Indian Minister of External Affairs (MEA) Subrahmanyam Jaishankar is on his way to Moscow to discuss many issues of interest in bilateral relations. It’s very likely that several key topics will be on the agenda. The most obvious one will concern this year’s annual Russia-India Summit, which was postponed last year because of COVID-19. It’s unclear whether this one will be in person or only virtual, but preparations must still be made either way. After all, it’s the most important yearly event in bilateral relations, and both sides have to make up for not having held this summit last year.
Second, on the itinerary will probably be a follow-up on the Russian Foreign Minister (FM) Sergei Lavrov’s visit to New Delhi a few months back in early April. While in the Indian capital, he praised his country’s historical partnership with his hosts and pledged to expand ties even further. This will likely see MEA Jaishankar discuss more cooperation on countering COVID-19 and boosting commercial relations. The second-mentioned aspect is a priority for both Great Powers, which nowadays are interested in taking advantage of the Vladivostok-Chennai Maritime Corridor (VCMC) that was unveiled in September 2019 during Prime Minister Modi’s last Russia trip.
Third, and perhaps most importantly, the MEA will almost certainly talk about the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan. India is extremely concerned about the Taliban’s recent gains in the wake of America’s rapid withdrawal ahead of its self-imposed September 11th deadline. Reports circulated last month that New Delhi had clandestinely reached out to Taliban representatives in Doha for discussions, though a government spokesperson recently denied that MEA Jaishankar met with any of them. In any case, it wouldn’t be surprising if India secretly entered into talks with the Taliban since the latter is a powerful force in Afghanistan.
Reuters reported earlier this week that the armed group, which both India and Russia officially regard as terrorists (despite Moscow pragmatically hosting them on several occasions over the years as part of the peace process), will present a peace plan at talks next month. Considering its lightning-fast gains across Afghanistan over the past month, any such plan that they present might de facto be regarded as an ultimatum. The Taliban earlier said that they don’t want to seize Kabul, but they very well might if the Afghan government doesn’t agree to their demands and especially if any US and/or NATO troops remain in the country past September 11th.
At the moment, the Taliban’s blitzkrieg across Northern Afghanistan has led to several thousand Afghan soldiers fleeing across the border into neighboring Tajikistan. Russian President Vladimir Putin held a phone call with his Tajikistan counterpart earlier this week during which time the former pledged additional military support to his country’s mutual defense ally. Russia, Tajikistan, and several other countries are part of the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) alliance and the Eurasian Great Power has a military base in the Central Asian state.
What Russia is most worried about is the Afghan Civil War spilling over into formerly civil war-torn Tajikistan’s territory. That, in turn, could catalyze an uncontrollable spree of domestic chaos there that might not only transform Tajikistan into a so-called “failed state”, but also destabilize the entire Central Asian region. Furthermore, terrorists might seek to infiltrate into neighboring countries under the guise of refugees, perhaps even taking advantage of liberal migration regimes with Russia to get as far as Moscow or beyond. President Putin prudently wants to nip this latent threat in the bud, hence his promise of additional support for Tajikistan.
It deserves mention that Russia, Tajikistan, and India are part of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) which was created to fight against the shared threats of terrorism, separatism, and extremism. No SCO member wants to see Afghan-based ISIS-K spreading through the interconnected Central Asian-South Asian space. It, therefore, follows that they might all jointly decide to assist Tajikistan with containing this terrorist threat as well as any other Afghan-neighboring state that requests it. Afghanistan and Iran, which are both SCO observers, could be recipients of such assistance too, though Turkmenistan has no formal relations with the SCO.
India isn’t just concerned about the Afghan-based ISIS-K though, since it also suspects the Taliban of harboring regional expansionist ambitions as well despite the group not officially having any such policy. In any case, New Delhi has long suspected that Islamabad might rely on the Taliban to stir up trouble in the Indian side of Kashmir, whether directly as fighters or indirectly by training those who might later go to fight there instead. MEA Jaishankar will likely remind FM Lavrov about his country’s position towards this scenario, but it’s unclear whether Russia will agree with India’s threat assessment.
