Pakistan-Russia, The New Best Friends?

Pakistan Russias New Best Friend

Russia’s interest in warming up its relations with Pakistan has increased in recent years. The two countries are cosying up at a time that is of critical importance in the region as well as the whole world. This is of pivotal importance especially in the context that the world order is changing, though slowly. This resurgence of Pak-Russia cordiality has worried India as Modi Sarkar has conveyed India’s concerns to the Russian leadership.  In the past, although India claimed non-aligned status throughout the Cold War, yet it was always among Russia’s preferred allies – just as Pakistan was to the US. As the US seems to be turning away from Pakistan, it would seem logical for Russia to turn towards Pakistan.

As the US-India embrace tightens, former Cold War foes Pakistan and Russia are also cosying up, again. While Pakistan was an early Cold War partner of the United States, ultimately helping to evict the Soviets from Afghanistan in 1989, India remained firmly allied with the Soviet Union which served as its chief defence supplier for decades.

While India’s defence arsenal remains overwhelmingly Russian in origin, over the past four years, Washington has supplanted Moscow to become New Delhi’s top defence supplier. Realizing that its long-time partner is now looking to others, Moscow has lifted an arms embargo on Islamabad, which is keen on modernizing its military and reducing its dependence on Washington.

Budding cooperation between Pakistan and Russia goes beyond military sales. The two countries will also boost economic and energy cooperation. And a strategic partnership may be down the road — potentially involving China.

On Opposite Sides of the Cold War

In Pakistan, the standard narrative of Islamabad-Moscow relations begins with a purportedly fateful choice said to have been made in 1949. That year, Pakistan’s first prime minister, Liaquat Ali Khan, was invited by Moscow for a state visit, which he promptly accepted. However, upon receiving an invitation from Washington, Liaquat cancelled the Moscow visit and went to Washington instead; beginning what would become an on-again, off-again relationship between Pakistan and the US.

From the 1950s to the end of the Cold War, Pakistan generally remained aligned with the United States. The country joined the US-led Central Treaty Organization (CENTO) and Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) alliances. It hosted CIA spy flight missions from Peshawar (including the ill-fated flight of U-2 piloted by Gary Powers). Pakistani President Ayub Khan even saw his country as America’s “most allied ally in Asia.”

In 1965, with the breakout of war between India and Pakistan, the US imposed arms embargo on both countries. Pakistan, spurred by then-foreign minister, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, sought to reduce its dependence on the US. Islamabad accepted Soviet negotiation of a settlement to the 1965 Indo-Pak War. In the coming years, the Soviets also constructed Pakistan’s largest iron and steel manufacturing complex, known as Pakistan Steel Mills at Karachi. Bhutto’s bid to diversify ties yielded substantial gains on the China front — a legacy that lasts till today. But the Soviets were firmly devoted to India, especially on defence and security matters.

In August 1971, as civil war between West and East Pakistan worsened, Moscow and New Delhi signed the Indo-Soviet Treaty of Friendship which stated that an attack on one treaty member would be seen by the other as an attack on itself. Months later, India, which had been covertly supporting secessionists in East Pakistan, formally stepped in, helping create the new country of Bangladesh.

The Soviet Union and US supported opposite sides during the 1971 war. Washington stepped up arms shipments to Islamabad and sent the USS Enterprise to the Bay of Bengal in a show of support to Pakistan. Meanwhile, the Soviets sent vessels to counter the American naval presence.

Less than a decade later, with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, Pakistan became a frontline state in the Cold War. Pakistan, in concert with the US and other smaller powers, boosted the mujahideen into a formidable force, paving the way for the eviction of Soviet troops from Afghanistan, and the eventual downfall of the Soviet Union itself.

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Post-Cold War Continuity

The Indo-Russian alliance endured even with the end of the Cold War. In the 1990s, both countries supported the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan against the Pakistan-backed Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, and later, the Taliban.

Since the late 1990s, Pakistan has sought to grow ties with Russia, but Moscow remained wedded to New Delhi and had deep concerns but Islamabad supports militant groups.

