Moscow and New Delhi share a similar approach to addressing international terrorism and regularly hold consultations on the issue, yet this cooperation does not get accurately conveyed by the mass media, experts said at a video conference organised by the Russia & India Report and the Indian Council of World Affairs (ICWA) on April 19.
The conference was devoted to Indo-Russian cooperation in the fight against global terrorism, and measures taken by the two countries in ensuring stability in Afghanistan, Central Asia and the Indo-Pacific region as a whole.
Moderated by Deputy Director General of ICWA Ajaneesh Kumar and Executive Editor of Russia & India Report Ksenia Zubacheva, the panel featured Vyacheslav Trubnikov, former Russian Ambassador to India (2004-2009), Boris Volkhonsky, Deputy Head of the Centre for Asia and the Middle East at the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies, P. S. Raghavan, former Ambassador of India to Russia (2013-2016), and Athar Zafar, Research Fellow at the ICWA.
Terrorism and Afghanistan
India and Russia have vast experience and understand each other perfectly well in dealing with terrorism, Trubnikov said.
The countries regularly hold consultations between their ministries and intelligence services, as well as military counter-terrorism drills and have often supported each other’s efforts in this area. The problem lies in how their activities are projected to the public, according to the experts.
Trubnikov said the mass media sometimes creates a lot of misunderstandings on both sides by distorting information on sensitive issues, such as Afghanistan. “The more transparent, the more straightforward the relationship between mass media of both sides is and the better is the understanding of each other is, the less is the scope for misinterpreting certain steps on our side or on the Indian side,” he said.
Raghavan fully supported his view: “We were not able to project to our public what is happening and that creates a problem and the mass media distorts it. Our intelligence services are in very close touch on questions related to terrorism. We have to see how we can translate this cooperation into the public domain.”
Discussing the situation in Afghanistan, the speakers agreed that all countries in the region should join their efforts to ensure the crisis does not threaten the stability of the whole neighbourhood.
As Trubnikov sees it, the Taliban is less dangerous than the Islamic State (ISIS or Daesh), which is already a very serious threat to global security. “I am absolutely sure that even with the defeat of ISIS in the Middle East it will not stop to exist because the desire to create some kind of a quasi state, a so-called caliphate will not die down,” he said. “We have to undertake very serious concerted efforts to eradicate this.”
Yet one should not distinguish between “good” and “bad” terrorists, Raghavan added. Differentiating between ISIS and Taliban is a very delicate issue in India and, even though there were cases of Indians being recruited to ISIS, one should not underestimate the danger of Taliban as well, he warned.
Indo-Pacific and Central Asia
The shifting geopolitical situation in the world has influenced the dynamic in the Indo-Pacific region as well. China is likely to play a major role in the region for quite a while, Volkhonsky said.
“China kept a low profile over the last few years but now that Donald Trump openly declared that China is the number one matter of concern for U.S. foreign policy, the relationship between the countries will be a major factor defining the global architecture,” he explained.
Russia will also attach a lot of importance to its relationship with China, as Moscow does not want to repeat the same situation that existed in Soviet era, when China and the USSR were basically in a state of confrontation on their borders. “We are free to choose our friends, but we are not free to choose our neighbours,” Volkhonsky added.
Keeping this in mind, it is definitely not in Russia’s interests to get involved in any kind of geopolitical stand-off between major powers of the Indo-Pacific. “I think it is not in India’s interests either,” Volkhonsky said.
The recent escalation of the situation on the Korean Peninsula once again shows that every country should remember that a nuclear crisis will not be limited to the countries directly involved, but will definitely have implications for the whole region.
“This creates a new situation for cooperation between Russia, India and other countries not interested in a China-U.S. stand-off,” Volkhonsky explained. “What is needed now in the Indo-Pacific region is an inclusive security architecture.” As he sees it, any kind of bloc-like architecture might promote further instability and confrontation between different actors. Hence, a comprehensive approach should be put forward that will include all players based on a win-win principle.
Central Asia is another important region from a security perspective for Russia and India. According to Zafar, the instability there might be a source of concern for both Moscow and Delhi and the rise of ISIS in Central Asian republics would create many risks not only for them but for the whole neighbourhood.
Russia and India share similar views on the situation in Central Asia and both are interested in promoting peace, Volkhonsky and Trubnikov said.
“No one knows what the immediate plans of Daesh are, but it might very well choose Central Asia as its next destination after it is expelled from Syria and Iraq which I believe will happen soon,” Volkhonsky said.
Central Asia has very deep-rooted Islamic traditions and ISIS may try to use this to its advantage, according to Trubnikov. The tragic events in the St. Petersburg metro this month showed that this development has started to appear on the surface. Due to migration flows from Central Asia there is a big risk of radical Islamists coming to Russia’s major cities, he pointed out. “For India it might be a problem as well. We have to share mutual experiences in fighting terror.”
Central Asia holds tremendous potential for Indo-Russian cooperation. As speakers pointed out, economic projects and transport routes via this region can play a role in the resolution of security problems. For instance, the shortest route from India to Russia goes through Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia. Resolving security questions might open the way for more economic integration. Security and economic questions are intertwined and should be dealt with comprehensively, Volkhonsky believes.
Another important point concerns water security in Central Asia. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the resource-sharing system it imposed on the region totally disintegrated and now the water resource relations between the countries of the region mostly depend on their mutual relations. Cooperation will be key to modernise infrastructure and manage water resources of the region in a just manner.
“We cannot afford to have a situation where the countries would compete for fresh water,” Trubnikov warned.
According to him, there is tremendous potential for Russia and India to cooperate in Central Asia, and it is the responsibility of both countries to take care of the security situation in the region, keeping the interests future generations in the greater neighbourhood in mind.
India and Russia share common views on most global issues, but the international press has been trying to play up minor issues. The experts at the conference agreed that the bilateral relationship is largely hassle-free.
“Every strategic partnership will have ‘wrinkles’. The strength of the partnership is in its ability to ‘iron this wrinkles up’,” Raghavan said.
Supported by the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC) the conference was held to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the establishment of the Indo-Russia diplomatic relationship.