Russia's recent military exercises with Pakistan showed that Moscow still views many international issues through the prism of its relations with the U.S. Such a position might put Russia-India relations at risk.

Pakistani military officials (R) meet with Russian troops upon their arrival at a Pakistan military base at an undisclosed location. Photo: AFP/East News

From Sept. 24 to Oct. 10, Russia and Pakistan held their “first-ever” joint military exercises in Pakistan’s province of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, located in the northwestern region of the country. The Russian military contingent consisted of more than 70 servicemen of the 34th mountain motorized rifle brigade of the Southern Military District. Colonel Sergey Dmitriev, commander of the 34th brigade, was present among other Russian officers at the drills.

In fact, the “first-ever” description, used by Russian and Pakistani officials and mass media regarding these military exercises, is not entirely correct. Russia has already had two naval exercises, “Arabian Monsoon – 2014” and “Arabian Monsoon – 2015,” and they were supervised by superiors of the Federal Drug Control Service of Russia. The main focus was on combatting crime groups and blocking drug traffic. Yet the Russian Navy’s involvement in these two exercises made them more than just typical counter-narcotics training.

However, in comparison with the naval exercises, the current drills, named “Druzhba-2016” (Friendship-2016), are real military exercises with combat troops, having the task of eliminating illegal armed groups and other combat and training tasks in mountainous areas.

The main arms included in the drills included Russian AK-74 assault rifles, Vintorez and SVD sniper rifles, Pecheneg and Kalashnikov PKM machine guns, under-barrel grenade launcher GP-25 Kostyor, PSS silent pistols, Pakistani M4 assault rifles, Glock pistols, and Remington sniper rifles. During the last stage of the exercises, JF-17 aircraft and Mi-17 and AH-1 Cobra helicopters of the Pakistan Air Forces appeared above the Cherat training range.

The reaction of the Indian public to the news about the joint military exercises of Russian and Pakistani troops was understandably negative. On Oct. 7 India’s ambassador to Russia, Pankaj Saran, said: “We have conveyed our views to the Russian side that military cooperation with Pakistan, which is a state that sponsors and practices terrorism as a matter of state policy, is a wrong approach. It will only create further problems.”

It echoes the opinion of many observers in India’s state-run and independent institutions. During the recent visit of top-level think tank experts from India to Moscow, a distinguished fellow at Vivekananda International Foundation, T.C.A. Rangachari, said that the relations between Russia and India were problem-free until now, when Russia has started creating problems.

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The statements from Russian officials trying to calm the Indian criticism down cannot change the negative reaction from India. The initial impression was so bad because of previous information about the military exercises in two places, namely Cherat in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and Rattu in Gilgit-Baltistan. The latter was a part of the pre-Independence princedom of Jammu and Kashmir that in 1947 turned into a long-time disputed territory between India and Pakistan.

Military exercises in or near territories under dispute are always more than just exercises. They have an impact on domestic, regional and international politics, and are hardly welcomed by any actor involved in these territorial disputes. How would the Russian media react to military drills off the coast of the Crimean peninsula with the Indian Navy and partners from Ukraine, for instance? Or in the vicinity of the Kuril Islands with the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force?

Russia missed an opportunity to prevent this reasonable reaction from India, fueled by a heavily armed terrorist attack on the Indian Army brigade headquarters in Uri, near the Line of Control on Sept. 18. Moscow could agree with Pakistan to postpone the military exercises and to hold them after the upcoming visit of Russian President Vladimir Putin to India to participate in the Oct. 15-16 BRICS summit in Goa. Yet Russian authorities preferred to be inflexible and insensitive to Indian feelings. What are the reasons for that?

The idea to carry out military exercises in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and Gilgit-Baltistan could have been initially unnoticed or ignored by those people in Russian political and military establishment who are really in charge of the relations with India, but supported by a few top-level officials in the Ministry of Defense and Ministry of Foreign Affairs. For them this idea could look attractive because of at least two reasons.

First, the military exercises with the former member of two U.S.-led military blocs - the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) and the Central Treaty Organization (CENTO) - and long-term major non-NATO ally of Washington could be seen by Russian bureaucrats as a symbolic victory over the United States and its influence in the world. If true, it could be yet another symptom of an old disease of Russian defense and foreign policy.

Many issues of international relations are seen by Moscow through the prism of U.S.-Russian competition. For instance, consider the negotiations on the Iranian nuclear problem. Iranians openly accused Russia of using the Iranian issue in bargaining with the United States. Later, such accusations were articulated by some Syrians about the place of the Syrian issue in the U.S.-Russian confrontation.

Second, these people in the Ministry of Defense and Ministry of Foreign Affairs seem to believe that military cooperation with Pakistan will teach the “Pakistani army not to use itself for terror attacks against India” (according to Russia’s Ambassador to India, Alexander Kadakin), and will help to fight “terrorism and drug traffic coming from Afghanistan” (as Anatoly Antonov, Deputy Minister of Defense, said in 2015).

No doubt, the Indian audience wouldn’t buy these arguments (and Afghanistan wouldn’t buy them either). Attacks on Mumbai in 2008, and military facilities in Pathankot and Uri in 2016 showed that terrorist threats from the territory of Pakistan still exist despite long-term counter-terrorism cooperation between Pakistan and the United States and a significant amount of money and military support provided by the latter to the former for this purpose.

None of these reasons takes into account the Indian dimension of the issue, raised by the military exercises between Russia and Pakistan. After signing the military cooperation agreement in November 2014 by ministers of defense from both countries, this dimension was clearly felt by everybody except those in Moscow, who still see this through the prism of U.S.-Russian competition and/or cooperation of Russia and Pakistan against terrorism and drugs threats from Afghanistan.

But how can Russia participate in sharing combat experience with Pakistan, when the latter’s own experience is based on multiple conflicts with India, which is Russia’s privileged strategic partner? How can Moscow assure Delhi that the Armed Forces of Pakistan will not use the fruits of military cooperation with Russia against India?

It’s still possible to support cooperation between Russia and Pakistan even without the dynamic development of military cooperation between these two countries. Experts cannot entirely dismiss the possibility of military cooperation between Moscow and Islamabad. This cooperation could help Pakistan to respond to security threats on its territory. Providing political, economic, and limited military support would help Islamabad address security issues before they will threaten Moscow.

But this assistance should not alter the regional balance of power or provoke India. It should not cost Moscow growing mistrust with Delhi and the potential to lose ground in India. It should be carefully developed by Moscow in the context of South Asia, not just in terms of U.S.-Russian competition or the Afghanistan drug trafficking issue.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.