There’s been a lot of confusion about Russia’s role in CPEC over the past week. Pakistani reports circulated over the weekend saying that FSB chief Alexander Bortnikov had secretly traveled to the strategic South Asian country to hold clandestine talks on Russia’s participation in the game-changing project.
These claims were then refuted by the Russian Foreign Ministry, with the Russian Embassy in India publishing an official statement on their website saying in no uncertain terms that the reports “do not correspond to the realities” because “the possibility of Russia’s joining this initiative is not being discussed with Islamabad.” The incongruity between these two sides raises legitimate questions about which of them is telling the truth, or if the reality murkily lies somewhere in the middle. More importantly, it also leaves Pakistani and Russian businessmen wondering whether Moscow plans to participate in CPEC at all.
The Balancing Act
The crux of the scandal seems to come down to the reports surrounding Bortnikov and his alleged visit to Pakistan. For understandable reasons, if the trip did in fact take place, Russia would be highly sensitive to the release of any information concerning it due to the predictable irrationality of the Indian response to it. Moscow is presently engaged in a very tricky balancing act between retaining its traditional partnership with Washington-leaning New Delhi and its recent rapprochement with pro-Beijing Islamabad.
This is all part of Russia’s ‘Pivot to Asia’, which seeks to strengthen Moscow’s strategic presence in the non-European periphery of the super continent, which thus includes West, East, Southeast, and South Asia. A major impediment to this robust policy is the presence of any lingering historical disputes or suspicions between Russia and the countries in these regions, which is one of the reasons why Russia decided to reengage Pakistan.
At the same time, however, multi-polar Russia realizes that India has recently come under the uni-polar spell of the US’ zero-sum strategic thinking, meaning that Moscow knows that New Delhi will re-actively view any positive steps towards Islamabad as being directed against its own interests. This isn’t an objectively accurate observation by any means, but is simply a reflection of the American-encouraged jingoistic and paranoid thinking that presently prevails over India’s permanent military, intelligence, and diplomatic bureaucracies (the “deep state”).
New Delhi is simply unable to conceive of regional geopolitics outside of a self-centered frame of reference, so it interprets any positive outreaches towards Islamabad as being motivated by an innately “anti-Indian” bias. This is why Indian mass media clumsily launched their country’s first-ever information warfare campaign against Russia in the run-up to the joint counter-terrorist drills that Moscow partook in with Islamabad a little over two months ago.
The disinformation operation was a complete failure, but it importantly revealed a very serious rivalry between two of the Russian Foreign Ministry’s South Asian factions. Russian Ambassador to India Alexander Kadakin represents the “Indophiles”, and he and his diplomatic team are known for staunchly opposing any of Moscow’s policy outreaches which could even remotely offend the their country’s Indian partners.
This, of course, includes Russia’s rapprochement with Pakistan. On the other hand, there’s Zamir Kabulov, who’s the former Russian Ambassador to Afghanistan, the current Presidential Envoy to Afghanistan & Pakistan, and the head of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ Asia and Middle East Department. He’s also the leader of the “Islamophiles”, who believe that Russia’s South Asian policy should diversify away from its historic Hindu-centric roots and more equally embrace Muslim-majority countries such as Pakistan.
The dynamics between these two camps and how they compete to influence the formulation of Russia’s present policy towards the subcontinent are explained in depth in the author’s article “Is Russia’s ‘Deep State’ Divided Over India?”, but the point in even referencing this in the present piece is to draw attention to the contradictory lobbying efforts of the Kremlin’s two main South Asian factions.
Ambassador Kadakin and his team presumably played a pivotal role in writing part of Moscow’s “damage control” response to the Pakistani reports and in soothing Indian anger, but Kabulov and the people around him probably had a say as well. It might never be known whether Bortnikov ever did travel to Islamabad or not, but what’s important to pay attention to aren’t Russia’s denials about this unconfirmed news item (likely written by Kadakin’s crew), but how it formally chose to address the country’s role in CPEC (probably under the influence of the Kabulov camp).
Reevaluating the Message
The official statement posted on the website of the Russian Embassy in India includes a pivotal passage saying that “Our trade and economic cooperation with Pakistan has its own value. We aim for its further strengthening. The implementation by Russian companies of business projects in IRP, including the construction of North-South gas pipeline from Karachi to Lahore, is implemented on bilateral basis.”
It’s from here where analysts can reasonably extrapolate fact from fiction in figuring out Russia’s true commitment to CPEC. These three key sentences were in all likelihood the work of the Kabulov camp in signaling to their Pakistani counterparts that the Kadakin-influenced previous two sentences denying the news reports are just necessary window dressing in placating the jealously enraged Indian jingoists, and that Russia, as they say, “saved the best for last” in its statement.
In a sense, one can say that the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs wisely balanced between the two camps by giving each of them near-equal space to make their point. The “Indophiles” conveyed their outrage at what they said were reports which “do not correspond to the realities” because “the possibility of Russia’s joining this initiative is not being discussed with Islamabad”, while at the same time the “Islamophiles” interestingly spoke highly about economic cooperation with Pakistan and even said that they “aim for its further strengthening”. Again, the apparent contradiction between the Kadakin and Kabulov camps is apparent, because one might not understand exactly how Moscow could refute the reports while at the same time saying that they want to deepen trade ties with Islamabad.
