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Monday February 06, 2023

India and the South Caucasus

January 18, 2023

The South Caucasus region (which comprises Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan) has been receiving the attention of the European Union (EU), Russia, Turkey and Iran, Pakistan and India since the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Soon after the independence of the South Caucasus states, the region became a theatre of conflict because of the dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh between Azerbaijan and Armenia. Both states fought a war at the time of their independence, and later many clashes erupted between them over three decades. The second war, known as the 44-day war in 2020, over Nagorno-Karabakh made Azerbaijan victorious. This war on the one hand revealed the deep-rooted friendship of Pakistan and Turkey with Azerbaijan, and on the other hand caused further tension between India and Pakistan.

The closeness of the ties between Pakistan and Azerbaijan can be gauged from the fact that Pakistan has never recognized the existence of an independent state of Armenia. Further, Pakistan has always raised its voice against the Armenian aggression inside Nagorno-Karabakh and supported Azerbaijan’s stance since its inception. Having Pakistan’s support on the Karabakh conflict, Azerbaijan has openly backed Pakistan’s position on the Kashmir issue for many years.

The diplomatic and ideological affinities of Pakistan and Azerbaijan over the Nagorno-Karabakh and Kashmir conflicts led New Delhi to start getting closer to Yerevan. Although Baku tried to keep India-Armenia relations from spilling over into its diplomatic and economic relations with New Delhi, India’s continuous support to Armenia in the Second Karabakh War in 2020 revealed India’s strong attachment to Armenia.

Today, the growing bent of India in the South Caucasus region is discernable as it seeks to exert its influence there. Unequivocally, India’s concerns are largely due to Azerbaijan and Turkey’s ties with Pakistan and their support on the Kashmir issue. Moreover, Pakistan’s persistent support to Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh and its admonition of Armenian aggression against Azerbaijan concern India as it calculates the increasing strength of the Turkic states and their relations with Pakistan. India has been working hard to tap into Azerbaijan’s profitable markets since the rise of its oil industry. By the year 2020, more than 190 Indian companies were operating in Azerbaijan with about $1.2 billion investments, greater than that of Armenia or Georgia; simultaneously, India was increasing its military ties with Armenia.

India’s backing for Armenia could also be because of New Delhi’s strong historical relationship with Moscow. Being an ally of Russia, Armenia always seeks Kremlin’s economic, military and political support. Further, the membership of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa (BRICS) binds Russia with India. Thus, Moscow rather encourages Indian-Armenian ties.

To understand the formation of the alliance, it can be said that the 44-day war in 2020 streamlined the alliance between Azerbaijan, Pakistan and Turkey on the one hand, and India and Armenia on the other. Since the closer ties between Azerbaijan and Turkey and Pakistan, India has been distinctly supporting Armenia and extending substantial military assistance. As per social media and other reliable sources, India has agreed to supply Armenian armed forces with a wide range of weapons, Pinaka multi-barrel rocket launchers (MBRL), and anti-tank munitions, which are worth $250 million. Unsurprisingly, Armenia had already shown interest in Indian military hardware before the 2020 war. Now, it can be reckoned that India’s efforts to arm Armenia are to make it a deterrent force against Pakistan, Azerbaijan and Turkey.

India is also emphasizing its economic and people-to-people contacts with Armenia. The Indian community in Armenia consists largely of students pursuing education in the country. Armenia is fast becoming an attractive destination for Indian students and business owners. India is also trying to weaken the strength of Pakistan’s alliance by bringing the neighbours — Armenia, Georgia and Iran — into its orbit of influence. India has also been trying for a long time to connect the Chabahar Port with Eurasia through Armenia so that it can bypass Pakistan easily.

The growing military partnership between Yerevan and New Delhi would be harmful to maintaining regional peace and security in South Caucasus and South Asia. So, if India keeps fuelling the war in the South Caucasus region, Azerbaijan will not be alone again. However, the war will not remain limited to the South Causasus region but will touch on the regional security of South Asia where the Kashmir issue is already on the cusp of becoming a full-fledged conflict.

It is imperative to note that the Kashmir problem has been linked to the question of war and peace in South Asia and after the US departure from Afghanistan the geopolitical landscape is being changed and becoming favourable for Pakistan because of the waning influence of India.

Moreover, India’s old ally, Russia, has also changed its South Asian policy; it now regards Pakistan as an important actor and believes that preserving its friendship with Islamabad will help it maintain its ties with other South and Central Asian states. Moscow wants good ties with Islamabad, something New Delhi considers an immediate and enduring threat. Accordingly, India aims to minimize Russia’s proximity to Pakistan. It is equally worried over the strong ties of Turkey and Azerbaijan with Pakistan. Conspicuously, Pakistan’s staunch supporters, Azerbaijan and Turkey, are a great help in presenting Pakistan’s case of Indian Occupied Kashmir on international fora.

Having said all this, Pakistan needs to ameliorate its relations with Iran and Afghanistan to counter India’s drive to isolate Pakistan from regional states. Strengthening defence relations with Azerbaijan is good but economic linkages are direly needed to deepen its ties as well as to maintain the status quo.

The increased volume of trade between Pakistan and Azerbaijan will lead to the consolidation of the alliance and harmony of interests. Further, instead of fretting over the growing ties between India and Armenia, Pakistan’s policymakers should start working on the shortcomings first. Suffice it to say that Pakistan direly needs economic strength which will eliminate more than half of the problems faced by the country.

The writer is an associate professor of International Relations at the National University of Modern Languages, Islamabad.

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