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Pakistan–Russia: New Entente Cordiale

A volatile relationship between the U.S. and Pakistan, the mounting confrontation between Moscow and Washington, and the growing U.S.- India strategic partnership have given Pakistan and Russia a Machiavellian common cause to reassess bilateral ties. Meanwhile, the regional security situation has deteriorated further in recent years.

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Security and geography have been key elements in Pakistan’s foreign policy choices since independence. It has been a central feature in Pakistan’s relations with India, the United States and China, albeit for different reasons. In the formative years, Pakistan’s mutual defense agreement with the US in the fifties, by joining SEATO and CENTO, to safeguard its territorial integrity from a much larger and hostile India, close collaboration against the Soviets in Afghanistan and cooperation in the so-called war against terrorism were all driven by security considerations. Pakistan’s decision to acquire nuclear capability was dictated by its threat perception, linked to India’s conventional superiority and its ‘surgery’ on East Pakistan.

Leveraging the geographical location through foreign policy tools by Pakistan has brought many dividends i.e. robust defence capability and absence of war with India in the past twenty-three years. At the same time, the country has incurred economic and reputational costs. Despite impressive security and counter-terrorism gains, the global perception of Pakistan remains largely negative.

Read more: RT’s Interviews With PM IK & The Taliban show Russia’s “Balancing” Intent

What does this tell about global political dynamics?

Meanwhile, the global power dynamics continue to evolve and the ultimate nature of global politics continues to be defined by the currency of power, the instruments of its use are moving from reliance on military muscle alone to economic, intellectual, technological and public communications strengths.

Even as old and traditional threats such as inter-state wars, regional conflicts, risks of nuclear conflagration have not diminished, global attention is shifting towards non-traditional threats that do not respect national boundaries i.e. terrorism, climate change, pandemics, growing poverty and inequality, and AI-enabled warfare. Cumulatively, these developments in the past two decades have shaped new strategic re-alignments such as growing US-India partnership, increasing US-Russia antagonism, emerging US-China rivalry and improving Russia-China relations.

These geo-political shifts and the evolving nature of opportunities (global trade, investments, technology, connectivity) and perceptions about new challenges (terrorism, pandemics, regional crises, online hate speech) necessitated a fresh look at Pakistan’s human, geographic, economic security and foreign policies, objectives, strategies and tools.

In this regard, Pakistan’s first ever national security policy has formally been drafted by PM Imran Khan and all relevant stakeholders in 2022 in which it is emphasized that the symbiotic relationship between economic, human, and traditional security is now imperative for Pakistan’s long-term development. Domestic stability and regional peace based on mutual co-existence, regional connectivity, and shared prosperity are essential prerequisites to optimizing national security.

Section seven of National Security Policy (NSP) 2022 paper focuses on foreign policy in a changing world. Page thirty eight (38) of the policy paper discussed “Vision Central Asia” which portrays Pakistan’s mind-map towards actualizing agreements on energy and transit with the Central Asian Republics and its commitment towards reimagining its partnership with Russia in energy, defense cooperation, and investment. To actualize the policy tilt towards geo-economics which lies at the heart of NSP, Prime Minister Imran Khan is going on first official bilateral visit to Russia in this last week of February 2022 in twenty-three years.

Read more: PM Khan’s visit Moscow in the time of conflict

Diplomatic relations between the two countries were established on May 1, 1948 following the agreement reached in New York by then Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs of the USSR Andrei A. Gromyko and Foreign Minister of Pakistan Zafrullah Khan. Shortly the embassies of the USSR and Pakistan opened in Karachi and Moscow. There were ups and downs in relations between the USSR and the Islamic Republic of Pakistan because of the specifics of international politics of the “Cold War” period. Thus, Pakistan-Russia relations can be abridged as a saga of mutual misunderstandings, miscalculations and wasted opportunities due to the shifting policies of the two states under geopolitical realities of the Cold War epoch.

