As of now, despite all speculations, insinuations and fears in the US media, that President Trump’s coming would somehow bring a major difference to the nature of US-Russian relations, we still find both powers following different trajectories. Whether it comes to tensions in Eastern Europe, policy differences on the Syrian conflict or Afghanistan; both powers are strictly pursuing their predefined interests. A resurgent Russia wants a greater role in Afghanistan, a role independent of the US and ISAF forces; and it appears, from recent pronouncements, it is trying to court Afghan Taliban leaders to counter the menace of ISIS in Afghanistan.
Russia under Putin has been pursuing aggressive domestic and foreign policies. Russia crushed the Chechen insurgency with sheer brute force and militarily intervened in Georgia in support of South Ossetia. American media and Democrats in particular, have accused Russia of manipulating US election results in favor of president Trump through cyber-attacks and series of hackings.
Looking at recent developments, the intervention of Russian forces in Syria has tilted the military balance in Assad’s favor, amply demonstrated by the fall of Aleppo. Moreover, Russia’s rapprochement with Turkey is indicative of its foreign policy goals of reclaiming its deserved status as a major power in the world politics. This is in addition to the tension building up between the two powers in Afghanistan
The recent statement “no negotiation from a position of strength” by Russian defense minister will further fuel the fire between US and Russia. Given this Russian assertiveness, President Trump will surely come under pressure to reconsider his “soft policy” towards Moscow. In short, it looks like as if Russia and the U.S are again sliding towards another proxy-war in Afghanistan. Islamabad will have to walk a fine thin line between Russian interests and American designs in Afghanistan.
Russia: the new player in the game
After Syria, Afghanistan may thus become another ‘proxy-zone’ between the US and Russia in near future. Islamabad’s strategic interests will be directly impacted due to these changes in world politics and new emerging alliances. Russia and China are increasingly moving closer. In recent months, after showing closing of ranks on Syria, they have been making efforts to bring about a peaceful resolution to the Afghanistan conundrum. They have apparently also sought the support of Pakistan, considering it instrumental for a viable peaceful solution to this conflict
Pakistan will support the presence of pro-Beijing Russia in Afghanistan to secure game changer project of CPEC. The CPEC will play a role of ‘regional-connector’ in near future enhancing economic, security, strategic and political activities.
The U.S is strengthening its strategic ties with India to counter rising China. China has always supported Pakistan as a counterbalance to Indian hegemony in the region. Despite being in opposite camps during the Cold War, it appears as if Pakistan and Russia are now moving closer and cooperating on many different issues. A recent example is their joint military exercise. There can be other convergences of interests between Pakistan and Russia. Pakistan needs foreign investment, access to vast energy reserves of Central Asia. Central Asia was part of Soviet Union till early nineties and Russia still has deep interests and influence in the region. In the changing scenario, strategically important relations between Pakistan and Russia could buttress former’s position and bargaining chip vis-à-vis America. Moreover, Russia seeks a greater role in Afghanistan and it will need Pakistan to reassert its position in the region.
Russia and the U.S may again be sliding towards a proxy-war in Afghanistan. Resultantly, Islamabad will be under pressure to choose a loose Russian alliance backed by China, Iran, Turkey and Central Asian republics to secure their future interests in Afghanistan.
Troika meeting and friendly Taliban
The friendly meeting of this new troika – Pakistan, China, and Russia- in December 2016 on the future of Afghanistan showed that these regional states want a greater role in shaping the politics of the region independent of the US. The presence of NATO in Afghanistan is a threat to their interests in Central Asia. Russia publicly revealed its ongoing contacts with Afghan Taliban in December 2016, arguing that it wanted to undermine the threat of ISIS by mediating a negotiated settlement between Kabul government and Taliban. China also wants to see Taliban accommodated for regional peace and stability. In November 2015, China’s offer to play the role of a mediator between Kabul and Taliban is an example of this interest.
Policy options for Islamabad
Pakistan’s economic and military ties with the US have weathered all storms; but its obvious that both have different national interests in Afghanistan. Policy divergences, gradually since 2002 onwards, have led to acrimonious exchanges and mutual distrust. Pakistan can see in Russia an important strategic counterbalance against increased American pressure. But Pakistan cannot afford to isolate itself by severing its ties with the US. Finding a middle ground would be Pakistan’s diplomatic challenge. General Joseph Votel, Head of US Central Command, recently at a Senate hearing, appreciated “promising coordination” between militaries of the two countries and called the Pak-US relationship “a very important one”.
China and Pakistan
China’s visions of One Belt One Road (OBOR) and CPEC will never be secured and complete without the cooperation of a stable Pakistan. Pakistan, for its own interests, will support the presence Beijing in the region to secure the completion of CPEC. The CPEC, as it progresses ahead, will play an important role in the region in enhancing economic, security, strategic and political coordination. New regional alliances are also gradually emerging reflecting the shifts in regional politics and interests. Pak-Russia, US-India, and Turkey-Russia appear to be the new emerging strategic alignments.
The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) is a more suitable platform for Islamabad that could possibly help Pakistan to overcome its economic problems, energy crisis and can help it to further its strategic interests. Russia can ensure more security support to Pakistan in order to stabilize internal security mechanism and defense capabilities. A stable Pakistan is in the strategic interests of Russia and China to minimize and counterbalance the US influence in Afghanistan. But a ‘stable Pakistan’ may be unacceptable to India. It all now depends how Islamabad deals with these new strategic opportunities – and risks.
Abdul Rahim has completed his M. Phil degree with a focus on Talibanization and Imperialist Designs in 21st Century at International Islamic University, Islamabad. He tweets at Rahim_realist and his email is firstname.lastname@example.org. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Global Village Space’s editorial policy.