Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is scheduled to arrive in India on April 5 for a two-day visit. The visit takes place against the backdrop of growing Russian messaging that it stands firm with the military junta in Myanmar and serious Indian concerns about the future of Afghanistan, which New Delhi has floundered in shaping.
According to a statement by the Russian Embassy here in New Delhi (as quoted by NDTV), during Lavrov’s visit, “[t]he heads of the foreign affairs agencies will discuss the current state of bilateral relations, the preparation of the upcoming high-level meeting this year, including cooperation in the fight against the pandemic, will consider key topics on the regional, global agenda, assess approaches to the interaction between Russia and India on the international arena, including at the UN, [and] BRICS.”
India is hosting the annual BRICS Summit this year. It also assumed a two-year term as a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council in January.
“An important set of topics related to the situation in the Asia-Pacific region and Afghanistan will be discussed,” the Russian Embassy statement also noted.
As the Myanmar military – also known as the Tatmadaw – has increasingly adopted a brutally heavy hand to crack down on protesters demanding the reversal of its February 1 power grab and also banishing the military from the country’s politics permanently, Moscow has sought to unsubtly position itself as a player in the ensuing crisis. While Russia’s stakes in the country beyond arms sales to the Tatmadaw remain unclear, it has visibly signaled to Western powers that any long-term settlement to the unfolding political and humanitarian catastrophe there would require Moscow’s acquiescence.
This became starkly clear when Russian Deputy Defense Minister Alexander Fomin not only made it a point to be seen at a military parade to mark Myanmar’s Armed Forces Day in March – an event that Western powers boycotted, but India did not — but also met with junta leader Senior General Min Aung Hlaing the day before, receiving a medal and a ceremonial sword from him.
New Delhi on its part has continued to shy away from exerting pressure on the Tatmadaw – with which it has maintained close ties to ensure that a range of Indian interests in Myanmar remains protected – to the extent that it continues to turn away refugees fleeing the country for safety on Indian soil, going against past precedent. While India continues to rhetorically support democracy restoration goals in Myanmar (a recent Indian statement at a closed United Nations Security Council debate maintained New Delhi’s “steadfast commitment” to Myanmar’s democracy), increasingly, India’s soft-pedaling of the situation in its east is incongruent to those of its Western partners (who also have found themselves unable to turn the situation around in any obvious way).
Last week, Indian External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar attended a virtual BIMSTEC Foreign Ministers’ meeting that also saw the participation of U Ko Ko Hlaing, the junta-appointed minister for international cooperation. Effectively, this makes the meeting the first time the junta has been recognized as legitimately representing Myanmar by India at a multilateral forum.
With all this in the backdrop it would be exceedingly interesting to see how India positions itself between Russia’s disruptive stance on Myanmar, and that of the United States and allied powers. Early indications could come as early as tomorrow at the joint press conference with Lavrov and Jaishankar.
Along with Myanmar, Afghanistan would also form a significant part of Lavrov’s New Delhi agenda. While Russia kept India out of the “extended troika” dialogue that it hosted on March 18, New Delhi is keenly aware that it must work with Moscow to preserve its stakes in Afghanistan, such as they are, given the extent to which Russia has made itself a party to the post-American Afghan future. (The March 18 meeting saw the participation of China, Pakistan, Russia, and the United States, along with representatives from the Afghan government, other political representatives from Afghanistan, as well as Taliban leaders. Qatar and Turkey attended as “guests of honor.”)
As I have noted in these pages before, what is likely to be doubly worrying from New Delhi’s point of view is the extent to which Russia seems to be courting Pakistan as it seeks to emerge as a leading adjudicator of the future of Afghanistan. In the run-up to the March extended troika meeting, Russian special envoy for Afghanistan Zamir Kabulov visited Islamabad on February 19 in order to secure its support for the meeting. Kabulov, who had spent considerable time in Kabul as a KGB officer in the 1980s and ’90s, in the past has, variously, noted Pakistan to be the key in defeating the Islamic State in the Indian subcontinent as well as claimed that the Taliban has abandoned “some [of its] radical and Jihadist principles.” Such formulations– thin on evidence but rich in cunning – and what may have prompted them have not gone unnoticed here in New Delhi, along with persistent rumors in New Delhi’s strategic community that Moscow remains keenly interested in the future of Kashmir as well.
With Russia now having planted its feet in India’s west, in Afghanistan — and increasingly, Pakistan — as well as east, in Myanmar, New Delhi is left with little choice but to redouble its outreach to Moscow – even if that means rubbing its Western security partners the wrong way. On top of this, India’s Russia dilemma is likely to become extremely acute should recent reports of heightened Russian military activity along Russia’s border with Ukraine amount to more than posturing in front of a new, distracted administration in the United States.
Lavrov is scheduled to fly to Pakistan from India for a two-day visit on April 6.