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By John Helmer, Moscow

When India, one of Russia’s largest and longest-serving allies, was attacked by Pakistan in Kashmir since mid-February, the Kremlin sent condolences, expressed hope for a “prompt settlement”, and authorized Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to offer to mediate between the ally and its enemy.  “Russia is ready to offer a negotiating platform for India and Pakistan to settle relations”, Lavrov told the state news agency Tass. “If they want to,  of course.”  The display of Russian equanimity and neutrality between its Indian ally and Pakistan, long a US ally, has produced open anger in the Indian media; dismay among senior Indian politicians, civilian officials and military officers.

“Indians would not admit it,” comments an influential Indian in Moscow, “but there are signs that Putin is fence-sitting. Lavrov even proposed mediation. That would be like India proposing to mediate between Russia and Ukraine over Crimea. On the one hand, Lavrov says India and China will shape the new world order, but on the other,  he talks like a [US] State Department spokesman.”

For the India-Russia alliance, the question Indians ask is: if not now, then when? Russia’s other strategic allies – China, Syria, Cuba, Venezuela – ask the same thing. 

President Vladimir Putin (lead image, right) sent a 3-line condolence to the Indian President Ram Nath Kovind and Prime Minister Narendra Modi (left) after a suicide bomber from the Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) group rammed a convoy of military reservists near Pulama in Indian Kashmir. At least 46 were killed in the attack; it was the most lethal attack since 1989. That was on February 14.

When Indian special forces attacked a JeM hideout in the same area on February 18, they announced they had killed a man who was allegedly JeM’s planner of the Pulama attack;  the Kremlin said nothing. JeM is a certified terrorist group on the US State Department list, which describes it as “an Islamic extremist group based in Pakistan…The group’s aim is to unite Kashmir with Pakistan.” 

Before dawn on February 26 a force of Indian Air Force (IAF) Mirage fighter-bombers with Sukhoi-21 support, flew about 80 kilometres into Pakistan,  and bombed a location near Balakot, in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa  province. The Indians say they struck a JeM base camp and killed up to 300 fighters. The Pakistanis say they intercepted the Indians in the air, driving them off course, and forcing them to drop their ordnance harmlessly on open country; noone killed.  The Kremlin said nothing.

Source: https://www.bbc.com/ The Tass report on the Indian airstrike on Balakot on February 26 got the geography wrong, claiming that it had targeted “a part of Kashmir controlled by Pakistan.” 

On February 27 the Pakistan Air Force retaliated, striking eastwards across the border, bombed Indian military targets, and engaged the IAF in a dogfight. In the outcome, India says  it shot down one Pakistani F-16 aircraft; the Pakistanis claim to have shot down two IAF interceptors. There is no corroboration for the F-16 loss, and only one IAF MiG-21 has been confirmed on the ground. The pilot, the unusually high-ranking Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman was captured after ejecting;  paraded in front of Pakistani television; and then returned to India by the Pakistani Prime Minister, Imran Khan, on Friday.


IAF Wing Commander Abhinandan is returned by Pakistan to India, reported by Indian television. Source: https://economictimes.indiatimes.com

The next day, February 28, Putin telephoned Modi.  The Kremlin communiqué  said: “Vladimir Putin once again conveyed his condolences to the people of India in connection with the killing of Indian security force personnel in a terrorist attack on February 14. In this context, the two leaders condemned international terrorism and any methods used to support it stressing, the need to step up the uncompromising fight against the terrorist threat.  While discussing the crisis in relations between India and Pakistan, Vladimir Putin expressed hope for a prompt settlement. Topical issues on the bilateral agenda were also touched upon. The Russian President emphasised that Russian-Indian cooperation was developing quite successfully as a privileged strategic partnership. The two sides expressed interest in further promoting interaction in all areas, including military-technical ties.  Vladimir Putin invited Narendra Modi to take part in the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok in September 2019 as the main guest. The two leaders agreed to continue personal contact.”

 “Prompt settlement” was a euphemism for the conflict between the two countries since Partition in 1947. The condemnation of “international terrorism and any methods used to support it” was as close as Putin has come to identifying Pakistan as the state sponsor of the JeM group, and to endorsing the Indian right of hot pursuit into Pakistan to attack JeM  bases.

That cross-border attack, the British media have interpreted, is a relatively new one for the Indians.  “India’s use of air power,” commented the Financial Times in London, “and the demonstration of its willingness to strike Pakistan’s territory that is more significant. Both are escalatory red lines that New Delhi was previously thought unlikely to cross.”   Putin’s telephone call to Modi endorsed the crossing of the red line.

