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Prospects for Russia’s Cooperation with India and Pakistan on the Afghan Problem

Petr Topychkanov

The end of the UN Security Council mandate for the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan will mean a lesser role in that country for external players and a greater role for its neighbors. For Russia, the most important partners in this area — apart from the Central Asian republics — are India and Pakistan, both of which have clearly defined interests in Afghanistan. Moscow has already launched dialogue with both countries on this issue. What is the precise nature of that dialogue? Which of the three countries’ interests in Afghanistan coincide, and which don’t? What forms of cooperation are they pursuing, or can potentially pursue in the future? All these questions require particular attention.

The Role of South Asian States in Russia’s Foreign Policy Strategy

Russia has several major policy documents in which the South Asian countries are given a prominent role. The 2008 Russian Foreign Policy Concept lists Russia’s interests and objectives, and makes particular mention of India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan in connection with those objectives. In its relations with India, Russia pursues its objectives on a bilateral, trilateral, and multilateral level:

  • “Russia pursues a closer strategic partnership with India. Its strategy is to strengthen cooperation on pressing international issues and to build closer mutually beneficial bilateral ties in all areas, with a particular emphasis on trade and economic cooperation.”

  • “Russia shares China’s and India’s interest in establishing effective foreign-policy and economic cooperation in the trilateral Russia-India-China format.”

  • Since Russia “attaches great importance to improving the governance of global development and establishing a self-regulating international system”, it intends to “step up cooperation in such formats as the G8, as well as its dialogue with traditional partners, including the BRIC Trio (Russia, India, and China) and the BRIC Quartet (Brazil, Russia, India, and China).

A combination of bilateral and multilateral approaches is also mentioned in connection with the declared intention of pursuing closer relations with “Pakistan and other leading regional powers”. The Foreign Policy Concept, however, does not specify the objectives of Russian foreign policy with regard to Pakistan.

The Concept states that the crisis in Afghanistan represents a security threat on the southern borders of the CIS. Russia’s interests in Afghanistan, according to that Concept, are as follows:

  • “Neutralizing the terrorist and narcotics threat originating in Afghanistan.”

  • “Preventing destabilization in Central Asia and the Transcaucasus.”

  • “Achieving a lasting and fair political settlement in that country based on the principle of respect for the rights and interests of all the ethnic groups living there.”

  • “Post-conflict rebuilding of Afghanistan as a sovereign and peaceful nation.”1

The Russian Foreign Policy Concept demonstrates that relations with the three South Asian countries are independent though sometimes closely related areas of Russian foreign policy, which have yet to become parts of a coherent regional strategy. The same is true of the 2013 edition of the Russian Foreign Policy Concept. As far as Russian policy in South Asia is concerned, the only notable difference between the 2013 edition and the previous version is that it contains no mention of Pakistan2, which may suggest that the country is now playing a somewhat lesser role in Russia’s strategies.

Russia’s general approaches to South Asia and the neighbor ing regions are also spelt out in the Russian National Security Strategy to 2020. The document says that the situation in Afghanistan and conflicts in several South Asian countries will have a negative impact on the international situation in the medium term.3

Another document that highlights Russian strategies is President Vladimir Putin’s policy article “Russia and the Changing World”. The article states that Russia is “an inalienable and integral part of Greater Europe”, and that the country also aims to capitalize on growth in Asia Pacific, especially in China and India. The president dwells at length on Russia’s relations with China, but he devotes only two sentences to India, saying that the country is Russia’s privileged strategic partner, and that Russian-Indian relations will be important for the formation of a multi-centric world. The article contains no mention of Pakistan. As for Afghanistan, the following detail attracts attention. President Putin says that terrorism and “heroin aggression” are the main threats originating in Afghanistan. But when he writes about Russia’s interests in that country, he does not mention the anti-terrorist effort. According to President Putin, Russia’s interests include a stable and peaceful development of Afghanistan, and an effective campaign against drugs.4

On the whole, the following general conclusions can be made on the basis of Russian policy documents about the role of South Asia in Russian foreign policy:

  • For the next decade, or even longer, the South Asia region will remain a source of such threats to Russian security as political instability, international conflicts, and the threat of terrorism and drugs.

  • As part of its response to those challenges, Russia intends to pursue closer bilateral relations with South Asian countries and play an active role in multilateral political formats.

  • Integration processes in South Asia are regarded as very relevant for Russia and its economy, with India seen as the main engine of growth in South Asia.

  • Russia has clearly defined priorities in South Asia. India is Russia’s privileged strategic partner in the region, Afghanistan a close neighbor, and Pakistan a leading regional power on a par with Turkey, Egypt, Algeria, Iran, Saudi Arabia, etc.

    Russia’s efforts to counter regional security threats using military instruments are based on the following principles:

  • Russia intends to ensure an adequate level of military presence in the region.

