Mr. Aman Ullah, a Ph.D. student at the International Islamic University Islamabad, interviewed Andrew Korybko as part of his research into Pakistani-Russian relations.
1. Do you think Pakistan and Russia have buried the Cold War hatchet or does the historical baggage of mutual distrust still overshadow their advancement in bilateral relations?
Yes, they certainly have buried the hatchet, at least on the official level. In terms of civil and elite society, however, not everyone might have moved on. The memory of the 1980s Afghan War still lingers on these levels, which third parties like the US and India can take advantage of in Pakistan and Russia respectively.
Nevertheless, policy in both countries is formulated by their permanent military, intelligence, and diplomatic bureaucracies (“deep state”) and doesn’t take public opinion into account, nor should it, considering the national security priorities at play in their relations. That’s not to say that their people are against their relations, but just that the state is leading the way in the hopes that the rest of society will eventually follow with time if relations succeed in diversifying beyond energy and security cooperation as optimists expect.
2. How important is the deepening Indo-US relationship as a factor for Pakistan and Russia coming closer to each other, particularly in the field of defense cooperation?
Officially speaking, their ties aren’t driven by any third parties nor are they aimed against them, but it’s impossible to deny the observation that Russian-Pakistani relations have improved in parallel with the improvement of US-Indian ones. The de facto US-Indian anti-Chinese alliance – which is imperfect and still beset by some differences of vision – was a regional strategic game-changer that compelled Russia and Pakistan to reconsider their respective policies towards one another.
The prior unease that each might have felt engaging with the other due to their traditional Indian and American partners’ sensitivities gradually disappeared as they began to view each other through a more pragmatic lens. Russian-Pakistani relations help each country flexibly adapt to the rapidly changing geostrategic situation in South Asia and especially the impact that this development has had on the US-Chinese New Cold War.
To be clear, however, neither Russia nor Pakistan wants to replace their traditional Indian or American partners with their newfound one, nor are they taking any steps with one another that could risk threatening those other countries’ interests, which explains why their military cooperation has hitherto been limited to the anti-terrorist domain and has yet to evolve beyond it, though that might eventually change.
3. Do you think Russia is pursuing a policy of diversification in its relations in South Asia and is Pakistan also trying to enhance its options in the international system in the wake of strained Islamabad-Washington ties?
The greatest force shaping the emerging world order right now is the US-Chinese New Cold War, which Russia and Pakistan are reacting to. The de facto US-Indian alliance is an outcome of that global struggle since both Great Powers share the same goal of “containing” China, hence why they have moved closer to one another at the perceived expense of their relations with their traditional Pakistani and Russian partners respectively.
Russia’s 21st-century grand strategic ambition is to become the supreme balancing force in Eurasia, to which end it’s seeking to improve its relations with non-traditional partners like Pakistan, which is also attempting to do the same for reasons of preventing any perceived disproportionate dependence on any one partner (be it the US like in the past or China at present).
Both countries want to diversify their partnerships in order to reap more economic dividends thereof. Russia aims to do this through its Greater Eurasian Partnership (GEP) while Pakistan could build upon CPEC in order to branch it out along the northern, western, and southern cardinal directions via the corresponding N-CPEC+, W-CPEC+, and S-CPEC+ visions.
The northern one complements Russia’s efforts to pioneer a southern-directed connectivity corridor, which is another factor explaining the confluence of their interests in Afghanistan where these visions intersect for geostrategic reasons.
4. What interests do Pakistan and Russia have in Afghanistan and do these interests converge?
The most important common interest that Russia and Pakistan have in Afghanistan is to stop regional terrorist threats like ISIS that might emanate from that war-torn country. It was this serious concern that drove those two together in the first place once ISIS-K began to enter the battlespace.
In addition, that black swan event also showed Russia that the Taliban – which is officially designated by Moscow as a terrorist group – is the most effective on-the-ground anti-ISIS force in Afghanistan. With this in mind, Moscow started behaving more pragmatically towards the Taliban by politically engaging it for the purpose of advancing the fledgling peace process.
This ultimately resulted in Russia hosting the Taliban in its capital for talks on several occasions, something that would have been unthinkable just a few short years ago, let alone when considering the bitter legacy of the 1980s Afghan War.
The second interest that those two countries have there is to prevent an intensification of the civil war which could catalyze a large-scale regional refugee crisis. This would most directly affect Pakistan but is also very worrying for Russia due to its close relations with the Central Asian Republics. Most of them have visa-free access to the Eurasian Great Power and there’s a fear that terrorists might masquerade as refugees in order to slide through Central Asia en route to Russia by exploiting that visa-free regime.
At the very least, they might stir trouble in those former Soviet Republics, which could, in turn, catalyze its own refugee crisis as well in the worst-case scenario. The goal, then, is to jointly contain the unconventional (terrorist/refugee) threats coming from Afghanistan.
The third interest relates to regional connectivity since Russia wants to pioneer access to the south while Pakistan aims to the same to the north, with their respective visions geostrategically intersecting in Afghanistan. Connectivity is one of the top trends of the 21st century, and it’s already beginning to manifest itself in the region through this year’s earlier agreement between Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Uzbekistan to build a railway between them that can casually be referred to as PAKAFUZ for convenience’s sake.
This megaproject could become the core of N-CPEC+, which in turn might be rebranded as the Central Eurasian Corridor (CEC) in order for Russia to participate more directly in it without offending India’s sensitivities related to CPEC (despite PAKAFUZ/N-CPEC+/CEC not transiting through disputed territory that New Delhi claims as its own per its maximalist approach to the Kashmir Conflict).
