Last week's talks between the defense ministers of India and Russia at Moscow mark another round of consolidation of bilateral relations aimed at widening the area of mutual co-operation. Outwardly, the accent of these parleys may rest on the need to fight global and regional terrorism but they are essentially about resurrecting the uniqueness of partnership characteristic of the Soviet era. Neither side expects sudden and dramatic gains in view of the complexities of international diplomacy, consequent to the growth of religious fundamentalism. After the hostage drama Chechen rebels staged in a Moscow theater a few months ago, Russia is more seriously addressing concerns about militancy than ever. So is India after terrorists tried to capture its Parliament in December 2001.
These concerns occupied the center stage at the crucial Moscow talks between the defense ministers before they concluded a landmark protocol to jointly develop next generation fighter jets and set up defense ventures similar to the Brahmos cruise missile project. The protocol also covers development and production of futuristic weapons and weapons platforms. Russia was more forthcoming in positioning the focus of bilateral defense ties when its defense minister Sergei Ivanov expressed fears that Pakistan's nuclear arms may fall into the hands of the Al Qaeda and Taliban terrorists. When President Bush was in Moscow last November, President Putin told him he had made a wrong choice of allies, a direct reference to the presence of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan and the danger of it's nuclear arms falling into wrong hands.
These sentiments come in the wake of similar assertions Russian Security Council secretary Vladimir Rushailo made demanding Pakistan "end infiltration across the line of control (with India) and eliminate the terrorist infrastructure in Pakistan-controlled Kashmir." According to Rushailo, the situation both globally and in the region between Russia and India -- in Afghanistan and South Asia directly affecting the interests of 'our two countries,' -- requires constant co-ordination of 'our activities.' Moscow bluntly told Islamabad at the end of Russo-Pakistani consultations on strategic stability that "Moscow has information that some Al Qaeda outfits have reorganized and partially infiltrated into Pakistani territory.
As victims of Islamic terrorism (Jehadi and Wahabi varieties), India and Russia have begun to see the greater need for stronger and effective collaboration to eliminate the menace. Though Russia has agreed to set up a joint working group with both India and Pakistan, the goals are different. The understanding with India is to strengthen its hands in fighting terrorism, especially of the Al Qaeda virus. The understanding with Pakistan does not blur the Russian position on cross-border terrorism and the need to dismantle terrorist infrastructures in that country and also the need to deny succor to terrorist outfits collaborating with Chechen rebels. Russia has been fighting the Chechen menace for a whole decade exacerbated by volunteers recruited in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
India faces similar problems in Kashmir endangered by a threat bearing close resemblance to Wahabism in Chechenya. This anti-India cancer has now spread to its eastern neighbor Bangladesh that India liberated in 1971 from Pakistani dictatorship. In Kashmir, terrorism has become an instrument to achieve secession that the rebels are demanding in Chechenya. Islamic terrorists have also been active elsewhere in India as the hijacking of an Indian passenger plane to Kandahar and the attacks on its Parliament, its temples in Jammu and Ahmedabad indicate. Pakistan has recently released two deadly terrorists Hafeez Saeed and Masood Azhar wanted in India for acts of sabotage. The strikes outside Kashmir are a replica of the Chechen terrorist hostage drama in a Moscow theater.
The emerging strategic partnership between India and Russia derives its strength from a convergence of views on their geopolitical and security interests in the Central Asian region. Both countries have multi-ethnic and pluralistic societies inviting challenges to their integrity from religious extremism, secessionism and terrorism. They regard Afghanistan as the hub of terrorism, a perception corroborated by the military presence of an international coalition in that troubled country showing how terrorism is no more a regional problem but a global one.
A closer examination of the problems in Chechenya and Kashmir yields clues to the growing strategic understanding between Moscow and Delhi. Both the problems stem from the obduracy of religious minorities. The Chechens, like the majority in Kashmir, are Muslims enjoying the support of Turkey and countries in the Middle East and Afghanistan when it was under Taliban control. Suadi Arabia is the major source of funds for the Chechens. They call their struggle a war of liberation. Putin is determined to resolve this conflict by whatever means. Chechenya's ousted President Aslan Maskhadov, though is a moderate, opposes Islamic extremism. But he insists on independence and Moscow maintains Chechenya is a part of Russia.
After a long history of opposition to Russian position on Chechenya, the United States has acknowledged that Chechenya is Russia's internal problem after it discovered a connection between the Al Qaeda outfit and the Chechen rebels. Russia is ready for a political solution to the problem in the same manner, as India prefers a political solution of the Kashmir problem. However, both Moscow and Delhi set their face against independence. Despite the change in American perceptions, Europe is yet to come to terms with Russia's Chechen policy. The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and the European Assembly still want peace talks with Chechen rebels, calling them freedom fighters. Denmark refused Moscow's demand to extradite Maskhadov's envoy Akhmad Zakayev.
After the rebels attacked the government headquarters in Chechen capital Grozny killing 50 people, Russia saw no point in appealing to Europe to see its viewpoint. As a result, it closed down the ESCE monitoring mission in Chechenya complaining of double standards on terrorism. Moscow is likely to call off the referendum Putin had announced last month to keep Chechenya in the Russian federation. Though willing to consider autonomy for Chechenya, Russia is totally against complete sovereignty. Following five years of civil war, Moscow offered and Grozny accepted autonomy to be followed by a referendum. However, Maskhadov turned out to be a secessionist. Putin also won from US President Bush a free hand in dealing with Chechenya in return for Russian support to U.S. campaign against global terror.
For India, Kashmir continues to be a problem because some power-hungry groups continue to flog the dead horse of referendum and secession with active help from Pakistan. In addition, Bangladesh is now hosting terrorist outfits funded by the Inter-Services Intelligence of Pakistan. India's foreign affairs minister Yeshwant Sinha told its Parliament recently that the Pakistan high commission in Dhaka had become the nerve center of the ISI for promoting terrorism and insurgency in India. Some Al Qaeda members have taken shelter in Bangladesh welcoming a ship carrying Al Qaeda operatives along the coast of Chittagong. Former prime minister of that country Sheikh Hasina confirmed it when she said that a lot of Bangladesh was exporting terrorism to India. She acknowledged the presence of Al Qaeda in her country.
The ISI is active throughout India recruiting local unemployed Muslim youth to stage terrorist strikes, blast rail tracks, sponsor suicide bombers etc. Today, it has spread its tentacles to the troubled northeast region of India also where the Nagas have been challenging India's sovereignty. The ISI is strengthening this anti-India movement by helping the Naga rebels from their base in Bangladesh. Both the Bodo and Naga militants in the region have been going to Islamabad and Dhaka to receive training at ISI camps there. They also buy arms and ammunition from Pakistan and Bangladesh.
In some quarters in India
There is a tendency in some quarters in India to view Indo-Russian relations purely as a product of their problems with terrorism. This is too simplistic a view that does not stand critical scrutiny. On the defense side, India's relations with Moscow originate in the reality of hostile forces on its northern borders against which it fought several wars. Both Delhi and Moscow have begun restructuring relations with China and Pakistan in ways that do not impinge on mutual interests. In today's world there are no permanent enemies but only needs. That is why it is foolish to think that Gen. Pervez Musharraf's Moscow visit in February will take away the warmth in Indo-Russian relations. Both countries have realized that the way to improve their economies is through policies aimed at winning and preserving markets for their products and services. National interest and not altruism is the basis of Indo-Russian ties and that has the potential to pave the way for further all-round co-operation.
Dasu Krishnamoorty Special to PRAVDA.Ru Delhi