What the Russia-Ukraine Crisis Means for South Asia
Putin’s invasion puts some countries in a diplomatic and economic bind.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s South Asia Brief.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s South Asia Brief.
The highlights this week: Russia’s invasion of Ukraine creates a conundrum for some South Asian states, India and Pakistan cooperate on Afghan aid shipments, and South Asia’s first underwater tunnel nears completion.
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Russia-Ukraine Conflict Puts Some South Asian Governments in a Bind
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine presents governments in South Asia with difficult diplomatic and economic choices. India and Pakistan are each in a particularly delicate bind. As I wrote recently, New Delhi maintains close ties with Moscow and Washington and has traditionally avoided criticizing Russian aggression, including the 2014 annexation of Crimea.
India’s public statements on the current crisis have so far pleased Russian officials. This week, New Delhi’s ambassador to the United Nations declined to explicitly criticize Russia’s moves, instead calling on all sides to exercise the “utmost restraint.” In a Thursday call with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi called for dialogue and a cease-fire. But Russian aggression in Ukraine poses major threats to Indian interests, from driving Moscow into Beijing’s arms to distracting Washington from countering Chinese power in the Asia-Pacific.
Furthermore, because India’s relations with the United States have strengthened since 2014, staying quiet on Russia’s moves has become a bigger gamble. New Delhi is already in the hot seat for its acquisition of the S-400 missile defense system from Moscow last year. Washington will likely waive sanctions on India for the purchase, but recent events suggest the Biden administration will ratchet up pressure on India to reduce future Russian arms imports.
India’s refusal to call out Russia also risks sparking tensions within the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue. The three other members—Australia, Japan, and the United States—have announced sanctions on Russia. India’s position could also rankle countries in Europe, many of which it counts on for trade and arms and for support in countering China. The more Moscow expands its invasion, the more it will expose India’s awkward differences with key partners.
In Foreign Affairs this week, Manjari Chatterjee Miller argued that now is the time for India to change course and press Russia to de-escalate. But old policies die hard for New Delhi. Even after a deadly border conflict with China in 2020, India declined to declare an alliance with the United States. Moreover, given Putin’s uncompromising position on Ukraine, it’s unlikely India could deter him even if it tried. For India, Russia remains a challenge to be managed—not a threat to be countered.
Pakistan’s conundrum is less severe but more immediate. Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan wrapped up a visit to Moscow after Putin announced the military operations in Ukraine. Relations between the two countries have been growing for several years, thanks in great part to geopolitical conditions: Russia’s deepening relations with China, Pakistan’s ally, and some lost momentum in India-Russia relations.
Khan’s trip to Moscow focused solely on bilateral cooperation, but its timing may give the impression that Pakistan indirectly endorsed Putin’s decree on breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine and even the invasion—launched just hours after Khan touched down in Moscow. But Islamabad likely doesn’t support the moves: Two days before Khan’s visit, Pakistan’s ambassador in Kyiv expressed support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, according to a Ukrainian readout.
Pakistan’s challenge will be to strengthen relations with Russia without alienating its Western trade partners, all while balancing a growing defense relationship with Ukraine. Islamabad’s balancing act is less intricate than New Delhi’s: Its relationship with the United States is tenuous, and it has long sought to leverage its alliance with China to work more closely with Russia, especially in Afghanistan and Central Asia. But Islamabad must be careful not to edge too close to Moscow, given its commercial relationships with Europe and its desire to play a greater role on the global stage.
For Afghanistan, the danger is that the Russia-Ukraine conflict will distract from its own humanitarian crisis. The United Nations was already struggling to meet the $4.4 billion appeal it had announced for humanitarian assistance—still less than it estimates it will need to ease the crisis this year. Now, bandwidth for developing a strategy to increase assistance to the country will certainly be limited. Seeking to reorient global attention back toward Afghanistan, the Taliban have called for a swift resolution of the Russia-Ukraine crisis.
Elsewhere in South Asia, the conflict could generate economic opportunities: With Russia facing possible devastating sanctions, it will seek new markets, and South Asia’s could be attractive, especially if Russia rides on the coattails of China’s robust investment presence there. Russia doesn’t currently have a deep footprint in the smaller South Asian states, but it has explored some trade and investment, especially in the energy sectors in Nepal and Bangladesh and in Sri Lankan tea, of which it is a major importer.
However, the region’s smaller states—because of their economic fragility and desire to maintain working ties with the West—won’t want to risk running afoul of sanctions regimes. For South Asia, like much of the world, the best resolution of the Russia-Ukraine crisis would be a quick and peaceful one. That appears increasingly unlikely by the hour.