Putin could hardly do otherwise, since this is also Russian policy in Syria, and strategic policy towards the US Aegis-Ashore missile bases in Romania and Poland; for Putin’s “cross-hairs doctrine,” read this

The day before Putin’s conversation with Modi, he had hosted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for a Kremlin  meeting Netanyahu had been requesting, and which the Russian Defence and Foreign Ministries had not supported. Netanyahu asked for continued support from Putin for Israeli Air Force attacks on Syrian territory. “We will not allow Iran to do what it talks about, that is, to destroy us, and we will act accordingly,” Netanyahu said publicly, according to the Kremlin version. Putin has repeatedly endorsed the Israeli attacks; he did not say no when he met Netanyahu this time. Click to read more.  

In the Kremlin summary of the conversation with Modi, the reference to “a privileged strategic partnership” and to “military-technical ties” were Russian responses to Indian criticism of uncertainties in the delivery of major Russian weapons, including the S-400 missile system. Modi’s determination to resist US Government attempts to stop the S-400 acquisition is what Putin meant by “privileged strategic partnership”. The delivery schedule for the S-400s is not being delayed, the Indian side has announced

President Putin and Prime Minister Modi at their most recent meeting in New Delhi, October 4, 2018.  

Putin ended the communiqué version of the telephone-call with the Prime Minister by endorsing Modi’s re-election in the balloting due to start in a month’s time. By inviting Modi to the September affair, Putin was saying he supported Modi in the poll. When Indian reporters pressed a Russian Foreign Ministry official on the point, he was reported as replying: “Moscow is no mood for  assessing the political situation in India.” 

The Foreign Ministry had been tight-lipped throughout the two-week fighting. Indian Minister of External Affairs Sushma Swaraj met with Lavrov and China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi at Wuzhen, China, on February 26 and  27; according to the Indian press, Swaraj spoke in detail about the Kashmir conflict. This was ignored in the tripartite communiqué. The Russian Foreign Ministry announced the ministers had “paid especially close attention to international matters, such as developments around Venezuela and in the Middle East and North Africa, primarily in the context of Syrian settlement, the situation in Yemen, Afghanistan and the Korean Peninsula, as well as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action on the Iranian nuclear issue.” In her remarks, reported in India, Swaraj told Lavrov  “India was bound to take pre-emptive action after a continued refusal of Pakistan to acknowledge and act against terror groups on its soil, though there was credible information that Jaish-e-Mohammed was planning more attacks in India.”

The communiqué signed by the three ministers is boilerplate, drafted to reflect the demands of the Russian and Chinese sides, but omitting Swaraj’s briefing on the Kashmir fighting.  

In Wuzhen on February 27, left to right: Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj; Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi; Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

At Lavrov’s  press conference, he claimed “we exchanged opinions on the situation in the Middle East and North Africa, including the Palestinian problem, Syria, Libya, Iraq and Yemen” – on Kashmir Lavrov said nothing. 

In Moscow, later in the same day, the Foreign Ministry broke this silence, issuing an anonymous press statement.  It was Janus-faced. “We call on both sides to show restraint and redouble efforts to resolve existing problems by political and diplomatic means. We are ready to continue support for strengthening the counter-terrorism capacity of New Delhi and Islamabad.” 

The next day at her weekly briefing the ministry spokesman Maria Zakharova (right) included a special note on the Kashmir fighting. “We are worried,” she said, “about the escalation of tension in relations between India and Pakistan and dangerous manoeuvres of both states’ armed forces along  the Line of Control that are fraught with a direct military clash. We are urging the sides to display maximum restraint. We continue to assume that contentious matters should be resolved by political-diplomatic methods on a bilateral basis in line with the provisions of the 1972 Simla Agreement and the 1999 Lahore Declaration.”

Zakharova also repeated a version of Lavrov’s mediation platform offer. “We reaffirm our readiness to provide all-out support to the Indian and Pakistani efforts in countering terrorism.”

Igor Korotchenko, editor of National Defence Magazine in Moscow, was asked to comment on the Russian fence-sitting. “The main position of Russia is to stop the conflict with diplomatic and political means. Russia doesn’t want escalation of conflict between two countries with nuclear weapons, so the position of Russian officials is to solve it diplomatically. We are ready to help both countries to do this peacefully. India and Pakistan also realize their responsibility in this situation, so I think the problem will be solved in a diplomatic way.”

Other Russian military analysts were reluctant to characterize the Russian approach as fence-sitting; they also refused to speak on the record. There has been little debate in the Russian media over what line Russian should take between India and Pakistan, and no criticism of Lavrov’s mediation offer.

The well-informed security publication Vzglyad  commented on February 28 that Russian efforts to elevate the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) – in which both India and Pakistan are members – into an effective forum for reducing conflict will be tested by the Kashmir fighting. “Now a lot depends on how the relations in the quadrangle of Putin, Xi, Khan and Modi, will develop – whether the SCO will become a real mechanism for solving such crises as the current one. Moscow and Beijing cannot resolve the Indo-Pakistani disputes as such, but they can create an atmosphere of trust within the SCO in which Modi and Khan will understand that no one is interested in playing on their contradictions.”

