India today criticised Russia's move to partner Pakistan and China in ensuring security in Afghanistan, exposing growing cracks in a traditionally all-weather Indo-Russian friendship now under strain despite attempts by both nations to project normality.
The criticism came in a week when Russia publicly said it wants to use an air base in Tajikistan that India renovated in 2007 and has since eyed, triggering concern in Delhi, senior officials said, according to The Telegraph.
Russia had on 27 December also hosted a meeting in Moscow with Pakistan and China where the three countries together announced they would seek the lifting of UN Security Council sanctions against select Taliban commanders to bring the militant group to the talking table.
India has long opposed any differentiation within the Taliban, and views the group as backed and sponsored by Pakistan to allow Islamabad "strategic depth" through its control and influence in Afghanistan.
Afghanistan has also criticised the trilateral meeting in Moscow for not inviting Kabul's representative for the talks. India and Afghanistan have also demanded UN sanctions against the Taliban's new chief, Mawlawi Haibatullah Akhundzada.
"We do not believe that holding meetings on Afghanistan alone is going to solve problems of Afghanistan," India's junior foreign minister V K Singh said. "Any political solution in Afghanistan has to be Afghan-owned, Afghan-driven and Afghanistan controlled. Nothing else is going to work in Afghanistan. We believe that it is the Afghan government that needs to decide which parties it wants to engage with."
Singh's comments, in response to a question at a media briefing on Wednesday, came after a little-publicised announcement in Dushanbe this week by Russia's ambassador to Tajikistan Igor-Lyakin Frolov that Moscow is negotiating the lease of the Ayni air base.
India's redevelopment of the Ayni air base for $70 million was aimed at creating a strategic entry point into central Asia, and at allowing New Delhi to develop a military presence close to Afghanistan that could counter Pakistan, officials involved in the planning at the time said.
Russia had after that quietly blocked Indian attempts to lease the air base from Tajikistan, wary of allowing any other country strategic access to an area it considers a part of its sphere of influence.
Moscow has made clear in recent weeks that it views the growing footprint of the expansionist Islamic State in Afghanistan as a greater threat than the Taliban that has never tried to spread north.
India has tried to convince Russia that New Delhi remains a more reliable and safer partner for a Moscow interested in regaining its own strategic toehold in Afghanistan, three decades after it was bled by the mujahideen there.
But Russia's courting of Pakistan and its unilateral move to lease the Ayni air base suggest Moscow views Islamabad as a more critical ally than Delhi in Afghanistan - a choice that is worrying India.
"Eventually, it is about delivering results on the ground in Afghanistan," Singh said. "India's own developmental assistance (in Afghanistan) is well recognised."
The Ayni base was picked and redeveloped by India with the aim of creating a platform India could use also in the event of heightened tensions in Siachen. The Indian Air Force, New Delhi calculated, could use the base to attack Pakistani forces in Siachen from behind.
Officially, India continues to articulate confidence that Russia will not hurt Indian strategic interests. "Our relationship with Russia has stood the test of time and we are absolutely confident that it will stand the test of the future," MJ Akbar, also a junior foreign minister, said.
"We do not believe Russia will do anything that is detrimental to our security interests or our national interests." But the Russian announcement that it intends to lease the Tajik air base is only the latest in a series of strategic moves Moscow has taken in the past few months that hurt New Delhi's interests.
In September, days after the Uri terror attack, which India blamed on Pakistan-based terrorists, Russia held joint counter-terrorism exercises with Pakistan, prompting New Delhi into rare public criticism of Moscow. Russia also backed Pakistan's role in Afghanistan at the Heart of Asia conference in Amritsar in December.