Ms. Javairyah Kulthum Atif from SZABIST University (Islamabad) interviewed Moscow-based American political analyst Andrew Korybko about his views on Russia Pakistan relations, following Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s recent visit to the country as part of her academic research into the topic.
- What does Pakistan expect from the emerging relations between Pakistan and Russia? And what sort of nature will it turn out to be? Can Lavrov’s latest visit be promising towards Pakistan’s FP objectives? And what does the “blank cheque” indicate?
Russia seeks to bring balance to its South Asian policy. This aligns with its 21st-century grand strategy of becoming the supreme balancing force in Eurasia. To that end, it must cultivate, maintain, and expand relations with non-traditional partners such as Pakistan. This takes the form of joint anti-terrorist exercises, anti-terrorist arms cooperation, diplomatic coordination in Afghanistan, and energy investments. Lavrov’s recent visit was promising and heralded a new era in bilateral relations since it shows that these two countries’ respective grand strategies of advancing Eurasian integration are increasingly converging, but much work remains to be done. As for the so-called “blank cheque” that was reported, that description is contestable since it implies that Russia is ready to hand out money or whatever else, which isn’t the case. After all, the Russian Ambassador to Pakistan previously said that his country is also a developing country and is only interested in mutually beneficial and profitable cooperation. Even so, plenty of opportunities exist for that, but closer coordination between the two governments and especially their business communities is required in order to tap into that.
- To what extent can Pakistan rely on Russian support in South Asia given various divergences that exist in several areas like the Kashmir issue for instance or even the Russo-Indo relations?
It is absolutely unrealistic and symptomatic of groundless wishful thinking to imagine that Russia’s position on Kashmir will ever align with Pakistan’s. The best that can possibly happen is that Moscow doesn’t make as big of a deal of its partisan support for New Delhi as it previously has, most recently in August 2019 following the abrogation of Article 370. As for Russian-Indian relations, it would be completely counterproductive for Pakistan to even countenance the possibility of its newfound ties with Russia having any negative impact on those ties. Both pairs are separate from one another, and Russia will neither improve nor worsen its relations with either in order to satisfy the wishful thinking of some in India and Pakistan. Generally speaking, Russia increasingly acknowledges that certain differences of opinion exist between it and its two top South Asian partners, but it doesn’t want these to interfere with other aspects of their partnerships. In other words, it’s best to agree to disagree on some issues but to nevertheless understand the reasons for such disagreements as explained during candid discussions in order to dispel any misunderstandings of strategic intent.
- One of the significant scales in assessing changes in relations is how frequently two nations meet: India and Russia stand unrivaled in this regard. Moving forward can we see an increase in these high-level meetings between Pakistan and Russia?
Actually, Russia and India do not stand unrivaled in regard to the frequency of meetings between them. President Putin met much more frequently with “Israel” and Turkey’s leaders over the years. He also talks to them much more often than he does with Prime Minister Modi. In any case, in terms of Russia’s South Asian policy, then yes, the frequency of meetings between them is unrivaled in the region from Moscow’s perspective, but India is increasingly having just as many meetings with the US nowadays too. To answer the second part of the question after clarifying the first, more meetings between Russian and Pakistani officials are expected, especially considering the recent announcement that an intergovernmental commission between them will once again meet later this year. The focus should be on trade and other forms of economic cooperation such as courting Russian non-energy investments into Pakistan if ties are to be taken to the next level.
- How does Russia view South Asian politics/relations? What led Russian policymakers to pursue relations/How does it perceive Pakistan now? Is the US-India Indo-Pacific strategy a push factor for Russia to engage with Pakistan in South Asia?
As explained in the first answer, Russia is seeking to balance its South Asian relations in line with its 21st-century grand strategy. Its recent rapprochement with Pakistan was sparked by shared security interests stemming from Afghan-emanating threats, particularly following ISIS’s entrance to the battlefield in 2014. Pakistan seems to be much more positively perceived by Russian policymakers nowadays, especially due to the new multipolar grand strategy that Pakistani leaders jointly unveiled during the inaugural Islamabad Security Dialogue in mid-March, which complements Russia’s Greater Eurasian Partnership (GEP). Quite arguably, Russian interest in Pakistan was partially piqued due to India’s de facto pivot towards the US-led anti-Chinese Quad, but Moscow’s ties with Islamabad and New Delhi are nevertheless still separate from one another. It doesn’t want either to interfere with the other and hopes that candid discussions with both of them can clarify any misunderstandings about Moscow’s ties with their rivals.
- How does Russia perceive Pakistan’s strategic reliance on China?
Russia doesn’t recognize any Pakistani “reliance” on China or anyone else, but if the question is asking how Russia perceives Pakistani-Chinese relations, then the answer is positive. In fact, the strength of the Russian-Chinese Strategic Partnership might have influenced Moscow to reconsider its previous views of Islamabad seeing as how Pakistan hosts the flagship project of China’s Belt & Road Initiative (BRI), the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). That alone might have been enough to inspire Russia to review its prior perceptions of Pakistan since China evidently trusts the latter enough and has so much confidence in it that Beijing decided to have Islamabad host its top BRI project anywhere in the world. For those in Pakistan who regard their country’s relations with China as being characterized by “reliance”, then newfound relations with Russia provide a pragmatic means to balance between them without risking Beijing’s ire since Moscow is a strategic partner of the People’s Republic so Islamabad’s increasing ties with it aren’t viewed with suspicion.
- Is the current relationship tactical or strategic in nature? Will it continue to stay as such in the foreseeable future? Especially in the context of BRI?
The current relationship is both tactical and strategic. Regarding the first, it aims to achieve tangible goals in Afghanistan related to promoting a peaceful resolution to that country’s conflict. As for the second, it aspires to comprehensively expand upon this basis of cooperation in order for their relations to take on a much greater significance in terms of the unpredictable geopolitics of the emerging Multipolar World Order. They will continue to move in the strategic direction but will take time to reach that point since the greatest impediment is their lack of meaningful non-energy economic cooperation. That can be partially rectified in the coming future if a Central Eurasian Corridor (CEC) is pioneered between the two via Central Asia and post-war Afghanistan like is presently being planned in an unofficial capacity as evidenced by the Pakistan-Afghanistan-Uzbekistan (PAKAFUZ) railway project.
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- Will Pakistan be able to fulfill its expectations from relations with Russia?
Russia seems to have fewer expectations of Pakistan than the inverse. In Moscow’s eyes, the South Asian state is a complementary part of its larger regional balancing act, but will never replace the role that India plays in spite of the latter’s increasing multi-faceted engagement with the US. Russia seems solely to hope that its political cooperation with Pakistan in Afghanistan and newfound energy cooperation via the Pakistan Stream Gas Pipeline will continue. Ideally, economic ties will expand and diversify, especially if the CEC is completed and entrepreneurs in both countries establish greater commercial ties with one another. There’s a chance for closer coordination on other issues as well such as Gulf security, but options are limited for the time being because this non-traditional partnership is so new. Still, so long as their expert communities continue to produce visionary but realistic proposals for further cooperation and are able to successfully articulate the pragmatism behind these ideas to their counterparts, then ties might move further than expected in a shorter amount of time if their governments continue to have the political will to do so.