Looking back at the excerpts from history

There were three distinct periods during the Cold War wherein Pakistan’s proactive role in pursuance of US strategic objectives laid the historical distrust between the Soviet Union and Pakistan. First, Islamabad provided the United States with air bases and intelligence assets on Pakistani soil that facilitated reconnaissance on and monitoring of the Soviet Union in the pre-satellite era. Second, in the 1970s, Pakistan facilitated Pres. Richard Nixon’s geopolitical summit brought rapprochement between China and the United States. The Soviets retaliated by signing the India–Soviet Mutual Friendship treaty in August 1971, which provided India with political and strategic support during the 1971 Indo–Pakistan War. Finally, in the 1980s, after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, the United States and Pakistan realigned to wage an asymmetric war to defeat the Soviets in Afghanistan.

However, even during the most unfavorable periods Moscow continued to search out opportunities for expansion of its dialogue with Islamabad and render economic assistance to Pakistan. The Soviet Union contributed to the development of Pakistan’s oil and gas industries, construction of power stations, and supplied agricultural machinery. It was with the USSR assistance that Pakistan Steel Mills were constructed in Karachi, still remaining the largest industrial enterprise in the country and the flagship of our friendship. In 1980, Guddu Thermal Power Station built with the participation of Soviet specialists was put into operation and became the biggest thermal power plant in Pakistan then.

It was only around 2010 that the relationship between Islamabad and Moscow was uplifted to a new trajectory with high-level visits and arms sales. In April 2018, General Qamar Javed Bajwa became the third consecutive Pakistani army chief to visit Moscow. His trip resulted in the setting up of a Joint Military Commission between the two countries. In late September 2021, the Pakistan-Russia Joint Military Consultative Committee (JMCC) met for the third time.

Read more: What PM IK needs to know before meeting President Putin?

The meeting was held between Pakistan’s Defence Secretary and Russia’s Deputy Defence Minister during which matters like military training, joint exercises, intelligence cooperation, defence industrial cooperation, the evolving situation in Afghanistan and regional stability were discussed. The two sides also agreed to hold a fourth round of meetings in Russia in 2022. The JMCC is the highest forum of defence collaboration between the two countries. This also indicates the formalization of defence relations that started in 2014 with the signing of the bilateral defence cooperation agreement under which Pakistan purchased Mi-35 helicopters.

The JMCC meeting coincided with a two week-long counter terrorism Exercise ‘Druzhba-6’, which itself is an annual feature between the two countries from last six years. When U.S. President Donald Trump ended Pakistan’s participation in its International Military Education Program, Islamabad went on to sign a Security Training Agreement with Moscow for training of Pakistani military officers in Russian military institutions for the first time in its history.

A volatile relationship between the U.S. and Pakistan, the mounting confrontation between Moscow and Washington, and the growing U.S.- India strategic partnership have given Pakistan and Russia a Machiavellian common cause to reassess bilateral ties. Meanwhile, the regional security situation has deteriorated further in recent years. With the U.S. fast-tracked the withdrawal of its troops from Afghanistan, violence in Afghanistan has intensified. The possibility of a civil war looms and regional stakeholders are apprehensive that a civil war in Afghanistan would have spillover effects for neighboring countries.

Thus, the underlying motivation for Pakistan and Russia to come together lies in their shared rationale that the only viable solution for regional peace and stability is a political settlement in Afghanistan. Under a Shanghai Cooperation Organization mandate, Russia and Pakistan have pledged to jointly tackle growing threats such as the Islamic State in the region post-U.S. pullout. Russia realizes the vitality of Pakistan in any settlement of the Afghan problem. Meanwhile, Islamabad understands that Moscow is back in the game.

In recent times, Pakistan has done well to avoid siding with any one side and has maintained its position as a regional stakeholder. It has preserved relations with major powers like Russia, the U.S., and China. With its ties with the U.S. eroding, Pakistan has kept its options open with Moscow and Beijing.

Russia, on the other hand, is finding new opportunities under changing geopolitical circumstances in South Asia as the Americans withdrawn from Afghanistan. Most recently, when Pakistan was facing a COVID-19 vaccine deficit due to India’s halt of Oxford-AstraZeneca exports under the COVAX Facility, Moscow came to Islamabad’s rescue by sending 50,000 doses of its Sputnik-V vaccine.

