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Mainstream, VOL LIII No 51 New Delhi December 12, 2015

Turkey and Red Line in India-Russia Friendship

Sunday 13 December 2015, by M K Bhadrakumar

Having lived and worked as a diplomat in the ‘Soviet space’ and in Turkey for over a decade of the best years of my life, the current tensions playing out between these two historical rivals present an engrossing case-study where terrorism mixes with good-neighbourly relations and make a heady brew — especially since I also devoted nearly a decade of my professional career to the India-Pakistan relationship with which strong similarities exist.

For a start, what are these similarities? Clearly, Russia and Turkey are unequal powers, relatively speaking, similar to India and Pakistan. If, however, while dealing with Turkey in modern history, Russia always needed to factor in that country’s awesome stature as a NATO power and felt constrained to keep one hand tied behind the back, for India too Pakistan’s role as the United States’ key Cold War ally (and ‘key non-NATO ally’ in the post-Cold War era) in the region invariably butted in as a factor to be reckoned with. Indeed, it is doubtful if but for the Indo-Soviet treaty, Indira Gandhi would have ventured into the unprecedented hazardous enter-prise of bifurcating the Pakistani state.

Russia’s self-restraint in holding itself back from hitting militarily at Turkey after the downing of the jet and the killing of two servicemen recently is largely to be attributed to the risk of triggering dangerous convulsions in Russia’s already-troubled relations with the West as well as in the regional politics in the Middle East at a sensitive juncture. (See my earlier blog ‘Turkey’s terror network in Russian crosshairs’.)

India too exercised similar self-restraint at the time of the ‘fedayeen’ attacks staged from Pakistan on the Indian Parliament, and after the 26/11 terrorist strikes in Mumbai. Indeed, Pakistan is a nuclear power, which Turkey is not, and that rules out an exact analogy. Yet, the manner in which Russia is going about these past few days, relentlessly piling pressure on Turkey (short of launching a revenge attack on it), gives food for thought. Turkey is psychologically reeling under the Russian pressure and has been reduced to pleading for reconciliation, while Moscow continues to dole out retaliatory measures in small doses in a deft mix of political, military and economic and humanitarian ‘sanctions’.

However, one main factor that works in Russia’s favour here is that both the US and NATO have made it clear that they’d keep a safe distance from what is unfolding between Moscow and Ankara so long as Turkey’s territorial integrity doesn’t come under threat. The point is, Russia is on the ‘right side of history’ here, and Russia and the West have begun to realise belatedly that they are on the same page while recognising the imperative of reining in Turkey from promoting the Islamic State any further (without which a political settlement in Syria will remain elusive).

Thus, what Russia is doing to Turkey today is precisely what the West, especially the US, should have done a long time ago but was unwilling to undertake for reasons of expediency bordering on cynicism, namely, the use of Turkey’s nexus with the Islamic State for promoting the agenda of regime- change in Syria. (See my article in Asia Times ‘A climate change in US-Russia ties bodes well for Syria’).

On the contrary, the plain truth is that the West (especially the US) continues to appease Pakistan, because—like Turkey in the tranquil era before the Paris terror strikes made the ground realities starker and drove home that the birds are coming to roost in Europe—Pakistan still serves a key role in the US’ regional strategies, including in its rebalance strategy in Asia, and is able to get away with murder.

But the stunning similarity between India and Russia really lies elsewhere—in the extraordinary extent to which these two countries have gone in nonetheless engaging their adversaries who were perpetrating cross-border terrorism against them. Embedded deep within the press conference that the Russian President Vladimir Putin took in Paris on November 30—towards the end of it actually—comes a grim passage, which will sound familiar to any Indian politician or diplomat who ever had hands-on experience in negotiating with Pakistan as regards its sponsorship of terrorist groups as the country’s ‘strategic assets’. I reproduce the excerpts:

Question: Mr President, overall, are you upset with the state of bilateral relations with Turkey? After all, the level of partnership was unprecedented, and had taken decades of work. Now what?

Vladimir Putin: I think we are all upset, and I am personally very upset, because I myself did a great deal to build those relations over the course of a long period of time.

But there are problems that occurred long ago and which we were trying to resolve through dialogue with our Turkish partners. For example, we have long asked them to pay attention to the fact that representatives of terrorist organisations that fought or try to fight us with weapons in hand in certain Russian regions, including in the North Caucasus, emerge on Turkey’s territory.

We asked to stop this practice, but nevertheless have established that they are located on the territory of the Turkish Republic, residing in regions guarded by special services and the police, and later, using the visa-free regime, appear again on our territory, where we continue to fight them.

This has been happening for a long time, and we have repeatedly asked questions at the level of special services through so-called partner channels, as well as at the Foreign Ministry level and the highest political level. Unfortunately, we did not see any partner-oriented reaction to our concerns.

Thus, many questions that needed to be resolved one way or another have been brewing for some time. It is unfortunate that we must resolve them in such circumstances, but this is not our fault, this was not our choice.

Suffice it to say, the Kremlin should understand why India feels deeply hurt if Moscow engages Pakistan as a partner country and decides to sell it advanced weapon systems. There is a red line even for seamless friendships. No amount of laboured explanations can erase such red lines, as there are issues involved here that are ‘felt in the blood and felt along the heart’, as the English poet wrote. Putin shouldn’t feel surprised if Prime Minister Narendra Modi chooses to express India’s sense of profound concern when they meet in Moscow on December 24.

Ambassador M.K. Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.