A November 2003 joint statement by India and Russia articulated “the need for Pakistan” to prevent militant infiltration into Indian-controlled Kashmir and “dismantle the terrorist infrastructure in Pakistan and Pakistani-controlled territory.” A month later, Pakistan’s then-President Pervez Musharraf visited Russia at the invitation of Russian president Vladimir Putin. But the visit did little to push the relationship forward.

Discontent with Traditional Allies Sparks Shift

The year 2011 was terrible for US-Pakistan relations. It began with the killing of two Pakistanis by a CIA security officer on a Lahore street. Months later, US special operations forces launched a covert raid deep into Pakistan territory to reportedly kill Osama bin Laden. In the following months, US officials embittered by the presence of OBL in Pakistan, engaged in a media war against Islamabad, leaking damaging claims to The Atlantic, New York Times and other publications about Pakistan’s human rights record, support for militants and nuclear weapons programme. The year ended with a US attack on a Pakistani base at Salala that killed two dozen Pakistani soldiers, forcing Islamabad to shut down the Pakistan-based Nato supply route into Afghanistan.

It took eight months for the US to issue an apology and the supply route to reopen. Relations between Islamabad and Washington have since steadily improved. But the events of 2011 sparked a long conversation in Pakistan on the need to move beyond the United States to diversify its relations with global powers.

In Pakistani newspaper columns, on talk shows and in official meetings, the consensus was clear: the end of American hegemony was near and Pakistan should adjust to, and exploit, a G-Zero world. In fact, in Pakistan’s public discourse, the aforementioned anecdote about Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan’s supposed choice to visit Washington over Moscow was oft-mentioned and criticized.

In the Islamabad-Washington impasse, Moscow saw an opportunity. Pakistan’s power elite too was keen on engaging Russia. In January 2012, a conference of Pakistani envoys recommended broadening ties with Moscow “to reduce reliance on the US”. A month later, Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar — a staunch realist — visited Moscow, beginning a dialogue on the future of Afghanistan, aircraft sales, energy trade and a capital injection into the now-fledgling Pakistan Steel Mills. The then-Chief of Army Staff Ashfaq Parvez Kayani also visited Moscow that September to move the dialogue forward on defence acquisitions. Putin was scheduled to visit Pakistan soon after, but the visit was cancelled for unknown reasons.

Let’s Do Business

Despite the cancellation of Putin’s visit, Moscow’s interest in engaging Islamabad has only grown.

Russia sees Pakistan as critical to the stability of its backyard. As the US presence in Afghanistan dwindles, Pakistan’s role in a negotiated settlement with the Taliban becomes even more vital. In contrast to the 1990s, Russia is keener to work with Pakistan in stabilizing Afghanistan, especially amidst China’s endorsement of the peace negotiations.

Also, factors that previously held Moscow back from engaging Islamabad have been weakened. Pakistan has largely cleansed its tribal areas of foreign militants, including those from the Caucasus and Central Asia.

Over the course of a decade, Islamabad has made great strides in improving its nuclear safety and export control systems. And Moscow’s long-time partner, New Delhi, has rapidly increased defence acquisitions from Washington, making the US, not Russia, its largest arms supplier.

International sanctions following the Ukraine invasion have brought renewed urgency in Russia to exploit new defence and energy trade markets. And, to that effect, Russia has moved forward with defence sales to Pakistan despite Indian objections.

In June 2014, the Russian deputy prime minister was informed by Indian officials that sale of combat aircraft to Pakistan would be crossing a red line. Nonetheless, last November, Islamabad and Moscow signed a defence cooperation agreement which included a commitment to sell Mi-35 combat helicopters to Pakistan. The sale of an initial four Mi-35 helicopters was finalized this August and could be expanded to 20 in the coming years.

Earlier this year, Pakistan closed a deal with Russia to import Klimov RD-93 engines for the JF-17 aircraft it jointly manufactures with China. Previously, Pakistan would import them from Russia via China. Direct imports will lower the cost of production and perhaps aid Pakistan’s export prospects.

