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History repeats itself: Why Russia continues to support India on Kashmir issue at the UNSC

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By Rajan Kumar

Nearly 75 years ago, Nikita Khrushchev, the Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, declared Kashmir to be an integral part of India in his visit to Srinagar (Kashmir) on December 10, 1955. He further stated, “We are so near that if ever you call us from the mountain tops we will appear at your side.” In the Security Council Resolutions of the United Nations (UN) in 1957, 1962 and 1971, Russia was the only country which vetoed the West-sponsored resolutions seeking UN interventions in Kashmir. The issue of Kashmir resurfaced at the Security Council again, this time after a gap of nearly 50 years. China raised it at the behest of Pakistan, and the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) held an informal “closed consultation” meeting on August 16.

Indian media was abuzz with the speculations on respective positions of the permanent members of the Security Council. But the maximum reports centered around Russia’s stance at the UNSC. None of the other permanent members drew as much attention as Russia did. Though India has developed close strategic ties with the US, France, and the UK, yet ironically none of them figured anywhere near Russia.

About two weeks ago, the ANI, an Indian news agency, had reported that Russia supported India on the abrogation of Article 370 as an "internal and domestic" issue. This story was picked up and re-reported fervently by the newspapers and TV channels as a vindication of Indian policy. Some experts and skeptics demanded the source and veracity of such claim, which remained unclear. Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs neither confirmed nor denounced this statement, thereby, leaving it to a subject of interpretation from either side.

Leaving these trivia aside, what matters for India are three crucial questions: first, does India expect way more from Russia than what it does from other great powers? Second, has there been any real shift in Russia’s policy towards India in general, and Kashmir in particular? And finally, how far does Russia’s close strategic partnership with China, and somewhat improved ties with Pakistan, impact its policy towards Kashmir?

First, India’s high expectation from Russia is a function of its unique and outstanding historical ties which developed during the Soviet period. Barring some disruptions and aberrations in the early 1990s, this partnership remained stable and enduring. The Soviet Union saved India from a potential third party intervention and international humiliation. With that sense of history, Indians feel obligated and indebted to the Russian support at the UNSC, and during its war with Pakistan in 1971.

Some agenda-driven experts in media and think tanks do try to belittle and downplay the significance of this relationship vis-à-vis that of the US, but time and again Russia has proven to be the most sensitive and indispensable strategic partner of India. How many times have we witnessed reporters asking the representatives of the US, France, and UK as to whether they consider Kashmir to be an integral part of India or a disputed territory? The support of these states to Pakistan was one of the main reasons why Kashmir got mired in the Cold War politics and remained intractable for such a long time. India's insistence on a bilateral resolution of the conflict stemmed partly from its suspicion towards these states during the Cold War period. Now when these states have tilted towards India, China has become the chief patron of Pakistan.

Second, there has been no substantial change in Russia's policy towards Kashmir. Russia understands the significance of India in its geostrategic calculations. They have institutionalized their ties through bilateral and multilateral summits. India supported Russia in its incorporation of Crimea, saying “Russia has legitimate interests in Crimea.” In all the multilateral forums, including the SCO and the BRICS, Russia has emphasized the virtues of "sovereignty and non-interference in the domestic affairs." Since the abrogation of Article 370 does not impinge upon the current status of the Line of Control, it would remain a domestic issue of India from the Russian perspective. Russia itself was a victim of Islamic radicalism and secessionism in Chechnya, and therefore, is unsupportive of such cases in other places.

Third, a section of Indian experts raise concerns about Russia's proximity with China, and its attempts to reach out to Pakistan. There is no doubt that China has become the most critical economic and geostrategic partner of Russia subsequent to the Western sanctions. But Russia’s understanding of India is independent of Beijing’s worldview. It treats two countries as separate entities crucial for Russia and seeks to remain neutral in bilateral disputes- as witnessed during the Doklam crisis of July 2017. That China supports Pakistan does not necessarily mean Russia will follow the suit.

Pakistan, however, has assumed significance for Russia due to its involvement in Afghanistan. Russia is negotiating with the Taliban, the success of which is predicated upon a tacit approval from Pakistan’s army. In such circumstances, Russia has to display sensitivity to Pakistan’s concerns. However, it does not view Kashmir and Afghan crisis as interconnected. Its primary concern is about the potential escalation of conflict between India and Pakistan which would destabilize the region and jeopardize the Afghan peace process.

Russia has reiterated ad nauseam that Kashmir is a bilateral issue. Just before the informal UNSC meeting, Russia’s representative to the UN, Dmitry Polyansky, made it clear that the crisis in Jammu and Kashmir should be “resolved bilaterally between India and Pakistan.” After the meeting, he allegedly tweeted that the issue should be resolved “on the basis of Simla (Shimla) Agreement of 1972 and Lahore Declaration of 1999, in accordance with UN Charter, relevant UN resolutions and bilateral agreements between India and Pakistan.”

Some pundits in India interpreted the reference of the “UN Charter and relevant UN resolution” as a shift in Russia’s policy towards Jammu and Kashmir. A reporter titled the headline as “Russia backs India at UNSC, but with a rider.” But this is a case of reading too much between the lines. As a representative to the UN, he could have not have said otherwise. The official statement of India’s representative to the UN, Syed Akbaruddin, following the UNSC meeting hinted clearly towards Russia’s support to India. In short, there are no indications of any shift of Russia’s policy towards Kashmir as yet.

(Author teaches at School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University. Views are personal)