  • The Russian Navy will maintain its presence in the Indian Ocean on a periodic basis, probably using the ships assigned to the Black Sea Fleet, which became part of the Southern Operational Strategic Command in 2010.5

  • According to the 2010 Russian Military Doctrine, Russia will "contribute troops to the Collective Rapid Reaction Force of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) to ensure a rapid response to military threats facing the CSTO members and to achieve other objectives set out by the CSTO Collective Security Council. These forces will be used in accordance with the procedures outlined in the Agreement on the Procedure of Rapid Deployment, Application, and Comprehensive Support of the Collective Rapid Reaction Force of the Central Asian Collective Security Region."6

For the most part, the policies Russia pursues in South Asia are in accord with the interests of India and Pakistan as far as Afghanistan is concerned — but there are notable differences in some areas.

India’s interests in Afghanistan

For India, a presence in Afghanistan is not only a regional strategy but also a necessary precondition for asserting itself as a great power. The likely victory of the BJP-led coalition in India’s 2014 general election will further reinforce India’s aspiration to play a more notable role in global affairs.

New Delhi is Moscow’s privileged strategic partner and an influential regional and global actor. Cooperation with India, including joint efforts in Afghanistan (political stabilization, the counternarcotics campaign, etc) is very important to Russia.

But the factor of rivalry with Pakistan and China means that India’s interests in Afghanistan do not always coincide with Russia’s interests. Amid the ongoing rivalry with China and Pakistan, and in view of the diminishing presence of the United States and NATO in Afghanistan, the Indian list of potential partners for cooperation includes only two countries, Russia and Iran.

Pakistan’s interests in Afghanistan

Pakistan is the most active external player in Afghanistan. The Pashtun tribes that live on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistani border represent a shared link between the two countries. The border that separates them is a source of differences between Islamabad and Kabul.

Pakistan has long viewed Afghanistan as part of its own sphere of influence. It therefore often regards problems faced by Afghanistan as its own national security problems. Islamabad also believes that by strengthening its influence over Afghanistan it can gain an advantage over its main rival India.

Ever since Pakistan emerged as an independent state, it has always been involved in internal Afghan affairs. It will now try to increase that involvement even further following the departure of the International Security Assistance Force from Afghanistan.

Pakistan is in many ways dependent on the United States, although relations between the two countries are often turbulent. Islamabad also maintains close ties with Beijing and Riyadh. That is why it is difficult to see Pakistan as Russia’s ally. That does not mean, however, that Russia should view Pakistan as a regional rival, let alone adversary. Cooperation with Islamabad in fighting terrorism, illegal migration, and narcotics can be very useful for Moscow.


In those areas where Russia’s interests coincide with the interests of India and Pakistan, Moscow should seek consultation and, where appropriate, cooperation on the problem of Afghanistan. Such consultations and joint efforts will be more effective if they are pursued on a bilateral basis. At the same time, Moscow should also make use of multilateral platforms such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the Dushanbe Quartet (Afghanistan, Pakistan, Russia, and Tajikistan), and the trilateral Russia-India-China format. These organizations can serve as venues for exchanging opinions and preparing negotiations.

The withdrawal of the United States and its allies from Afghanistan will force Russia to play a more energetic role in maintaining regional security. That does not mean, however, that Russia will have to become directly involved in events taking place on Afghan territory. The objective of Russian foreign policy is to protect Russian interests by using political instruments in Afghanistan and in relations with its neighbors, especially India, Iran, and Pakistan. Russia should also work energetically and comprehensively in Central Asia, which represents its main security frontier. Russia’s diplomatic efforts will help to establish effective working relationships with all the regional powers.

1. Russian Foreign Policy Concept, July 15, 2008 // Russian president’s website (http://www.kremlin.ru/acts/785).

2. Russian Foreign Policy Concept, February 12, 2013 // Russian Foreign Ministry website (http://www.mid.ru/bdomp/ns-osndoc.nsf/e2f289bea62097f9c325787a0034c255/c32577ca0017434944257b160051bf7f!OpenDocument).

3. Russian National Security Strategy to 2020, May 13, 2009. Russian president’s website. (http://www.kremlin.ru/ref_notes/424).

4. Putin V.V. Russia and the Changing World, February 27, 2012 // Moskovskiye Novosti (mn.ru/politics/20120227/312306749.html).

5. Boltenkov D.E. Reform of the Russian Navy // Boltenkov D.E., Gayday A.M., Karnaukhov A.A,, Lavrov A.V., Tseluyko V.A. Russia’s New Army / Edited by M.S. Barabanov. Moscow: Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, 2010, P. 87.

6. The Russian Military Doctrine, February 5, 2010 // Russian president’s website (http://news.kremlin.ru/ref_notes/461).

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