5. What is the relevance of Russia in CPEC?
Russia is extremely unlikely to participate in any officially CPEC-branded projects out of fear of offending India’s sensitivities as was explained above. It will also not invest in Azad Kashmir or Gilgit-Baltistan for the same reason that it regards those regions as disputed and is aware of India’s claims to them. Nevertheless, private companies can still take part in such projects, at least theoretically.
In addition, state companies are seeking to invest more in Pakistan too as evidenced by the recent agreement to construct the Pakistan Stream Gas Pipeline (PSGP). Both private and state Russian companies can also obviously use Chinese-backed infrastructure projects in the rest of Pakistan outside of those two earlier mentioned regions to facilitate economic access to the Indian Ocean Region (IOR).
It should go without saying that PAKAFUZ will probably play a key role in this upon its completion too even though it’s not Chinese-backed but is nonetheless conceptualized as a northern branch of CPEC.
6. How does Russia see Pakistan’s role in the War on Terror and its efforts for regional peace and stability?
Russia has praised Pakistan’s contributions to the War on Terror and was so impressed that it even agreed to stage yearly anti-terrorist drills from 2016 onward in one another’s mountainous territory (alternating the host country each year). It is also supportive of Pakistan’s political contributions to the Afghan peace process, with which it officially cooperates as part of the Enlarged Troika.
Additionally, Russia hopes that Pakistan and India can peacefully resolve their dispute over Kashmir, though Moscow considers the issue to be a bilateral one despite its predecessor state of the Soviet Union supporting the respective UNSC Resolutions on the matter that de jure multi-lateralized it while Islamabad regards the dispute as multilateral for that very same UNSC reason.
Their disagreement over how to approach the Kashmir Conflict hasn’t impeded their rapid rapprochement in recent years though since they’ve seemingly decided to compartmentalize it separately from the areas of shared interest that they are cooperating on.
7. What is Russia’s perspective on Pakistan’s nuclear program and its nuclear doctrine?
Russia is against nuclear proliferation but tacitly acknowledges Pakistan’s status as a nuclear power. It presumably takes note of Islamabad’s defensive nuclear doctrine too.
8. Do you see any similarity in the stances of Pakistan and Russia at international forums?
Russia and Pakistan cooperate through the SCO and have shared interests in Afghanistan through the Enlarged Troika that they also participate in. They are both in support of a two-state solution for Palestine too but haven’t cooperated towards that end.
Russia and Pakistan are against unilateral sanctions and foreign meddling, and they also play important transit roles in China’s Belt & Road Initiative (BRI) through their hosting of the Eurasian Land-Bridge and CPEC respectively.
9. Do you think Pakistan’s policy of supporting jihadi elements in Kashmir and the Kashmir issue prevents Moscow from moving quicker towards Islamabad?
Officially speaking, Pakistani support of Kashmir is strictly political though there have been many reports for quite some time that it occasionally provides other forms of support as well. Even so, Islamabad does not agree with New Delhi’s accusations that it supports jihadi elements in any way since it regards the groups that it extends political backing to as freedom fighters.
As for Russia’s stance towards all of this, it is of course against Pakistan or India supporting armed groups in the parts of Kashmir under the other’s control but it would not ever publicly criticize New Delhi despite Islamabad’s accusations that it is guilty of this and purported proof in its possession to that end.
Nonetheless, because Russian-Pakistani relations are primarily guided at this moment by their shared security concerns stemming from Afghan-emanating threats and then secondly by energy and connectivity cooperation, Moscow doesn’t let the unresolved Kashmir Conflict and its many complicated dimensions interfere in its bilateral relations with either Islamabad since it hopes to have pragmatic ties with it and does not want that issue spoiling this.
10. How do you see the Islamabad-Moscow strategic relationship in the context of Russia’s preferred defense relations with India?
At the moment, neither Russia nor Pakistan officially regards their relationship as being strategic even though there are unquestionably strategic dimensions to it concerning their political and security cooperation in the face of Afghan-emanating threats. Having clarified that, Russia reaffirmed on several occasions that its incipient defense cooperation with Pakistan is not aimed against India.
That is why it is thus far mostly remained within the realm of anti-terrorist equipment and not anything more significant that could drastically affect the balance of power between those South Asian states.
That might change like everything else depending on the US-shaped regional strategic dynamics such as if Western companies continue to cut into Russia’s dominant position in India’s arms marketplace, especially if their wares greatly upset the balance of power, but it would probably still take some time to play out in any case and thus won’t happen anytime soon.
11. Do you think Pakistan’s preferred strategic reliance on China impedes the expansion of strategic relations with Russia?
Not at all. Russia and China are comprehensive strategic partners so Moscow does not regard any of Beijing’s ties with third countries as threatening or an obstacle to its own cooperation with those states.
If anything, the closeness of Chinese-Pakistani and Chinese-Russian relations implies that China would actually welcome two of its closest strategic partners cooperating with one another in the hope that this could strengthen trilateral cooperation between them all, especially in Afghanistan.
12. Does Islamabad’s historical dependence on Washington affect the improvement of Pakistan-Russia relations?
No, it actually acts as an unstated driving force for the improvement of Russian-Pakistani relations since Islamabad wants to avoid returning to the prior position of perceived disproportionate strategic dependence on the US. It’s for that reason why it is so actively diversifying its relations with Great Powers like Russia.
Pakistan has demonstrated that it’s behaving increasingly independently, especially after Prime Minister Imran Khan’s refusal to host US bases after America’s impending withdrawal from Afghanistan by September 11th. The historical American factor does not negatively affect Russian-Pakistani relations in the present day, especially since the latter’s improvement also does not have any serious negative consequences for the US.
Andrew Korybko is a political analyst, radio host, and regular contributor to several online outlets. He specializes in Russian affairs and geopolitics, specifically the US strategy in Eurasia. The views expressed in the article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.