Russian-Pakistani relations have been rapidly improving over the past couple of years as these former Old Cold War-era rivals pragmatically reconciled in the face of the shared threat that they both face from Afghan-based ISIS-K terrorists. Since 2016, they’ve held joint anti-terrorist drills in each other’s mountainous region, rotating hosts every year. FM Lavrov also agreed to improve Pakistan’s counterterrorism capabilities through the export of relevant military equipment while speaking with his counterpart in Islamabad where he traveled immediately after leaving New Delhi during his regional tour in early April.
In fact, Russia might very well gently push back against India’s threat assessment vis-a-vis Pakistan and the Taliban since Moscow seems to have come to better understand Islamabad’s policies in recent years. That’s not to say that Russia would ever flat-out say that India is wrong, but just that it might try to get its comprehensive strategic partner to consider viewing regional affairs in a slightly different way. After all, Pakistani Chief Of Army Staff (COAS) General Qamar Javed Bajwa jointly unveiled Pakistan’s new grand strategy of geo-economics alongside Prime Minister Imran Khan and Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi in March.
This unprecedented development means that the Pakistani policy formulation will officially rely much more on geo-economics than geopolitics. In practice, and as articulated by COAS Bajwa during the inaugural Islamabad Security Dialogue at that time, the pragmatic improvement of Indian-Pakistani relations could result in New Delhi utilizing its neighbor’s geostrategic connectivity potential to directly trade with Afghanistan and the Central Asian Republics (CARs). Considering the fact that Russia is closely connected with the CARs, this could result in the creation of a Russian-Indian (Eastern European-South Asian) corridor in the best-case scenario.
President Putin told the prestigious Valdai Club Think Tank in October 2019 that he envisions pioneering an Arctic-Siberia-Indian Ocean corridor, which could in essence be accomplished by the transregional connectivity corridor that COAS Bajwa described in March. That top Pakistani military official wasn’t just wishfully speculating about the future either, but almost certainly had in mind February’s trilateral agreement between his country, Afghanistan, and Uzbekistan to create a railway between them that can casually be referred to as PAKAFUZ after the first letters of each of the participating countries’ names.
Last month’s virtual trilateral Foreign Ministers meeting between the top Chinese, Pakistani, and Afghan diplomats saw Kabul agreeing to work more closely with the Belt & Road Initiative (BRI) as well as intensify its connections with CPEC’s terminal port of Gwadar. The Daily Beast reported earlier this week that China is eager to incorporate Afghanistan into BRI following America’s full military withdrawal from the country. Keeping in mind February’s PAKAFUZ agreement, COAS Bajwa’s transregional connectivity vision inspired by Pakistan’s new grand strategy of geo-economics, and the power of Chinese capital, game-changing developments are afoot.
Russia won’t allow itself to be left out of such regional processes that directly concern its immediate connectivity, economic, and security interests, though, nor does it want its historic Indian ally to be left out either. For this reason, one dimension of the Afghan-related conversations that MEA Jaishankar and FM Lavrov might have will probably at the very least touch upon this scenario. Since it involves SCO members and observers, the plans for an Eastern European-South Asian (Russian-Indian) corridor could be called the SCO Corridor.
Since this proposal can understandably be taken for granted as being among the highest of Russia’s long-term grand strategic priorities in Eurasia, one should expect Moscow to discuss some details of it with New Delhi. In particular, this could see Russia gently encouraging India to establish some sort of informal contact at the very least with the Taliban (which might end up ruling the country once more) as well as seriously considering the possibility of sincerely discussing COAS Bajwa’s visionary transregional plans. Russia won’t involve itself in the Kashmir Conflict without the approval of its two primary parties, but it still has an interest in its resolution.
To summarize everything, MEA Jaishankar’s Moscow visit will publicly deal with preparing for this year’s Russia-India Summit and the most pressing aspects of bilateral relations (particularly countering COVID-19 and enhancing connectivity). Informally, however, it’ll probably involve intense and extended discussions about Afghanistan, during which time Russia might try to assess India’s stance towards the SCO Corridor proposal and the extent to which it’s willing to go in order to facilitate it. At the very least, Moscow will get a clearer idea of New Delhi’s interests in this respect.