The improvement in the traditionally-hostile relations between Pakistan and Russia can be traced to 2015 when then-army chief Raheel Sharif visited Moscow and arranged the first ever joint military exercises between the two countries. Since then, Russia has lifted an embargo on weapons exports to Pakistan and signed a defence agreement. Now, with Russia appointing an honorary consul to Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and talk of energy deals in the natural gas sector, our pivot towards Russia could soon be complete. On Pakistan’s side, the move towards Russia can be explained by our fading relationship with the US. We have increasingly looked towards other countries as ties with the US have worsened. The most obvious example would be China but our overtures to countries like Russia and Turkey are also part of the shift. For Russia, the embrace of a country that it has seen as a foe ever since Liaquat Ali Khan snubbed the Soviet Union in favour of the US in 1950 can be partly explained by its attempt to fill a void created by the US. The Vladimir Putin government has eagerly stepped in whenever the US has managed to alienate a former ally, first in countries like the Philippines and Qatar and now in Pakistan.
The appointment of the honorary consul in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa is of particular significance since Russia is increasingly involving itself in Afghanistan. In recent months, it has accused the US of turning a blind eye to the presence of the Islamic State in the country, which is a particular target of Russia since it has closely allied itself to Bashar al-Assad in Syria. As part of its efforts to stymie the US in Afghanistan, Russia has also been accused of supporting the Afghan Taliban – much as Pakistan has. Like Pakistan, Russia says it only wants to encourage peace talks in the country. The growing alignment between the two countries on Afghanistan could also be a spur for the closer relationship. Ultimately, though, the resilience of any alliance will come down to economics. Trade between the two countries is a relatively measly $500 million. This could be multiplied should Russia start supplying gas to Pakistan. It is expected that Russia could help construct a gas pipeline in Pakistan which would then be supplied LNG by Russia. Past efforts, such as the Iranian gas pipeline, never materialised because of US sanctions on Iran but the sanctions the US has imposed on Russian state enterprises will now be less of a factor because of our poor ties with the US. The end result could be not just a solution to our energy woes but a diversification of our foreign relations, which makes us less susceptible to pressure from a single country.