indulge in politico-military adventurism
While India is an emerging economic power with vibrant markets and high financial buoyancy, Pakistan continues to be a weak economy looking for financial concessions/grants from Russia. So Russia would not antagonise India beyond a point as we happen to be their potential market for their goods and services which is one of the reasons to seek a land route and access to the Indian Ocean. Russia probably has bigger designs of power projection and increasing influence in the Indo-Pacific region, rather than getting involved in Indo-Pakistan local politics. The CPEC is assessed as a means to achieve its strategic objectives in the IOR as it provides a firm base for global pursuits. Russia would certainly accommodate the supply of weapons and equipment to Pakistan for political as well as commercial reasons, but no overt military collusion with Pakistan against India is likely. Nevertheless, the mere fact that Russia would be a supporting factor to Pakistan in operational preparedness adds to Pakistani military deterrence by default.
It would be in Russian interests to foster harmonious relations between India and Pakistan. Russia could work as a moderating agent to make Pakistan see reason and de-escalate its futile rhetoric regarding Kashmir in the contemporary strategic environment. The CPEC would be more useful to both Russia and China for trade with India than Pakistan itself. Accordingly, Russian presence in the region may turn out to be advantageous to India provided it is handled with deft diplomatic manoeuvring ensuring appropriate accommodation of sensibilities of all stakeholders.
In the same context, Russia and China together may be able to bring about reconciliation between the Taliban and the Afghanistan government once the US is out of the scene as it has immense economic benefits for all parties involved. Pakistan can be nudged to agree to facilitate rapprochement amongst Afghan society as Pakistan has a lot to gain by facilitating mineral wealth of Central Asian Republics to transit through CPEC. Russia is known to be consulting China and Pakistan in bringing about peace in Afghanistan.
At the strategic level, Russia is moving pro-actively in an aggressive way which has the potential to disturb world peace and tranquility. The emerging Russia-China-Pakistan axis also has the potential to increase the intransigence quotient between the rival power groups at regional as well as global levels. All countries including India would be affected by the negative fallouts of such a global political transgression.
The Chabahar port connecting India with Afghanistan and the CAR, the North-South Corridor connecting the Eurasian and Russian hinterland, and CPEC have positive economic synergies. While Russia is expected to be more interested in enhancing its economic engagements with India utilising CPEC and access to the Indian Ocean, its global ambitions in the Indo-Pacific region may give rise to some negative connotations, given the recent Indian tilt towards the US camp. Looking at its increasing engagements with Pakistan, it would have footprints closer to our national boundaries soon. Russia is proven to be aggressive, arrogant and unpredictable when it comes to its interests.
India needs to suitably align its policies and work out responses to all the possible contingencies. Our time-tested political leverages with Russia may be harmonised to reduce the regional political frictions especially in the context of our hostile neighbours. Simultaneously, appropriate alliances with friendly countries within the ambit of national priorities need to be pursued to enhance the political flexibility to take care of the emerging strategic shift in the Indian Ocean Region. Military diplomacy needs to be upgraded to demonstrate our capability to respond to security challenges. The nuclear calculus may be recalibrated to infuse pro-active content to respond to the changed strategic environment. The strength of economic leverages of India with appropriate diplomatic “strategic pull” should continue to be the mainstay of the Indian approach to maintaining strategic balance albeit with a stronger military capable of handling collusive military overtures by Pakistan and China with a possible added dimension of Russian material support.
The bear hug from the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean is going to be a reality soon. It has all the ingredients for initiating a “colder war”, and that is the cause for alarm for all nations.