In getting to the bottom of the truth behind what really happened, it’s important to recognize that even if Bortnikov had indeed secretly travelled to Pakistan, Russia would nevertheless publicly deny it due to the fact that it was allegedly supposed to have been a clandestine visit in order to not upset India’s hyper-sensitivity to its symbolic significance. This explains why the first two sentences of the response are written in the way that they were, and likely under the heavy pressure of the Kadakin crew. On the flip side, however, Russia has concrete and unchanging centuries-long geostrategic imperatives in wanting to receive access to the warm waters of the Indian Ocean, and more recently, it has serious interests in stabilizing Afghanistan together with Pakistan and strengthening the Russian-Chinese Strategic Partnership through robust relations with Beijing’s all-weather strategic ally.
Therefore, the influence of the Kabulov camp can clearly be seen in Russia’s reassurances that it appreciates its trade and economic cooperation with Pakistan and aims for its further strengthening. Differing from the unproven reports about Bortnikov, this actually has a factually verifiable basis behind it. Russian Ambassador to Pakistan Alexey Yurievich Dedov announced last week that “around 50 Russian companies were eager to invest in Pakistan” and that “the Russian embassy was issuing visas to Pakistani businessmen on a priority basis”.
Furthermore, His Excellency also “insisted that stable defense and political relations between the two countries were important factors for the betterment of the two economies” and that CPEC “would prove to be a milestone in strengthening Pakistan’s economy.” Obviously, Russia does intend to participate in CPEC, even if it’s not formally saying so and conducting talks on a bilateral state-to-state basis. Instead, it appears as though all visible progress in this regard is being handled through economic, and not diplomatic, actors, which makes sense for a project whose stated purpose deals with commerce and development.
To return to the Kadakin-influenced remarks at the beginning of Russia’s latest official statement about CPEC, these were intended to allay paranoid Indian fears that CPEC is somehow “against” New Delhi and its interests. That couldn’t be further from the truth, but it’s just that the Indian “deep state’s” American-influenced zero-sum strategic mentality impedes its decision makers from accepting the multilaterally beneficial win-win reality behind this globally unprecedented constellation of mega-projects.
Seasoned diplomats know how to speak to their intended audiences, and recognizing that Russia’s are among the best in the world, it’s now understandable why Kadakin and his crew would bluntly say that “the possibility of Russia’s joining this initiative is not being discussed with Islamabad.” That’s technically true in the sense that Russia’s projects and cooperation with CPEC are not handled on a state-to-state basis in the official framework of this project, but are driven by commercial and other economic actors.
Legally speaking, even though Russian companies endeavor to participate in CPEC, Moscow itself has nothing to do with this project and its development.
In a way, that might actually be a good thing, since now the Indian “deep state” has no reason to fret that Russia “betrayed” it by formally joining an “anti-Indian” initiative. What the private sector and state-owned enterprises do is – in an official, technical sense — entirely different from what Russia’s own “deep state” diplomats and grand strategists are engaged in, and it would be disingenuous for India to attempt to link the two (though it shouldn’t be ruled out that the most pro-Western BJP factions will still try to do this behind the scenes).
After all, the exact same standards could be applied towards India by Russia in much more convincingly arguing that the Indian private sector “betrayed” Russia by working so closely with the American telecommunications, customer service, and software sectors. Moscow wouldn’t ever even suggest that because it’s obvious that India moved in the direction of the greatest opportunities to its own economy, just as Russia is doing by informally working with CPEC.
By not formally engaging in official state-to-state cooperation on the project, Russia is for now avoiding the anti-multi-polar demagogic diatribes of the hyper-nationalist Indian “press”, which is hungrily waiting for another opportunity to attack Moscow in order to “legitimize” New Delhi’s decisive pro-American pivot.
Moscow, for its part, is seeking to maintain a very delicate balance between its traditional Indian partnership and its new rapprochement with Pakistan, which crucially entails not “provoking” the Indian nationalists in power by giving them a “reason” to more rapidly swerve towards the United States.
At this point in time, Russian-Pakistani state-to-state cooperation and coordination over CPEC would be deliberately misinterpreted by the Indian “deep state” and its sycophantic “media” as an “anti-Indian provocation” which they’d declare could only be responded to by moving even closer to the US, thus upsetting the fragile multi-polar balance that Russia is trying to maintain in South Asia.
Understood in this manner, the carefully worded statement that Moscow released pertaining to the Pakistani media reports about Bortnikov’s alleged clandestine visit to Islamabad can be read as a compromise between the competing “Indophile” and “Islamophile” factions in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which thus allowed the wise Russian bear to calm the easily frightened Indian elephant while simultaneously clinching a wink-and-a-nod agreement to expand cooperation with the fearless Pakistani eagle.