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Does Joint Russian and Pakistan Training Indicate Further Aggression in South Asia?

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By Morgan Deane:

Russia recently had several joint military exercises in Pakistan; in addition, agreed to sell them attack helicopters. Upon initial glance, it seems like this is another dangerous expansion of Russian power. But in reality, the expansion is not as easy as it seems, and is fraught with peril given the tension in the region though it does suggest a strong move by Russia to strengthen alliances in the region. Relationships in the region are complicated with Russia, India, China, Pakistan, and the United States being the major players with various interests, some of which counter one another. As most would presume, Russia is making some bold moves in order to enter the political game in the region.

Sergey Shoigu became the first Russian Defense Minister to visit Pakistan since 1969, when the Soviet government made an unsuccessful effort to mediate the Pakistan-India dispute.  Since then, relations between Moscow and Islamabad have been atrocious, with Pakistan serving as the West’s front-line the fight against the Soviet military occupation of Afghanistan. Russians described Pakistan as a state sponsor of terrorism and as a failed state where extremist’s groups adversely influenced government policy, threatened to subvert other countries, and could gain control of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons and possibly use them against Russia.  That would make Pakistan seem like an unlikely choice as an ally in the region.

The training featured 70 service men from Russia’s mobile mountain brigade. It also included a mechanized infantry unit that specializes in mountainous operations. In total, approximately 200 are training from both armies.  Geopolitical implications aside, the respective performances in Grozny and the campaigns against in the North West territory suggests both powers need help with this. Moving on from the legitimate training aspects the implications of Russian troops in this region remain far reaching.  Anybody who enters the region must not only contend with the implications of American alliances, but they must also consider how their actions relate to Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India.  Most importantly, any bilateral relations between Russia and Pakistan must take into account the constant tension between Pakistan and India.

Russia, Pakistan and United States Relations

American lawmakers have expressed opposition in selling F-16s to Pakistan. This opened the door for Russian selling attack helicopters which should be delivered in a few months’ time.  The helicopters are replacing American AH1 cobras, which seems at least somewhat symbolic.  The US must still negotiate the withdraw of their forces from Afghanistan, and coordinate a counter terror strategy between all three countries (US, Afghanistan, and Pakistan), so their relationship is necessary but fraught. The declining commitment from US forces means less US investment and growing Pakistani need for outside investment. The sale of Russian gunships will represent another source of investment. It will also help Pakistan continue its joint terrorism efforts, and in that regard is actually a boon to US interests.

Russia and India Relations

Compared with the limited interest shown by Washington and Beijing, and the challenge Moscow faces in working with the current regime in Iran, New Delhi has been a most receptive partner for Russian diplomacy. Afghanistan facing continued but decreasing involvement from the US, and Russia has been pursuing its historic interests in the region.  They have started investing in factories and generally keep an eye on the situation. Ironically enough, their interest in Afghanistan has reinvigorated the Indian-Moscow alliance of the Cold War. India is trying to diversify their security ties. Earlier this year, the Indian government signed an agreement to buy weapons from Russia, which has consented to deliver them to the Afghanistan security force. This arrangement circumvents the problem that India lacks territorial connections with Afghanistan at the cost of one more issue over which Pakistan objects.

Russia, India and Pakistan Relations

Russia cancelled the part of the operation in Pakistan controlled Kashmir (PoK) out of sensitivity to Indian concerns.   This was especially needed considering the region just experienced a terrorist attack that killed 18 soldiers in the region. Russia declared that it wants to keep good relations with both (though Russian guarantees are not worth a great deal considering their duplicity in Ukraine), but they did issue a harsh statement that “virtually condemned” the Pakistani government’s complicit role in attack. India is also a rather large exporter of Russian equipment, thus their relationship, while perhaps a bit concerning, is unlikely to fray significantly.  Although New Delhi is diversifying the sources of its arms imports, some 42 percent of Russian arms exports are sold to India and Moscow does not want to endanger this relationship.

Russian attack helicopters are mainly used for counter insurgency in hilly terrain, not against conventional Indian forces.  According to some sources, India isn’t worried about a few “vintage aircraft” to the “rust bucket” Pakistani military.  (The attack helicopters do date as far back as the late 70s.) The Russian media argued that Russian-Pakistani military cooperation would not hurt Moscow’s relations with New Delhi since their collaboration is not directed against Indian interests but focuses on fighting Islamist extremists and drug traffickers.

Conclusion

There is always a subtext to the maneuvers. This exercise suggests that the joint Russian and Pakistani forces will pursue small unit operations in rough terrain against insurgents and terrorists. It also suggests that Russia, China, and Pakistan are moving closer together, in contrast to the US, which has frayed relations at best with each party.  Concurrently to the above, India is trying to isolate Pakistan.  While the maneuvers do seem to indicate continuing Russian aggression, this mostly shows that Russia is entering the politics of the region with some minor counter insurgency training, and they may not benefit as much as they first thought and would like us to believe and fear.

Morgan Deane is an OpsLens Contributor and a former U.S. Marine Corps infantry rifleman.  Deane also served in the National Guard as an Intelligence Analyst.

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