Surprisingly, Moscow and Islamabad are also in the initial phases of talks on the sale of the Sukhoi Su-35 fighter jet, a long-range combat aircraft that would enhance Pakistan’s ability to conduct maritime patrols and penetrate deeper into enemy territory. The export of the Su-35 will provide a real test of the extent to which Russia is willing to depart from its historic alliance with India. Pakistan is also exploring the purchase of a range of other Russian defence hardware, including the Yak-130 combat trainer aircraft.

Pakistan and Russia are also intent on enhancing economic ties. On October 16, Pakistan’s Federal Minister for Petroleum and Natural Resources Shahid Khaqan Abbasi and Russian Energy Minister Alexander Novak signed an inter-governmental agreement for the construction of a gas pipeline from Lahore to Karachi. Russia will invest $2 billion in the project, the first phase of which is expected to conclude by December 2017. The 1,100-kilometre pipeline with a capacity of 12.4 billion cubic metre per annum will connect Karachi’s liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminals with those in Lahore. The period of construction is 42 months and energt project will be implemented in three stages. The construction of the pipeline will provide orders for Russian industrial enterprises and will contribute to an increase in non-oil exports. The project will open up a new market for Russian companies. Russia may also join Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan in the CASA-1000 energy project, providing Afghanistan and Pakistan with electricity.

For several years, Moscow has been rumoured to be interested in either providing the Pakistan Steel Mills with a cash infusion or purchasing a stake in the state-owned enterprise. Pakistan aims to privatize the company by the end of this year, and we may see Russian companies getting into the mix.

Islamabad and Moscow are also looking to expand bilateral trade. Pakistan has expressed interest in establishing a free trade agreement with the Russian-dominated Eurasian Economic Union. A Pakistani trade authority delegation also visited Moscow recently in a bid to negotiate lower non-tariff trade barriers for Pakistani goods.

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Toward a Strategic Partnership?

All is not well between India and Russia. Moscow’s recent defence sales to Islamabad signal the former’s discontent with New Delhi. Russia may have also colluded with China to obstruct India’s path to permanent membership in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC).

But India and Russia are unlikely to make a complete break with the past. India will remain a major defence partner of Russia. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is scheduled to visit Moscow soon. The two countries may push forward deals to purchase or co-produce the fifth generation Sukhoi T-50 fighter and they will continue cooperation over the development of strategic weapons. New Delhi might also purchase T-90MS tanks from Moscow.

While Russia-India defence cooperation will continue, they appear to be less bound by a common regional strategy. Meanwhile, China is making a formidable entry into Central and South Asia, mainly in terms of trade corridors, but also in respect to forging peace in Afghanistan. Its development of Pakistan’s Gwadar port, along with the sale of eight submarines to the country, may pave the way for a more assertive Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean strategy.

Is there a space for Russia in all this? Commentators in India and Pakistan have referred to a possible China-Pakistan-Russia strategic alliance, including in the maritime theatre. But this may be more of a reflection of Pakistan’s aspirations and as well as Indian insecurity and lack of analytic restraint.

What we are more likely to see is India and Russia continuing to act more autonomously of one another. But India will have to learn to adjust to Russia’s new-found fondness for Pakistan. If it has difficulty in doing so, there is risk that we may be entering a period in which India’s tighter embrace of the US brings Russia closer to Pakistan, and Russia’s bolstering of ties with Pakistan brings India closer to the United States.

Pakistan’s successful wooing of Russia is one example of its ability to deftly navigate the complexity of a G-Zero world, in which there are multiple centres of gravity and no sole country or alliance is able to “drive an international agenda.” With strong or growing ties with all permanent UNSC members as well as regional powers like Iran, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, Pakistan is becoming what geostrategist Ian Bremmer calls a “pivot state”. For a country that faced potential global isolation in 2011, Pakistan’s growing list of friends is a testament to its diplomatic prowess and a civil-military consensus to push these relationships forward.

Courtesy: The National Interest

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