Russia's mediatory role in South Asia - By Maqbool Ahmad Bhatty Back   Home  
President Putin's initiative in inviting the leaders of Pakistan and India to meet on the sidelines of the summit of members of the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building in Asia (CICA) at Almaty, Kazakhstan, attracted special attention for several reasons. Most significant of these was that he took this step while President Bush was still in Russia as his guest, and the two leaders had discussed the tension in South Asia as a major issue causing international concern.

The invitation could therefore be assumed to have the support of the US leader who had already expressed increasing anxiety over the persistence of tension as a result of the massing of forces along the border of the two traditionally hostile neighbours. Another notable aspect was that this step appeared to reflect a readiness on the part of Russia to play the role of an honest broker. This in turn implied that Moscow would show sensitivity to the concerns of both parties, and thus modify the traditional pro-India stance it had maintained since the fifties of the 20th century when Pakistan had joined the western pacts.

The precedent of 1965 comes to mind, when the Soviet Union, following the outbreak of a conflict between India and Pakistan after India crossed the international border near Lahore on September 6, had offered mediation that led to the summit hosted by Moscow at Tashkent. There are similarities between the circumstances of this role between 1965 and 2002, just as there are differences. The main similarities were that the Soviet Union had developed a strategic relationship with India as a response to Pakistan's adherence to the western military pacts. As such, Moscow was perceived as an ally of India, and its major source of military hardware.

The situation on international alignments at that time had become complicated when the US had rushed military aid to India in 1962 following its border clash with China, without consulting Pakistan as it was bound by treaty obligations to do. President Kennedy's administration had jumped at the opportunity to develop closer relations with the largest country in South Asia, particularly as Washington looked at China in an adversarial light. This had led Pakistan to take a major decision: not to rely exclusively on the US, and to diversify its foreign policy, notably by improving its relations with the major communist powers, China and the Soviet Union.

Around that time, improvement of relations with China was proceeding apace, following the signing of the Sino-Pakistan Boundary Agreement in 1963. However, Moscow appeared to be more concerned with Indian sensitivities, apart from the fact that its relations with China had gone downhill after the ideological rift of 1959. Indeed, the development of cordial relations between Pakistan and China was causing concern not only in Washington but also in Moscow.

As the US had imposed an arms embargo on both India and Pakistan following the outbreak of the conflict on September 6, 1965, Pakistan was looking to China for essential military supplies , and China had also extended diplomatic support to Pakistan.

The Soviet offer of mediation was made through a message to President Ayub Khan from Prime Minister Kosygin. It was repeated a few days later, and appeared to have the support of the US. The two superpowers were clearly anxious to prevent our relying totally on China. Pakistan accepted the offer, and after the ceasefire took effect from September 23, preparations were made for the summit at Tashkent, which began on January 3, 1966, and ended on January 10.

The Tashkent Declaration was signed on January 9, following a day of continuous shuttling between the two delegations by Prime Minister Kosygin. It may be mentioned that President Ayub had visited Washington in December 1965 and held talks with President Johnson. He was clearly subjected to considerable pressure by both the superpowers to reach an accommodation with India on the basis of a return to status quo ante.

Kosygin's primary concern was to ensure that the summit should end in success, so that in assessing the outcome, it would be fair to say that neither India got a no-war pact, which it had sought, nor did Pakistan get a commitment on a resolution of the Kashmir dispute. The declaration made only an innocuous reference to Kashmir. On the whole, it read better for the Indians than for Pakistan.

Having played a mediatory role between Pakistan and India, the Soviet Union followed a more balanced approach to South Asia by agreeing to sell some defence equipment to Pakistan between 1966 and 1970. President Yahya Khan and Prime Minister Kosygin exchanged visits, while trade and economic cooperation also increased. Following the election of President Nixon in 1969, the new US administration realized the importance of improving relations with China in order to capitalize on the Sino-Soviet differences.

It fell to Pakistan to play the role of an intermediary in the Sino-US rapprochement, and after Dr Kissinger paid a visit to Beijing via Islamabad in July 1971, India and the Soviet Union signed a Treaty of Peace and Friendship that resulted in Moscow extending its full diplomatic and political support to India when it militarily intervened in East Pakistan in December 1971 to bring about the dismemberment of Pakistan.

After 1971, Pakistan's relations with the Soviet Union remained strained, and after the Soviet armed forces were sent into Afghanistan in December 1979, Pakistan's stand against the Soviet intervention resulted in a further worsening of relations between them. Indeed, the Soviet leadership held that by identifying itself with the Afghan struggle against the Soviet occupation, Pakistan was in a virtual state of war with Moscow.

Though the Soviet occupation ended in 1989, a considerable degree of resentment persisted in the political and military circles in Russia over Pakistan's role in pushing the Soviet out of Afghanistan. India capitalized fully on the relationship it had built up with Moscow during the years of the cold war, whereas Pakistan found itself subjected to sanctions by its cold war ally, the US, whose global perceptions underwent a paradigm change after 1989.

The years after the end of the cold war witnessed a continuation of the Moscow-New Delhi entente, to the extent that India exercised a virtual veto on any significant improvement in relations between Moscow and Islamabad. Therefore, the early intentions, by the Russian Federation leadership, expressed by Moscow, after the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991, that it would maintain a balance in its relations with India and Pakistan were never observed in practice.

Relations between Islamabad Moscow came under severe strain once again, notably as the Taliban and religious parties in Pakistan began symphathizing with the Chechen movement for autonomy. Russia responded by launching a campaign against Islamic fundamentalism since it faced unrest among Muslim minorities in many of its autonomous republics and regions. The tempo of military assistance to India was also stepped up, with agreements to provide $16 billion worth of military equipment over the next ten years.

The overall situation has undergone a significant change since September 2001, when Pakistan joined the US-led coalition against terrorism, and played a leading role in the operations against the Taliban and Al Qaeda. The differences over Afghanistan have disappeared and some moves made to improve bilateral relations between Moscow and Islamabad.

President Putin's initiative to help reduce tensions between Pakistan and India has been launched with the blessings of President Bush. But the backdrop of the Russia-Pakistan relations does not inspire much confidence about an even-handed role by Moscow. On May 30, a statement was issued in Moscow that Russia supported India's position on "cross-border attacks". This clearly implied that the onus for the current tensions was being placed on Pakistan, even though it is India that began the process of concentration of its forces along the border with Pakistan.

Though India has remained adamant on not agreeing to a face-to-face meeting between Mr. Vajpayee and President Musharraf, the presence of both President Putin and President Jiang Zemin of China was expected to make the Almaty summit a major factor in defusing tension between India and Pakistan. There was a hope that the very special relationship between Russia and India would facilitate a role by President Putin, who had staked his personal prestige on this imaginative move.

Though nothing came out of President Putin's initiative for India-Pakistan talks at Almaty, Russia's role and interaction with South Asia is likely to grow, with special emphasis on expansion of the currently restricted cooperation with Pakistan. Perhaps both Pakistan and India would join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization that was set up last year.

The declaration agreed at the Almaty summit stresses not only the defusing of tensions, countering terrorism, and promoting cooperation among the member states but also covers the right of self-determination of subject peoples, in keeping with the provisions of the UN charter. Russia has placed itself in a position where it will want to encourage peace and stability in South Asia, together with other major powers.
Published in Pakistan daily Dawn, dated June 07, 2002