Although India remains a bigger market for Russia, Pakistan’s increasing geo-economic significance, courtesy China featuring the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) as its flagship Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) project, its influence over the Afghan Taliban, and the market it provides for Russia’s defense industry underscore the fact that Moscow’s interests in South Asia will not be exclusive to India anymore.

Read more: PM Khan’s visit to Russia: Why is India worried?

Unfortunately, the economic dimension of Russian-Pakistani cooperation does not correspond to its potential. We cannot be satisfied either with the existing bilateral trade volume of USD 540 million or with its structure. The low level of direct business ties and insufficient knowledge of Russia’s and Pakistan’s business communities about each other’s capabilities remain to be our weak points. The task for accelerated development of Russian-Pakistani trade and economic ties to take them to a qualitatively new level is set at the highest level. In this regard, considerable expectations are pinned on PM Khan visit to Russia, especially in domains of energy connectivity, Trade and Economic, Scientific and Technical Cooperation.

Recently, Pakistan was able to successfully bring to a closure a long-standing settlement of financial claims from the Soviet era. Although the total amount of financial claims was less than US$100 million, yet the Russians had treated it as a sovereign issue whose resolution was a major stumbling block in restoring trust. This settlement took more than 20 years and demonstrated the cumbersome financial, administrative and judicial maze of Pakistan’s governance system, as perceived by many in the outside world.

Both countries have gradually made progress in the areas of energy and defence

Both sides have agreed on a flagship energy project, North-South Gas Pipeline (NSGP) from Karachi to Lahore, in 2015, to be built with Russian investment of US$ 2 billion on build, operate and own basis for a period of 25 years. The two sides are finalizing the Project Structure of the NSGP. There has been a considerable delay, due to two main reasons, one is related to US sanctions on Russian entities, called Countering American Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) and the other is the capacity issue in Pakistan.  

Under the Inter-Governmental Agreement, Pakistan has signed various defense contracts (worth US$ 989.23 million with the Russian companies). Some Russian defense equipment supplying entities have been placed under US sanctions through CATSA. These issues are being worked upon. Meanwhile, both countries have enhanced the periodicity of Pakistan-Russia joint military and naval exercises.

Besides, an Inter-Governmental Agreement on Cooperation in the Sphere of Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) was signed between the two countries in October, 2017. Both sides have also signed an MoU for conducting feasibility study on offshore gas pipeline project (September 2018) and as a follow up to this MoU the Gazprom of Russia and the Inter State Gas Company Limited signed an MoU on gas pipeline feasibility study regarding gas supplies from the Middle East to South Asia in February, 2019. Besides, a proposal for establishment of 600 MW ‘Combined Cycle Power Plant’ (CCPP) at Jamshoro Sindh is under consideration by both sides.

Read more: Russia-China 2.0: Joint Statement on International Relations

Thus, there are four emerging factors driving Russian interests in Pakistan currently: CPEC, the future of Afghanistan, markets for defense, and strategic sales. Russia’s preference is not to leave India, and Russia will do its utmost to compete with the United States and Europe for India’s markets. A peaceful settlement in Afghanistan in the short to medium term would represent an opportunity for Pakistan to move ahead with its trade, energy and connectivity plans towards Central Asia. The Russian proposal of a Greater Eurasian Partnership could enhance prospects for building synergies between BRI/CPEC and EEU. Given Pakistan’s unique geographic position and its close partnership with China, the Eurasian Partnership proposal holds promise in the medium to long-term.

With increasing geopolitical importance, however, especially after China’s BRI featured the CPEC as its flagship project, Pakistan’s geophysical location found new geo economic significance. With the United States imposing sanctions on Russia in the wake of the Ukraine crisis, Moscow has reached out to Beijing and expanded its interests to Southwest and South Asia. It is apparent that Russia is now involved in the delicate balancing of relations with South Asian countries. From the Russian standpoint, the future of Afghanistan has important bearing on Russian security interests.

Finally, Russia’s progressively neutral position on South Asian bilateral issues is indicative that Russia has greatly expansive strategic interests in South Asia, which while they are still primarily with India, will not be exclusive to India in near future anymore (The End).

 

 

Saud Bin Ahsen is a freelancer. He can be reached at saudzafar5@gmail.com. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.

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