India Alarmed by Implications of First Pakistani-Russian Joint Military Exercise

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 13 Issue: 158

Russian soldiers arrive for Friendship 2016 exercise in Pakistan (Source: INP)

On September 24, Russia and Pakistan began their first-ever joint military exercises, “Friendship 2016.” Roughly 70 personnel from a mechanized infantry brigade based in Russia’s Southern Military District are participating in the 16-day exercise along with 130 Pakistani troops. The two countries’ Armed Forces are holding joint drills at the Army High Altitude School in Rattu, in northern Pakistan, and at a special forces training center in Cherat (, September 26). The extensive South Asian press coverage of the exercise dwarfs the modest size of the maneuvers. However, Pakistani, Indian, Russian and foreign analysts are all speculating on the larger implications of this new bilateral military collaboration.

The military exercise is the first in the two countries’ modern history. During the Cold War, Moscow and Islamabad were on opposite sides of this protracted conflict. And since the Soviet era and beyond, Russia’s closest traditional ally in South Asia has historically been India, not Pakistan.

This Russo-Indian alliance extends to the military sphere. From 2004 to 2014, Moscow has supplied 75 percent of India’s foreign arms purchases (Voenno-Promyshlennyi Kurier, March 26). The two countries have also been involved in a number of joint arms manufacture projects, including the BrahMos missile. The BrahMos is a “fire and forget” stealth supersonic cruise missile that can be launched from submarines, ships, aircraft or land. It has been deployed in the Indian military since 2007 (PTI, May 27).

An evident casualty of the Russian-Pakistani bilateral exercise was India’s hope that Moscow would show solidarity with New Delhi in the wake of the September 18 militant attack on an Indian army base in Kashmir. Eighteen Indian military personnel died in this attack, which New Delhi blamed on Islamabad (The Deccan Herald, September 27).

Nevertheless, Pakistan’s ambassador to Russia, Qazi Khalilullah, portrayed the exercise in a positive light, saying that the joint military drills indicated “a desire on both sides to broaden defense and military-technical cooperation” (The Express Tribune, September 23). In an obvious attempt to put the Russo-Pakistani Friendship 2016 drills in context and assuage Indian concerns, beginning on September 23 Russian troops held the “Indra 2016” joint anti-terrorism exercises with Indian military personnel. These were held at the Sergeevskii training ground, in eastern Siberia’s Primorskii Territory (Nezavisimaia Gazeta, September 26). The same day the bilateral exercise with India began, the Russian foreign ministry’s Deputy Director for Information and Press Iuri Matter said that Russia was not holding its exercise with Pakistan in “so-called Azad Kashmir” or in any other “sensitive or problematic areas like Gilgit and Baltistan.” He added that Russia holds similar exercises with other countries in the region (Diplomaticheskaia Panorama, Interfax, September 26).

Despite Moscow’s attempts to soothe tempers on the South Asian subcontinent regarding the bilateral Russo-Pakistani exercise, diplomatic repercussions have already followed. Specifically, Indian officials confirmed they asked Moscow to make a choice between Pakistan and India (The Times of India, September 25). That said, for the foreseeable future Russian-Indian military collaboration is likely to continue, if for no other reason than the fact that a number of the weapons systems New Delhi is seeking are unavailable elsewhere. Last month, an Indian delegation visited Russia to discuss leasing a nuclear-powered attack submarine for the Indian Navy (, September 14).

Within that context, the bilateral military exercises may also be viewed as Russia seeking a toehold in the Pakistani armaments market. Indeed, Islamabad’s relations with Washington over purchases of the F-16 fighter have been troubled, leading the Pakistani government to consider purchasing Russian Su-35 fighters instead (Nezavisimaia Gazeta, September 26).

What is unknown at this stage is how Russia’s foray into Pakistan will be seen in China, traditionally Pakistan’s closest regional ally. China sees Pakistan, not rival India, as an integral component in its ambitious “One Belt, One Road” trans-continental transportation infrastructure program, announced last year. Beijing has already committed $46 billion to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a sum equivalent to roughly 20 percent of Pakistan’s annual GDP (The Daily Pakistan, September 27). The centerpiece of the initiative is the planned development of Pakistan’s Gwadar port on the Arabian Sea, which will help open up post-Soviet Central Asia. As such, this Pakistani port will be in direct competition with India’s preferred project: improving Iran’s Chabahar seaport, located 45 miles west of Gwadar (The Hindu, June 7, 2016; see EDM, December 4, 2015).

Whether the joint Russian-Pakistani bilateral military exercise leads to a subsequent deepening of diplomatic, economic and military relations between Moscow and Islamabad remains to be seen. What is certain at this stage, however, is that India’s concerns over its relations with Pakistan continue. Moreover, according to reports in the Indian media, in early September Chinese troops allegedly entered nearly 30 miles into Indian territory, in a remote area of Arunachal Pradesh (The Times of India, PTI, September 26). Illustrating the increasingly important role of Russian weaponry, the month before the incursion the Indian government ordered the deployment of BrahMos missiles along its frontier with China (PTI, August 3). In the wake of the Friendship 2016 exercise, Moscow can at the very least expect New Delhi to seek clarification on the relative importance to Russia of its relations with India, as opposed to Russia’s newfound interest in military collaboration with India’s archrival Pakistan.