Seen in isolation, Khanjar-VIII, the name of the manoeuvres, may not mean much. But when clubbed with China's long shadow over the region, which has discomforted both Russia, the traditional heavyweight, and India, which is anxious that its deep cultural ties with Central Asia may soon be eroded under Beijing's influence, it acquires an altogether different meaning. It is apparent that China's push into Central Asia has alarmed both Moscow and New Delhi, opening the door for greater collaboration with each other.
In Central Asia, the Russians want to continue underwriting the region's security, which was once part of the former Soviet Union, till its infamous collapse in 1991. After the breakup, the Russians have worked hard to anchor their guardianship of the region under the umbrella of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO).
This Russia-led military partnership includes Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Armenia, Belarus, with Afghanistan and Serbia thrown in as observers. CSTO has a 20,000 strong Collective Rapid Reaction Force, including 4,000 troops earmarked for Central Asia to address emergent situations. The organisation also has a collective peacekeeping force, which includes an estimated 3,500 soldiers along with 800-plus civilian police officers.
Given Russia's anxieties about China, Moscow may not be averse to an Indian engagement in some form with the CSTO. Russia's fears run deep about China, a country that fought a border war with Russia in 1969. China also bonded with the Americans to bring down the former Soviet Union by supporting the anti-Soviet campaign in Afghanistan in the eighties. Of late, US sanctions and policy of "regime change" by the Atlantic Alliance have persuaded Moscow to strike a close relationship with China. But beneath the surface layers of mistrust continue to simmer.
It is therefore quite likely that the Russians are supporting India's participation in Khanjar-VIII with Kyrgyzstan, a fellow-CSTO member, to enrich a broader partnership that can stand up to China, which is rapidly expanding its pan-Eurasian influence under its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
India's military outreach in Russia's backyard is not just confined to Kyrgyzstan. India holds the KAZIND and Prabal Dostyk military exercises with Kazakhstan. India has also held the second edition of its military exercise with Uzbekistan, while an Indian airbase in Tajikistan has been widely rumoured for long.
Analysts point out that it is quite remarkable that Khanjar-VIII took place despite the Covid-19 surge, signalling the importance that New Delhi attaches to shoring ties with Central Asia and Eurasia.
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