At a ministerial meeting of the SCO in May 2018, the Russian flag is fourth from left; Pakistan’s flag at centre; the Indian and Chinese flags are second from right and extreme right. The SCO was established in 2001 by Russia, China and four other Central Asia states. Membership was expanded to include India and Pakistan between 2015 and 2017. Observer and partner states now number ten, including Afghanistan and Turkey. Joint military exercises have been held by SCO members, as the SCO now organizes  intelligence-sharing on drug trafficking and terrorism. For more details, read this.

The Valdai Discussion Club, a think-tank supervised by the Kremlin, has issued a short bulletin by Moscow academic Alexei Kupriyanov:   “Russia, which is a particularly privileged strategic partner of India, is at the same time not interested in breaking off relations with Pakistan, which is an important regional player, influencing the development of the situation in Afghanistan. In addition, the conflict between India and Pakistan threatens the work of the most successful regional project – the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), where India and Pakistan should theoretically cooperate, including in the fight against terrorism.  In general, we can say that the sources of the current Indo-Pakistani crisis are purely internal. Neither New Delhi nor Islamabad has appealed to other countries for mediation.”

The Indian veteran in Moscow is emphatic that it was a mistake for Lavrov to have proposed his “negotiating platform”.  “The reason Lavrov cannot and will not comment on India-Pakistan at the Wuzhen meeting is that the countries have an agreed policy never to comment about their conflicts like China-Taiwan, India-Pakistan, Russia-Everyone. That is why he has to be very cautious. But he should not have offered to mediate. Pakistan is no Turkey and India is no Iran or Syria. No one asked him for help.  Especially after the Soviets poisoned Shastri in Tashkent, Indians are not going for peace talks to Russia.”  

Many Indians believe Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri was poisoned on January 11, 1966, in Tashkent, when he was a guest of the Soviet Union for peace treaty negotiations with Pakistan’s President Mohammad Ayub Khan. Read this  and this.  For the account of the Russian butler who didn’t do it, read this

Comparing Lavrov’s “negotiating platform” to “talk[ing] like a State Department spokesman”, the Indian source was drawing attention to the State Department press release, issued immediately after the February 14 attack. 

Source: https://www.state.gov/

Unlike the Russian statements so far, Pakistan was identified in the initial US statement as the home base for JeM. The US also meant Pakistan when it “call[ed] on all countries to uphold their responsibilities pursuant to UN Security Council resolutions to deny safe haven and support for terrorists.”

After the conflict escalated with the Balakot airstrike and the Pakistan air raid, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo issued a statement of his own. This targeted Pakistan explicitly, and defended the Indian military operations.  “Following Indian counter-terrorism actions on February 26, I spoke with Indian Minister of External Affairs Swaraj to emphasize our close security partnership and shared goal of maintaining peace and security in the region. I also spoke to Pakistani Foreign Minister Qureshi to underscore the priority of de-escalating current tensions by avoiding military action, and the urgency of Pakistan taking meaningful action against terrorist groups operating on its soil. I expressed to both Ministers that we encourage India and Pakistan to exercise restraint, and avoid escalation at any cost. I also encouraged both Ministers to prioritize direct communication and avoid further military activity.” 

Left: Secretary of State Pompeo meets Pakistan Prime Minister Khan in Islamabad, September 5, 2018; Khan had won election a fortnight earlier. Right: Pompeo meets External Affairs Minister Swaraj in New Delhi, September 6, 2018.

A Washington Post report claimed the Trump Administration is ill-equipped for the conflict, and unwanted. “Trump’s South Asia team lacks a permanent ambassador to Pakistan and a permanent assistant secretary for South Asian affairs, and much of the administration’s South Asia expertise has focused on attempting to extricate the United States from its 18-year war in Afghanistan. Pakistan was supposed to help in that effort, but just last week it threatened its cooperation if India ‘resort[ed] to violence against Pakistan.’ With China viewed as being too pro-Pakistan, Russia as too pro-India and the European Union as too irrelevant, no outside power has the influence to intervene.”

An Indian politician believes Russia is much less helpful than it promises to be. “For the last several years we have seen that the state media Sputnik and RT have grown some vicious anti-Indian commentators. For example, Eurasia Future.Ru is run by an Englishman named Adam Garrie who got his break on RT with Peter Lavelle. Then there’s a hireling by the name of Andrew Korybko.  He has been hosted in Pakistan like a celebrity. Now it seems he and Garrie are trying to make an RT-type television production with Pakistan government support.  Despite all Indian protests to the highest of levels, Sputnik and RT keep promoting them.”

“Is it possible that Russia wants India to come out in the open on more issues against the US? Yes. But India won’t. It has enormous investments and trade with the US. Indians are now running top US technology companies. You have Indian-origin people running for President. They are Congressmen,  Governors. So the Indian relationship with the US cannot be same as the Russian relationship with the  Chinese… All this creates contradictions. Still, I think Modi has established a close relationship with Putin and the Russian military establishment is all in India’s favour. But some elements in the foreign ministry and the media seem not to think the same.”


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