Volume 21 Issue 7 July 2017

“Russia is down but not out.” This is what was rightly perceived by analysts on international affairs following the collapse of the Soviet Union in December 1991 and the emergence of the Russian Federation as a successor state of the USSR. Still considered as the largest country in terms of territory; a permanent member of the UN Security Council; a recognized military power and a country rich in mineral resources, the Russian Federation, under its current President Vladimir Putin, is a major player in global affairs.

Pakistan-Russia relations, going through several ups and downs from the times of the USSR till today, are termed as strategically significant and politically, economically and militarily cordial. The holding of the joint Pakistan-Russia military exercises, the purchase of Russian military hardware and Russia’s support, along with China, to Pakistan’s membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), seem to have raised several questions like: why and how is there a positive transformation in Pakistan-Russia relations despite their past animosity and hostility? What are India’s concerns over the strengthening of Pakistan-Russia security, strategic and military ties? What are the areas of cooperation in Pakistan-Russian ties and how can the two countries deal with the menace of extremism, intolerance, militancy, radicalization, violence and terrorism?

Since 1950, when the then Prime Minister of Pakistan, Liaquat Ali Khan preferred to visit the United States instead of reciprocating to the Soviet invitation to visit Moscow till the collapse of the USSR, Pakistan-Soviet relations for most of the time remained devoid of warmth and cordiality. Pakistan’s joining the US-backed alliances of CENTO and SEATO in the early 1950s was directed against the Soviet bloc. With Moscow’s overt support to India on Kashmir and Afghanistan on Pakhtunistan, relations between Pakistan and Russia remained hostile albeit a semblance of normalcy following the Soviet mediation in the India-Pakistan conflict following the 1965 war in Tashkent. However, the India-Soviet Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation of July 1971 and Moscow’s overt tilt in favour of India during the December 1971 India-Pakistan war, highly damaged Pakistan-Soviet ties. Z.A. Bhutto’s government tried to normalize Pakistan-Soviet relations by visiting Moscow in January 1972 and reaching an agreement with the Soviet government to build a steel mill in Karachi. Unfortunately, the Soviet military intervention in Afghanistan and Pakistan’s support to the U.S sponsored Jihad against the Soviet forces further vitiated relations between Moscow and Islamabad. It was only after the collapse of the Soviet Union, emergence of the Russian Federation as a successor state of the USSR, the normalization of Beijing-Moscow relations and transformation of the threat perception in Pakistan-Russia relations that things began to take a positive turn.

According to Dmitriy Frolovskiy, a Moscow-based political analyst and writer, in his article on May 14, 2016 in The Diplomat magazine, used an interesting term “Russian-Pakistani Renaissance” which meant the revival of ties between the two countries. He wrote, “A Russian-Pakistani renaissance started in 2014 when the Kremlin removed its arms embargo against Islamabad. In 2015, Moscow agreed to sell four Mi 35 helicopters to Pakistan and welcomed Islamabad to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). This year already, the Russian Army Commander-in-Chief Oleg Salyukov announced the first ever mutual special drills in mountainous terrain. Both nations additionally agreed on a construction project to transfer liquefied natural gas (LNG) from Karachi to Lahore. The pipeline could potentially supply 30 percent of the Pakistani population and assist in resolving the country’s ravaging energy crisis, as well as extol Russia’s influence. The current rapprochement has taken many by surprise, as it might impinge upon Moscow and New Delhi’s cooperation in the long-term.”

On June 6, Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff had an important meeting with the Russian Ambassador in which wide areas of military to military cooperation between the two countries were discussed.

Two major changes which took place compelled Moscow to express its positive approach vis-à-vis Pakistan: first, Russia’s disillusionment with India over New Delhi’s deepening ties with the United States, particularly in terms of political, military and nuclear cooperation. Since the 1950s, Moscow had been a major supplier of weapons to India and it also assisted the country to build a heavy


machinery industry. Now, growing Indo-U.S relations are causing concern and suspicions in Moscow which has ultimately led to Russia’s new policy vis-à-vis Pakistan.

According to Dmitriy Frolovskiy, “Russian-Indian relations might seem flourishing on the outside; inside, however, they have experienced a downward trend. The Kremlin has grown cautious lately about India’s augmenting defence cooperation with the United States and other Western nations. Selling weapons remains a tenet of Russia’s foreign policy strategy and its soft power outreach; however, the country’s market share in India has been on a gradual decline for the past several years. In contrast, the U.S-India arms deals have topped a record amount of $9 billion.”

Yet, Russian officials have made it clear that their revitalized relations with Pakistan are not at the expense of their age-old ties with India. Second, the Sino-Russian equation and strong cooperation since the end of the cold war changed the dynamics of Asia because, for decades, Moscow and Beijing had hostile relations. The impact of the Sino-Russian cordial relations on Pakistan is understandable because of Islamabad’s age-old ties with Beijing. Russia has expressed its interest in benefiting from CPEC and, along with China, has supported Pakistan’s membership of the SCO.

A paradigm shift in Pakistan-Russia relations was also noticeable when Pakistan’s Prime Minister paid a visit to Moscow in March this year. Convergence of interests between Pakistan and Russia, however, suffered a setback when last year the Russian President Vladimir Putin postponed a bilateral visit to Pakistan but stated that he would soon visit Pakistan. This means, the paradigm shift in Pak-Russian ties is still in a transitory phase. Earlier, Moscow had alleged that Jihadi groups operating in Pakistan were also involved in the Chechen civil war and in conducting terrorist acts in the Russian Federation. It seems, China may have played a vital role in neutralizing Russian concerns about Pakistan and lately Moscow has refused to support New Delhi to condemn Islamabad on its alleged involvement in acts of terror. The Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Moscow in June this year and called his meeting with the Russian leaders very fruitful but on Modi’s visit, Russia refused to subscribe to India’s perception about Pakistan’s alleged involvement in acts of terror. The Modi regime is trying to take damage control measures in India’s ties with the Russian Federation but much depends on how India-U.S relations are perceived in Moscow and to what extent will India is in a position to revert to its “allied” type relations with Russia.

In international relations and foreign policy, there are no permanent enemies and no permanent allies but only interests which shape a country’s policy on vital issues. The same is true in the case of Pakistan-Russia relations where a paradigm shift in these ties should not be a matter of surprise and concern. Russia is a major player in global affairs and has its interests in Central and South Asia. Afghanistan is one country where Russia carries a historical baggage because of its one decade of military intervention and the accusation raised from many circles that Moscow ruined that country in its decade-long military occupation. But, now Russia in the post-Soviet period knows that anti-Russian sentiments in Afghanistan have been replaced with anti-American and anti-Western rhetoric, thus providing space to Moscow to adjust its priorities in the country and to play a role for peace-building in coordination with Pakistan. The thaw in Pakistan-Russia relations is a positive development and needs to be maintained in the days to come so that unlike the past, the two countries do not plunge into another phase of hostility.

The writer is Meritorious Professor of International Relations at the University of Karachi.

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