The Geopolitics Of Russian Energy In South Asia
The two countries whose approach stands out the most are Sri Lanka and Pakistan, which are in similar economic situations yet have made different decisions about importing Russian oil.
South Asia is one of the world’s most populous regions so it’s fitting to discuss the geopolitics of Russian energy in this part of the planet, especially considering the global crisis in this industry brought about by the New Cold War. India has emerged as Russia’s top partner anywhere in the world after it decisively intervened to become that country’s irreplaceable valve from Western pressure with a view towards preemptively averting the scenario of Moscow becoming disproportionately dependent on China. Delhi is also driven by the desire to jointly create a third pole of influence in the global systemic transition to multipolarity alongside Moscow and Tehran.
Their special and privileged strategic cooperation has naturally seen India importing more discounted oil from Russia, which has resulted in that country becoming this South Asian state’s fourth largest supplier compared to its status as its tenth largest one just two months prior. Russia also dispatched oil to Sri Lanka, which had earlier run completely out of fuel due to its worst-ever economic crisis, and thus indispensably helped stabilize the rapidly deteriorating living standards of that island nation’s people. Its Power and Energy Minister also announced that he’s seeking another shipment of that resource from Russia as well as coal and diesel.
Nearby Bangladesh has also been offered to buy presumably discounted oil from Russia too, which suggests that this Eurasian Great Power is taking advantage of its oil superpower status and the US-led Western sanctions imposed against that industry to expand its influence all across South Asia through “energy diplomacy”. This concept refers to the use of energy to achieve political dividends, in this case most likely rewarding those three countries for not voting against it at the UN. Moscow probably also envisions more comprehensively expanding its influence with their elite through these means since the import of discounted oil can help stabilize their economies and thus preempt political unrest.
The oddball out is Pakistan, whose former Prime Minister claimed that he was ousted in early April as part of a US-orchestrated regime change plot to punish him for his independent foreign policy, particularly its Russian dimension. According to him, his country was on the brink of receiving discounted oil from its new partner, though the new authorities that replaced him have denied that any such deal was ever in the works. Nevertheless, they also recently said that they wouldn’t rule out oil imports from Russia either, most likely due to the pressing circumstances caused by one of their worst-ever economic crises.
Pakistan, just like the other three South Asian countries that were already touched upon, also declined to vote against Russia at the UN due to its policy of principled neutrality towards Moscow’s ongoing special military operation in Ukraine. Be that as it is, uncertainty surrounds the new government’s position towards that conflict considering how eager it is to reset ties with Russia’s American rival, which would predictably prefer for Pakistan to join the US-led West in publicly condemning Moscow and then sanctioning it. In any case, it’s still a positive development that the new government just reached a deal to import wheat from Russia even if it’s unclear whether it’s on the same terms that Imran Khan sought.
Having briefly summarized these four countries’ energy relations with Russia in the context of the New Cold War, it’s now time to share some insightful observations. First, India is unquestionably Russia’s top partner of choice in South Asia for the mutually complementary grand strategic reasons that were mentioned. Bangladesh seems to be on the fence about importing Russian oil but it also can’t be ruled out either since those two are historic partners of one another since the former’s inception. The two countries whose approach stands out the most are therefore Sri Lanka and Pakistan, which are in similar economic situations yet have made different decisions about importing Russian oil.
The first-mentioned is practically bankrupt and will therefore presumably soon come under the powerful influence of US-led Western international financial institutions that will almost certainly attach political strings to their aid. This makes it all the more impressive that Sri Lanka defied their speculative pressure by bravely purchasing oil from Russia, which stands in contrast to the present policy of the new Pakistani authorities. While the latter haven’t ruled it out, they also haven’t clinched any deals either despite former Prime Minister Khan claiming that he was on the brink of reaching such prior to his scandalous ouster in early April.
Pakistan’s economic crisis isn’t as bad as Sri Lanka’s though it too is actively seeking aid from the IMF, which will almost certainly attach political strings to any deal, even if such are only discretely conveyed and not publicly acknowledged. That said, there presently aren’t any US-led Western sanctions on the import of Russian oil as confirmed by former White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki in April when she declared that “Energy imports are not banned and they don’t violate our sanctions. We certainly recognise that every country is going to take a step in their interest.” Even so, no one should doubt that the US would prefer for all countries to curtail and then cut off their energy trade with Russia.
It’s with this understanding in mind why Pakistan’s new US-friendly government might be reluctant to import oil from Russia out of fear that doing so might slow the pace of its hoped-for reset with the US, but at the same time, it should also be pointed out that it went against its traditional partner’s presumed displeasure by just announcing its Russian wheat import deal (which also isn’t sanctioned but the US probably still doesn’t want others purchasing it either). This shows that there’s the political will to defy America’s preferences of its partners in pursuit of objective national interests related to ensuring food security and perhaps soon also energy security too.
The issue of relations with Russia has been politicized more in Pakistan than anywhere else in South Asia and perhaps the Global South more broadly due to the former government’s ties with that Eurasian Great Power being at the centre of its political crisis following Imran Khan’s claims. This makes the domestic and international situation there unique in comparison with its regional peers, who while likely also being pressured by the US to distance themselves from Russia in all respects, don’t have the issue of their ties with it being one of the reasons why they were almost brought to the cusp of civil war last week like what just nearly happened in Pakistan.
What all of this goes to show is that there are most likely political considerations at play behind why Pakistan hasn’t yet clinched an oil import deal with Russia in spite of nearby, similarly US-pressured, much poorer, and therefore comparatively weaker Sri Lanka having already done so even though it’s in Pakistan’s objective national interests to ensure the reliable supply of presumably discounted oil for reasons of energy security. Judging from its latest wheat deal with Russia, however, Pakistan might ultimately be compelled by pressing economic circumstances to go through with an energy deal too despite its traditional American partner’s displeasure if that happens.
To summarize the geopolitics of Russian energy in South Asia, India is far ahead of its neighbours in defying foreign pressure to distance itself from Moscow, while Sri Lanka surprisingly followed in its footsteps. Bangladesh and Pakistan remain on the fence, though the former isn’t facing the same pressure as the latter is to keep itself at arm’s length from Russia. This suggests that whatever Dhaka does will be an independent decision while Islamabad’s potentially continued reluctance to import this resource from Moscow would add credence to speculation that this is due to Washington’s influence. By contrast, agreeing to an oil deal with Russia would suggest a higher degree of foreign policy autonomy.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Voice of East.