Doval creates synergy in India-Russia ties

President Vladimir Putin (R) met top security officials of the region surrounding Afghanistan, Kremlin, Moscow, Feb 8, 2023 

The scheduled visit of National Security Advisor Ajit Doval to Moscow on February 7-9 was in connection with the multilateral consultations of the secretaries of security councils and national security advisors regarding Afghanistan hosted by the Secretary of the Russian Security Council Nikolai Patrushev. 

However, it was Doval’s meeting with President Vladimir Putin that inevitably became the meridian. Indeed, it was an exceptional event. Putin’s meeting with Doval signified two things — it was a recognition both of Doval’s unique standing as a meaningful interlocutor in the Indian government as well as his standing as an accomplished professional with vast experience in the regional security issues, in particular, Afghanistan.

Doval doesn’t have the luxury of being an armchair strategist. He lived and worked in the real world and kept up with Russian counterparts at a working level. As time passed, friendships forged in the fires of adversity — Khalistan, cross-border terrorism, political islam, insurgencies — became strong and weathered the test of time. Unsurprisingly, Doval’s equation with Patrushev is one of its kind. Therefore, the enormous symbolism in Putin’s face-to-face interaction with  Doval must be properly understood.

Putin’s remarks at the regional meeting of security advisors underscored the high importance Moscow attaches to the Afghan situation. He said Afghanistan “has always been important for us [Russia] and now it is important more than ever because we do not want more points of tension on our southern borders.” 

Putin mentioned three reasons for saying so. First, the Afghan security situation remains critical. To quote Putin, “International terrorist organisations are stepping up their activities, including al-Qaeda which is building up its potential.” Moscow is greatly concerned about negative fallouts in the Central Asian region. 

Russia sees India as a like-minded country — alongside China, Iran and the Central Asian states — that is genuinely interested in the stabilisation of the Afghan situation. The MEA readout mentions that Doval in his remarks at the regional meeting “stressed the need to ensure that the territory of Afghanistan does not become a source of radicalisation and terrorism, regionally or globally, as well as to intensify intelligence and security cooperation to deal with terror outfits.” 

Evidently, Moscow is conscious of the convergence of interests with Delhi on this front. The Afghan situation would have figured prominently in Doval’s talks with Patrushev, who is an old and trusted associate of Putin over decades. 

Second, Russia has specific concerns over the problem of drug trafficking, which is on the rise. Putin mentioned that 80% of opiates in the world market originate from Afghanistan. Russia and Iran are two major transit routes for drug trafficking. During the two decades of US occupation, the Americans virtually acquiesced with drug traffickers. Occasional reports showed that some Pentagon commanders even made fortunes out of the smuggling. 

Drug trafficking is inextricably linked to the security situation. Again, the Taliban government lacks resources to provide alternate livelihood to the poor farmers to induce them to give up poppy cultivation. In this connection, Putin made a cryptic remark that “there are plans to implement large economic projects that could stabilise the situation.” Russia has a masterplan to revive the Soviet-aided economic projects in Afghanistan. 

India too has a brilliant track record in undertaking developmental projects in Afghanistan. Doval’s assertion that India “is and will remain an important stakeholder in Afghanistan” is to be understood in this context.

Third, Putin stated: “We are also worried about attempts to use the situation in Afghanistan to allow extra-regional forces to expand or build their infrastructure. These countries will create this under the pretext of countering international terrorism, but they are not doing anything that is really necessary in the real counterterrorism struggle.” 

Putin, of course, was alluding to the continuing attempts by the US to return to Afghanistan and establish a security presence with a view to influence the geopolitics in the surrounding regions of Iran, North Caucasus, Central Asia, Xinjiang, etc. Taliban resisted the American pressure. Russia’s presidential envoy for Afghanistan Zamir Kabulov recently alleged on state television that the US is giving covert support to the Islamic State-Khorasan in Afghanistan. 

Russia finds itself between the rock and a hard place. It harboured a  notion in the recent years that Pakistan would be a potential ally to stabilise the Afghan situation under Taliban. But that turned out to be a flawed assumption. On the contrary, the overthrow of Imran Khan led to the installation of a US-backed regime in Islamabad that is completely at the bidding of Americans. The US stranglehold is destined to tighten further as the IMF begins to dictate Pakistan’s economic policies. 

A sharp deterioration in Pakistan’s equations with the Taliban followed after Imran Khan’s overthrow. An easing of tensions between Islamabad and Kabul is not to be expected, as the military leadership in Rawalpindi has reverted to its historical role as the cats-paw of the Pentagon and the CIA. The Taliban harbours deep suspicions regarding the US-Pakistani intentions. 

According to reports, the US is sourcing military supplies from Pakistan for use in its proxy war against Russia in Ukraine. In sum, the Pakistani civilian and military elite are reverting to their historical role as  hirelings of the US. Russia and Iran are in the US crosshairs. Moscow is vainly hoping to engage Pakistan in a constructive relationship, whereas, in reality, it is dealing with a vassal state of the US.  

Suffice it to say that India is sailing in the same boat as Russia when it comes to the Afghan conundrum and Pakistani shenanigans. Conceivably, at some point soon enough, the Pakistani military will resume its interference in Afghanistan by projecting power into that country to keep it weak and subservient —something that dovetails with the US’ current regional strategy. 

From various accounts, Putin’s conversation with Doval largely focused on the Russian-Indian special and privileged strategic partnership. But Afghanistan would have been a key topic of discussion. To be sure, Putin would have spoken to Doval about the Ukraine situation as well. That said, Putin’s main focus currently is on the bilateral cooperation with India against the backdrop of its pivot to Asian countries as economic partners. 

The US lobbyists in the Indian media are upset that Doval visited Moscow. A Delhi newspaper wrote an editorial today warning the Modi government about its dealings with Russia, which, according to the paper, stands “isolated” in the international community! (Twenty years back, this very same newspaper had written that then PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s refusal to join the US’s “coalition of the willing” to invade Iraq would cost India dearly, as a vengeful George W. Bush was sure to punish Delhi by evicting it from Kashmir Valley!) 

What these lobbyists overlook is that India’s relationship with the US is transactional and the Americans are rank opportunists. It is about time they got accustomed to the idea that India cherishes its strategic autonomy. Why do some of our journalists behave like a comprador class? 

Moscow appreciates India’s neutrality and on its part, the Modi government also knows that in this titanic struggle between the US and Russia over the birth of a new multipolar world order, there is very little India (or any third party) can do to persuade the Biden Administration to call off the proxy war and begin negotiations. 

Apparently, the Biden Administration still thinks that the proxy war will lead to the dismemberment and destruction of Russia paving the way for the resuscitation of the US’ “unipolar moment”. So long as the US neocons who dominate Biden’s team remain delusional, this conflict will continue and may even escalate. Delhi is doing the right thing to remain non-aligned and astutely pursue its national interests.