LUCKNOW: The first Ever Russia-Pakistan joint military exercise Druzhba-2016 (Friendship-2016) commenced on 24 September 2016 at the Pak Army’s Special Forces training centre in Cherat in Pakistan. The two week exercise will conclude on 10 October 2016.

A mechanised infantry unit from Russia with 70 troops and 130 Pakistan Special Forces are taking part.

Having happened just after the Pak sponsored Uri terror attack on 18 September, Indians were somewhat apprehensive about shifting global linkages. The exercise was earlier also planned at the Pakistan Army’s High Altitude School at Rattu in Gilgit-Baltistan, but the same was cancelled due to the outrage and India’s sensitivity to the disputed Pakistan occupied Kashmir (PoK).

Pakistan, for half a century has been part of the American camp and had actually helped create Mujahideen groups to help USA fight the Soviets in Afghanistan in early 1980s.

On the other hand India and Russia have a time-tested friendship and have been doing joint military exercises for long. As a counter balance, Russians had simultaneously planned the Indo-Russian joint military exercise ‘Indra 2016’ at Ussuriysk near Vladivostok in the same period.

After India and USA started becoming closer in mid 2000s and India purchased state of the art aircraft from America starting 2008, Russia became more open to offer some weapon systems to Pakistan. Pakistan has also been upset with US Congress blocking sale of eight F-16 fighters jets earlier cleared for PAF.

November 2014 saw the first-ever visit of a Russian defence minister to Islamabad in 45 years, and the two countries signed a milestone agreement to enhance cooperation in defence. Russia lifted its embargo on arms supplies to Pakistan and offered 20 Mi-35 attack helicopters. Sensing greater Indo-US military linkages including the recent LEMOA agreement Pakistan is keen to improve ties with Russia.

Russia under an assertive President Putin, who has taken strong positions against the West in Ukraine, Syria and Libya, wants to send signals to its old friend India on the geostrategic shifts and its options with China and Pakistan.

Notwithstanding, Russia continues to be India’s major supplier pf military hardware. 70% of Indian Air Force and Navy are made up of Russian equipment. Indian Army’s Armour has been dominated by Russian T-72 and T-90 tanks. The Mechanised infantry uses Russian infantry combat vehicles. Indian Navy’s aircraft carrier Vikramaditya, the latest fighter aircraft MiG-29K, many of the frigates and most of its helicopters and submarine fleet are of Russian origin.

The BrahMos supersonic cruise missile is a successful Indo-Russian joint venture. Indian Air Force (IAF) will soon have all 272 Sukhoi Su-30 MKI already committed. More orders are likely. IAF recently upgraded MiG-29s. IL-76 and An-32 transport aircraft, and the AEW&C and Air-refuelling aircraft are all Russian origin. Nearly 200 Russian Mi-17 helicopter variants will dominate IAF’s medium lift helicopter fleet for next two decades. Nearly 400 Kamov-226T will join the three armed forces. The surface-to-air and air-to-air missile inventories are mostly Russian.

Meanwhile, important milestones in Russia-Pak relations include when in 2011, Putin publicly endorsed Pakistan’s bid to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. He also strongly condemned the NATO strikes in Pakistan. Putin sent his Foreign Minister Lavrov to Pakistan in 2012, and Pak Army Chief Kayani visited Moscow in October 2012.

The Army Chiefs discussed improving defence cooperation and army-to-army relations. Pakistan and Russia held their first strategic dialogue in August 2013. The dialogue laid an institutional framework for building closer relations between the two countries. In December 2009 the PAF had received its first of four aerial refuellers IL-78 aircraft acquired from Ukraine, equipped with three-point Russian UPAZ refuelling equipment. Russia later also cleared sale of RD-93 Russian engine for YF-17 aircraft developed by Pakistan with China.

Decades old Russian defence supplies embargo on Pakistan was finally lifted in June 2014 with the beginning of talks on supplying of combat helicopters. Pakistan Army also participated in Russian Army War Games 2015 held in Russian Far East. Pakistan was also among the 6 countries that took part in Master of The Air Defense Battle Competition along with Russia, China, Egypt, Venezuela and Belarus. Both sides have shown desire to translate the relationship in tangible terms and further strengthen military to military relations.

Pakistan has also shown interest in the more advanced Su-35 aircraft which is already flying with Russian and Chinese Air Forces. Pakistan has invited Russian companies to invest in the energy sector and hopes to more closely coordinate efforts with Russia to counter terrorism and narcotics. As the NATO-led ISAF Forces are planning to depart Afghanistan, the Russians thought Pakistan was a crucial player and decided to close-in. Meanwhile, Russia wants to use Pakistan Army’s expertise against terrorists in a conventional war.

Indian public needs to know that Indo-Russian friendship is deep and time-tested. There are large political and economic investments for both. Indian Armed Forces remain Russia centric. The Indo-Russian strategic partnership has been built on defence, civil nuclear energy, anti-terrorism and space. Both countries have set a target for US$30 billion in bilateral trade by 2025. Both interact closely in UN, BRICS, G20 and SCO. Russia is major supplier of not only military hardware but nuclear power plants, heavy engineering, metals, and petro chemicals.

Russia is great market for many Indian products including pharmaceuticals. India is emerging as a great global player and has a huge a market for anyone to ignore. The joint venture BrahMos cruise missile project is doing well. India has interest in T-90S Bhishma tanks, Akula-II nuclear submarine and many more systems worth tens of billions US$. Russia is India’s largest arms supplier, with $20bn in sales since 2006. However, Russia has of late been driving hard bargains in defence deals with India. INS Vikramaditya being a prime example. IAF is already committed to many future projects with Russians.

The Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA), and a 20-ton Medium-lift Transport Aircraft (MTA). The trade is growing steadily with an ambitious target of US$ 4 billion by 2017. In comparison the Russia-Pak trade is around US$ 542 million, mainly in Textiles, Oil and Gas energy etc. India has been supportive of Russian positions and had carefully calibrated response to Russian actions in Chechnya, Syria, Ukraine and elsewhere, and supported Russia. China is leveraging its economy and relationships to build hegemony (G-2) with the USA where both can share international financial domination.

Russia is well aware of this, and has its own concerns about the Chinese domination. Pakistan is a satellite state for China. Russia has concerns about Central Asia vis-à-vis China and Pakistan. Indian and Russian anxieties on terrorism need to converge and bring about some positive outcome.

Given the growing US-Russia hostility, India has to tread with caution and reassure Russia that India is a reliable partner. Russia knows that India is still its most reliable ally. It has no conflict of interest or anxiety about India as it does about others. To retain this, India and Russia need to be active strategic and economic allies. But both will have to make an effort for this.

Any Pakistan-Russia cooperation can only be a temporary pin-prick for India and no more. The Indo-Russian bear hug is here to stay for a few decades more.

(Air Marshal Anil Chopra is a former fighter Pilot in the Indian Air Force who commanded a Mirage 2000 Squadron).