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Russia makes a power play in South Asia

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Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov (L) and Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi (R) pose for a photo prior to their talks in Islamabad, Pakistan, April 7, 2021

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov visited India and Pakistan this week, underscoring Moscow’s growing clout in South Asia. Russia’s recent influence in the region includes its mediation of border talks between India and China and its increasing role in an Afghan peace process with major Pakistani involvement.

Lavrov’s first stop was New Delhi. Russia and India forged a strong friendship during the Cold War, but it has lost momentum in the last decade as each side has strengthened ties with the other’s rival: India with the United States and Russia with China. In recent years, the partnership has seemed to be driven more by nostalgia than by substance. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said in 2014 that “if asked to say who India’s best friend is, [a child in India] will reply it is Russia because Russia has been with India in times of crisis.”

Strikingly, Lavrov didn’t meet with Modi this week. Indian media reports suggest the Indian government was unhappy that Lavrov’s trip to India was combined with one to Pakistan. Another theory goes that Washington urged New Delhi not to have Modi meet Lavrov. US climate envoy John Kerry also held a brief meeting with Lavrov while both officials were in India. The official explanation was that they met by happenstance and spoke about climate change. But they may well have spoken on other issues, including the Iran nuclear deal.

Russia and India still cooperate on multiple levels. According to Indian External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar, he and Lavrov discussed existing nuclear, space, and defense sector partnership and pledged to expand security collaborations. Meanwhile, India’s planned purchase of the S-400 missile defense system from Russia runs the risk of triggering US sanctions. Lavrov sidestepped questions about the deal during his visit.

New Delhi’s willingness to make a major arms acquisition from a US rival, despite its growing defense partnership with Washington, underscores its continued reliance on Russian military support—and Moscow’s continued influence over New Delhi. As Emily Tamkin wrote for Foreign Policy last year, India also has strong incentives to maintain ties with a partner like Russia, which it regards as reliable and low maintenance.

Lavrov’s India visit covered two topics that illustrate Moscow’s growing regional clout: China-India border talks and the Afghan peace process. Russia, one of the few world powers to enjoy cordial ties with both India and China, quietly facilitated bilateral negotiations between the two countries after a deadly border clash last June. Beijing was a key agenda point during Lavrov’s meetings in New Delhi. In an interview with the Hindustan Times, he said that Russia was “closely watching the process of normalization” along the border.

Meanwhile, three decades after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, Moscow has become a key player in its peace process. Russia has hosted multiple meetings on Afghan reconciliation in the last two years, including one last month with Taliban leaders and representatives from Kabul, Beijing, Islamabad, and Washington—but not New Delhi. On this trip, Lavrov—accompanied to New Delhi by the Russian special envoy for Afghanistan—did call for a prominent Indian role in the peace process.

Lavrov’s second stop was Islamabad, the first visit there by a Russian foreign minister in nine years. In private conversations, Russian analysts have played down the idea of a deepening Russia-Pakistan relationship. But Lavrov’s visit, coupled with growing counterterrorism cooperation, emerging energy collaborations, and convergent views on Afghanistan, tells a different story. His meetings resulted in pledges to increase military cooperation.

Afghanistan topped the agenda for Lavrov in Islamabad, which unlike New Delhi is heavily involved in the peace process due to its close ties to the Taliban. (And Russia, unlike India, does not oppose Pakistan’s ideal endgame: a future government with a role for the Taliban.) In Islamabad, Lavrov articulated shared interests in identifying conditions that reduce conflict, including the “establishment of inclusive power structures.” This was likely a reference to an unelected interim government to oversee the peace process, an idea rejected by Kabul and opposed by New Delhi.

Energy was another important topic. This summer, a Russian consortium will begin construction on a 680-mile natural gas pipeline north from Port Qasim in southern Pakistan to the eastern city of Lahore. Russian support for Pakistan’s energy sector, which includes new plans to invest $14 billion in gas infrastructure, will enhance its influence in the country, which seeks to diversify its energy partners.

Lavrov’s trip shows that Moscow’s footprint in South Asia is poised to deepen. The impending departure of US forces from Afghanistan, coupled with Russia’s warm ties with the region’s largest nations and China, puts Moscow in a strong position to shape the region’s geopolitics. This influence won’t please the United States, but it likely won’t be resisted in South Asia.