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Pakistan-Russia Cooperation Amidst Antagonism? Or just a geo-political shift’

Despite being geographically contiguous, Pakistan and Russia have remained politically distant from each other during the last six decades. The framework of Cold War and the East-West confrontation defined relations between the two countries during that very period.

This assessment of relations between Pakistan and Russia looks at the influence of South Asia and Central Asia’s bilateral relations in a highly-charged and greatly-changed region on the pointed end of the futuristic post-2014 Afghanistan. Relationships between Pakistan and Russia will have important implications for the region’s overall strategic picture in the years ahead. Two common elements emerge through a novel of bilateral relations between highly diverse nations seeking to escape the labyrinth. One common element is low politics in shape of economic interaction driven by global economic crisis powered by regionalism. The other is the high politics to deal with terrorism in the post-2014 (the withdrawal of the US forces from Afghanistan) approach.

The regional bilateral relations sow the seeds of a multilateral approach based on the reciprocal benefits on equality basis. The question is whether cooperation bodes well for acceptance of the US politico-military leadership? Will such bilateral cooperation hurt the US interests in the region or the strategic diplomacy will be followed to balance the West with the East? In short, the central concerns of these analyses is how the Pakistan-Russia regional relationship affects, and are affected by, outside actors as well as themselves.

Both governments appear committed to deepening their economic relationship despite the perennial political difficulties. The close relationship with the United States complicates Pakistan’s dealings with Russia. At times the need to satisfy Washington’s perceived expectations of its alliance partner (non-NATO ally) requires Pakistan to pursue policies that risk offending Russia and that may therefore endanger Pakistan’s working relationship with Moscow.

Historically speaking, Pakistan’s foreign policy revolved around the orbit of India for most of its history.  Pakistan’s foreign policy was formed in New Delhi. It used to do just opposite to what India did. Same was the case with India. The moment Pakistan got closer to the US and its sponsored defence alliances (SEATO and CENTO), India developed good bilateral relations with the former Soviet Union. This made Pakistani policymakers see Russia as the friend of the enemy — thus an enemy. Aligning itself with the Western alliance resulted in an anti-Soviet Union Pakistan and incidents like U-2 further fuelled to the fire in deteriorating relations between the two countries.

 Relationships between Pakistan and Russia will have important implications for the region’s overall strategic picture in the years ahead.
 Conflicting forces characterise the Pak-Russia historiography relations. On one hand, the economic relationship is getting stronger. Each country sees the other as an important part of its own plans for economic growth. Pakistan finds numerous products — gas, oil and steel for import on much cheaper prices than from the other countries. On the other hand, bilateral security relations, while stable at the moment, present the longer-term need for cooperation in the post-2014 Afghanistan. Furthermore, the two societies harbour the mutual ill-will stemming from historical experience. The last century has generated both Pakistan’s pride that its involvement in Afghanistan during the 1970s and 80s partly caused disintegration of the Soviet Union, Russia’s anger at Pakistani Jihadis’ involvement in Chechnya as well as Pakistan’s anger at Russia’s full support to India with regard to its defence shopping list.

With the end of the Cold War, Pakistan was able to adopt an independent policy towards Russia. However, the past bitter perception always maligned any effort to improve relations.  Efforts to develop relations still remained in the process. Former prime minister Mian Nawaz Sharif was the pioneer in making a bold effort to cultivate relations with Russia. He visited Russia during his second term and got into several trade and industrial treaties. This visit of a Pakistani prime minister was incredible because it gave a new turn to Pakistan’s relations with Russia. Later, the exchange of visits after every year or two became part of the routine foreign tours by both Pakistani and Russian top leaderships.

Mr Sharif’s visit was very lately reciprocated by the Russian leadership. In 2007, the relations between Pakistan and the Russian Federation were reactivated after the three-day official visit of Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov. He was the first Russian prime minister to visit Pakistan in the post-Soviet Union era in 38 years. The major focus of the visit was to improve bilateral relations with particular emphasis on ways and means to enhance economic cooperation between the two countries. A number of Russian companies are interested in enhancing ties in energy, transport, infrastructure and communications while Pakistan eyes the Russian military hardware, mainly helicopters and transport vehicles. Pakistani engineer troops are crucial for both security and civil defence as they clear up the aftermaths of frequent floods and build new roads in the country.

There is a potential for substantial improvement in the bilateral relationship during the second decade of the 21st century. Moscow is exhibiting increased confidence that Pakistan can best achieve its goals through cooperation, responsibility and constructive leadership by working within the regional system rather than against it, and by persuading its government that Russia’s national objectives are consistent with theirs. The manifestations of this orientation in Russian diplomacy include Russian leaders speaking like friends rather than cautious acquaintances, less official complaining for Pakistan’s pro-US policies, greater support for multilateralism in the region, and an omni-directional peace initiative as demonstrated recently. On the other hand, the growing anti-Americanism in Pakistan is also contributing to renew Russian interest in Pakistan and vice versa.

 The last century has generated both Pakistan’s pride that its involvement in Afghanistan during the 1970s and 80s partly caused disintegration of the Soviet Union, Russia’s anger at Pakistani Jihadis’ involvement in Chechnya as well as Pakistan’s anger at Russia’s full support to India with regard to its defence shopping list.
 The low politics-economic relations have still to see a political reinforcement for a close collaboration between Russia and Pakistan. The annual trade turnover is a deplorable $700 million. No security relationship had a sign of birth what to think of improvement (except one maverick helicopter deal in 1969 during the then President Yahya’s visited to Moscow). Pakistan has now expressed interest in the purchase of a MI-35 helicopters to fight terrorism.

Despite being geographically contiguous, Pakistan and Russia have remained politically distant from each other during the last six decades. The framework of Cold War and the East-West confrontation defined relations between the two countries during that very period.

Thus the ups and downs in the Pakistan-Russia cold relations are still in motion. In 2010, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin hesitated in developing the strategic and military relations with Pakistan. The sole reason was that it was already engaged with India for its defence relations. However, in 2011, Mr Putin publically endorsed Pakistan’s ambition to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and also declared Pakistan as an important partner in South Asia and the Muslim World for Russia. He also offered expansion in Pakistan Steel Mills, the provision of technical support for the Guddu and Muzaffargarh power plants and Russia was interested in developing the Thar Coal Project.

Warmer relationship is now approaching. After the Salala Post incident, Russia condemned the attacks and issued a friendly public statement. Russia also supported the closure of NATO supplies to Afghanistan through Pakistan.

The establishment of close contacts between the top leadership of Pakistan and Russia and the two sides’ readiness to open a new chapter in their relationship is not only in the interests of the two countries, it will also serve the interests of peace, security and regional integration in two of the world’s important regions of Central Asia and South Asia.

The societies of Pakistan and Russia have a persistent undercurrent of strong, largely negative feelings toward each other. Pakistanis generally feel respect for the Russian achievements in the past and in the recent times. They still consider a country that is comparatively a greater power than others (minus the US). They also have a few bitter experiences which are genuinely making them think for having a positive approach for Russians. That is one of the big reasons that they are moving towards their erstwhile enemy and potential friend-Russia with open arms. The important point is how Russians will reciprocate such a cordial move. Need of the hour is to encourage regionalism for the betterment of economies and a society of the neighbours. Outclassing each other in developing friendly relations will be much more beneficial than exchange of hostile gestures. Not cooperation amidst antagonism but cooperation with cooperation will bear fruit for both the nations.

By: Dr Syed Hussain Shaheed Soherwordi

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