What We’re Following
Indian state elections update. Voting in state elections continues in India. In Uttar Pradesh, the country’s most populous state, further phased voting will take place on Feb. 27, March 3, and March 7. Indian reports estimate that turnout has remained high, including indications of record-level turnout on Feb. 23 in Lucknow, the state capital. The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is expected to triumph in Uttar Pradesh, but opposition parties still hope to capitalize on high unemployment and the state’s poor handling of the pandemic.
Meanwhile, voters in Manipur state go to the polls on Feb. 28, with a second phase of voting on March 5. Manipur is currently led by a BJP-led coalition, and the opposition Indian National Congress has campaigned heavily there. Congress party leader Rahul Gandhi met with party leaders in Imphal, the state capital, on Feb. 21. Given Gandhi’s personal role in the campaign, a bad result for Congress in Manipur would reflect poorly on him and his party.
Pakistan under the microscope. This week marks the latest plenary session of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), a terrorist financing watchdog. Pakistan has been on an FATF watch list, or gray list, since 2018; in recent months, the group has said Islamabad is making “notable progress” in addressing its concerns. But to get off the gray list, Pakistan must show it has successfully investigated and prosecuted several U.N.-designated terrorist leaders, mostly from Lashkar-e-Taiba, which has longtime ties to the Pakistani security establishment.
Although it doesn’t entail sanctions or other punitive measures, Pakistan’s presence on the gray list does generate reputational costs and often discourages investors. On March 4, FATF will announce if the country has done enough to warrant being removed. Given Pakistan’s economic struggles, the government is keen to shake off its status, and Pakistani officials have accused the watchdog of politicization. (FATF denies such allegations.)
Indian aid en route to Afghanistan. About 50 trucks entered Pakistan from India on Tuesday bearing about 50,000 tons of Indian wheat bound for Afghanistan, in a major development for regional integration. The food shipments will provide vital assistance to Afghanistan, where millions of people are on the verge of starvation. Ties between Islamabad and New Delhi have also received a boost, as Pakistan made to allow Indian trade transit on its own soil.
Afghan trucks picked up the wheat at the India-Pakistan border, and they will drive across Pakistan before entering Jalalabad, Afghanistan. The operation marks a rare cross-border connectivity success story for India and Pakistan, which do little bilateral trade and have largely shut off commercial cooperation since New Delhi revoked India-administered Kashmir’s autonomy in 2019.
Quote of the Week
“I’m the one who knows India better than anyone because cricket is a passion, you know, in the subcontinent and because of, you know, me being captain of cricket here and sort of playing lots over 10 years against India.”
—Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, a former cricket star, in an interview for the Russian television channel RT.
Under the Radar
The construction of South Asia’s first underwater tunnel is nearly complete. The Dhaka Tribune reported this week that the Bangabandhu Tunnel, which will stretch nearly 6 miles and link the Bangladeshi cities of Chittagong and Cox’s Bazar, is 80 percent finished and will open to traffic by the end of the year. The tunnel is funded and constructed by China—one of the biggest new infrastructure projects in the region outside Pakistan.
Early commentary on the tunnel focused on its advantages, from easing traffic to creating thousands of jobs. However, as the construction has continued apace, new concerns have cropped up. Congestion could be heavy near the entrance to the tunnel, where multiple roads will converge, and the maintenance costs are likely to be high.
These challenges notwithstanding, the tunnel—named after a widely used nickname for Bangladeshi independence hero Sheikh Mujibur Rahman—is poised to become a national symbol of Bangladesh’s economic and development clout.
Journalist D.K. Singh writes in the Print about the harsh attacks that India’s BJP mounted against a small opposition party, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), in the Punjab election campaign. He argues that the BJP is “going so paranoid about the AAP in Punjab” to prevent it from becoming a viable third way beyond the BJP and the Congress party.
Researcher Amna Ejaz Rafi highlights new opportunities for Pakistan to become a stronger regional player, given a better investment climate, stronger shipping industry, and more robust regional economic relations. “New regional developments can strengthen Pakistan’s importance in regional connectivity,” she writes in the Express Tribune.
Journalism researcher Amantha Perera argues in Sri Lanka’s Daily Mirror that local talent needs to be more involved in efforts to strengthen the skills of journalists. “Most of us are in agreement that foreign expats without any ground awareness have proven to be a costly, yet non-productive prospect” when leading skills training programs, he writes.
Michael Kugelman is the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly South Asia Brief. He is the director of the South Asia Institute at the Wilson Center in Washington. Twitter: @michaelkugelman
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