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September 25, 2016

India alarmed at Pakistan-Russia joint military exercise

By Abdus Sattar Ghazali

India is alarmed at the first Pakistan-Russia two-week joint military exercise which began Saturday, September 24.

Around 70 Russian soldiers and officers along with some 130 Pakistani counterparts are taking part in the war games called Friendship 2016. The Russian Television (RT) said the name is a symbolical reference to the old Cold War tensions between Moscow and Islamabad, which the two capitals are now trying to overcome. Moscow and Islamabad were on opposite sides during the Cold War.

The Friendship 2016 exercise is going ahead despite speculation that they may be canceled, which surfaced after tensions between Pakistan and India escalated in the wake of the September 18 attack on Indian troops stationed in Uri, a town in the disputed province of Kashmir.

Eighteen soldiers were killed in last Sunday's attack on an Indian army base in Kashmir, which was the worst of its kind to hit the divided Himalayan region in more than a decade, increasing hostility between the nuclear-armed neighbors.

Earlier, CNN-New18 TV had reported on Monday that the joint military exercise was called off by Russia following the Uri attack. The channel had also shared the news on Twitter, saying, "Russia calls off joint military drills with Pakistan."

India's Ministry of External Affairs had also reportedly urged Russia to reconsider its decision to hold joint military drills with Pakistan. Following the Uri attack India embarked on a policy to diplomatically isolate Pakistan in the international community for what it called sponsoring terrorism.

Moscow informed New Delhi of the scheduled joint exercise with Pakistan and is certain that they should not concern India, considering that they are conducted far from the disputed territories, Zamir Kabulov, the chief or Russian Foreign Ministry's Middle East department told RIA Novosti.

The exercise was first announced in January and is a signal that "Moscow and Islamabad are interested in deepening military-to-military relations," Pakistan's ambassador to Moscow Qazi Khalilullah told TASS.

"This obviously indicates a desire on both sides to broaden defense and military-technical cooperation," he said.

Islamabad is eager to improve its ties with Moscow to diversify its options in the event of any friction with Washington. Its relations with the US soured recently when the sale of eight F-16 fighter jets to Pakistan was blocked by US lawmakers.

Over the last 15 months, Pakistani military chiefs have travelled to Russia. The flurry of high-level exchanges between the two nations resulted in the signing of a deal for the sale of four MI-35 attack helicopters to Islamabad. Pakistan is also exploring buying Su-35 fighter jets from Russia.

Russian military cooperation with Pakistan has been gaining pace over the past few years, making a turn from the past, when Islamabad was a key supporter of the Taliban insurgency in Soviet-occupied Afghanistan.

In 2014, Moscow lifted a longstanding ban on sale of arms to Pakistan. Sergey Chemezov, head of Russian state-run technologies corporation Rostec, announced on June 2, 2014 that Russia has lifted an embargo on supplying weapons and military hardware to Pakistan.

Last year the two countries signed a deal on four Russian Mil Mi-35M attack helicopters, which are meant to replace Pakistan's aging US-made AH-1 Cobras

Delhi-based Rajeev Sharma, writing on Russian TV website, argued:

"Russia and Pakistan have had a rather cold relationship, despite the latter's sustained attempts over recent years to mend the ties. Reasons for the Russian coldness toward Pakistan are not difficult to see. It is the India factor. India clearly does not favor Russia cozying up to Pakistan and Russia could not have afforded to annoy the Indians. Why, after all, Russia should play a zero-sum game in South Asia when it is having the best of relations with India, a sworn enemy of Pakistan?

"That was the argument of most Russians who opposed the very idea of needling India, the largest importer of Russian weapons. But even this defense relationship received setbacks in the past two years as Russia lost out to other competitors like Israel, the United States and Europe on several big-ticket Indian defense deals."

India on Friday signed an $8.78 billion deal with France to buy 36 Rafale fighter jets in "ready to fly" condition, meaning they will be made in France. The agreement to replace older planes in the Indian air force is a departure from an earlier plan to purchase 126 Rafales, mainly to be built in India.