Pakistan’s Reluctant Relationship with Russia
By Pervaiz Ali Mahesar

Pakistan’s Reluctant Relationship with Russia

Jun. 06, 2018  |     |  0 comments

A major shift in Pakistan’s foreign policy from the US to Russia is underway. Washington’s often repeated demands for Pakistan to “do more” — operations against alleged militant safe havens on Pakistani soil, shifting the blame onto Pakistan for US failures in Afghanistan — have pushed their relations almost to the brink. Similarly, Moscow is faced with multiple challenges — for instance, its increasing engagement in the Middle East, and the Indian tilt towards the US. Russia’s showdown with the US in the region sufficiently proves Kautilya’s 2,400-year-old dictum that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” This article will consider the question: how is Pakistan engaging with Russia?


It is a well-known fact that the US has been using different tactics to pin the blame for its failures in Afghanistan on Pakistan. Pakistan has been put on the grey list of the FATF (Financial Action Task Force), part of a well-orchestrated plan by world powers including the US, Britain, France, and Germany to isolate and punish Pakistan for its lackluster response to terrorist funding. However, with the suspension of USD 2 billion in military assistance by Washington, Islamabad has been left with no option but to look to its Asian friends.


Historically, Russia’s closeness with India has marred its friendship with Pakistan. From 1947-50 and from 1965-69, the Soviet Union and Pakistan cooperated in the fields of education, trade and commerce, and culture. The Soviet Union played a proactive role in ending the 1965 Indo-Pakistan War and facilitated the 1966 Tashkent Agreement. Pakistan Steel Mills became a hallmark of Soviet-Pakistani friendship in the 1970s. However, the Soviet stance on the 1971 Indo-Pakistan War, its veto of Pakistan’s resolutions on East Pakistan (Bangladesh), and its invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 greatly affected bilateral ties.


Currently, relations between Pakistan and Russia have improved drastically. Increasing militant activity and the US’ ambiguous policy towards Afghanistan have posed grave challenges to Russia and Pakistan. As Petr Topychkanov notes, “Russia worries about the US presence in Afghanistan.” Driven by their common interests, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov met with his Pakistani counterpart, and such bilateral talks have led to defense and security agreements. In 2015, Russia supplied four Mi-35 attack helicopters to Pakistan. Pakistan and Russia have also conducted joint military and counter-terrorism exercises. In April 2018, Pakistani Defense Minister Khurram Dastgir Khan announced the planned purchase from Russia of SU-35 fighter jets and T-90 tanks.


Russia’s Ambassador to India Nikolay Kudashev has recently praised the role of Pakistan against terrorism, its control mechanism for funding to outfits and its active role in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). However, these comments had a rippling effect on India. After Pakistan’s permanent membership in SCO in June 2017, it has convened the first time SCO-RATS (Shanghai Cooperation Organization, Regional Anti-terrorist Structure) meeting of legal experts from eight countries on May 23-25, 2018, in Islamabad. Pakistan Foreign Secretary Tehmina Janjua said that Pakistan fully supports efforts and is ready to work along other SCO members to contain the menace of terrorism, extremism, and separatism in the region.


Pakistan and Russia’s bilateral relations have also expanded from defense cooperation into trade, commerce, and economic investment. Russia has shown a keen interest in Pakistan’s energy market and the reconstruction of PSM (Pakistan Steel Mills Karachi). In addition, both sides are negotiating a project in Muzaffargarh to convert an oil-and-gas-fired power station to a coal-fired power station. It is important to note here that Russia, due to sanctions and its showdown with the US in the Middle East and the Baltic states, may lose market share in Europe.

The growing military and economic ties indicates a promising future. Both countries now need to explore, exploit and enhance their trade and investment opportunities.

Should India worry? It is an acknowledged fact that India is a big power in the South Asian region. Its policies and approaches to the outside world could be of concern to its peripheral states. It has remained an old ally of Russia since the Cold War period and they have made joint investments in the region. They have also enjoyed extensive political, economic and military exchanges. It is a widely held perception in India that Russia is not intended to do any harm to their interests even if there is closeness with Pakistan. Therefore, mutual interests, strategic convergence and multidimensional ties have given a wide credence to their relationship.


The point is, their relations are not expected to get worse overnight, but as Sushant Sareen warned: “If the Russians start backing the Pakistanis in a big way at the political level, then it creates a problem for us.” Similarly, Pakistani defense and security analyst Hassan Askari Rizvi pointed out that India will be given top priority in South Asia by Russia. Therefore, Pakistan is not expecting a major shift in its Russian ties. Further, he said that even if Pakistan-US relations are at the lowest ebb yet, they are not going to take sides or abandon each other entirely.


In addition to that, after having an informal meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping in April 2018, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi also had a similar meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Sochi, Russia on May 21, 2018. Modi was too optimistic and said that their relations with Russia are increasing to new heights. While analyzing the India-Russia defense relations, defense expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies James Hackett observed that Russian investment in India’s field of defense is of great magnitude. Russia thinks that since India is a big country with huge potential, therefore Russia has to measure carefully while dealing with Pakistan in the context of defense.


What drives Pakistan’s reluctant relationship with Russia is their uneven mutual interests at the regional level. In the field of International Relations, nothing is permanent but national interests of states. Pakistan needs to be cautious when dealing with friends and foes in the region. It has to take the necessary steps to infuse a new spirit and vibrancy in this new engagement with Russia in the region. It is true that at the political level, there seems to be a greater satisfaction, but the same thing is lacking in the economic sphere. There is a compelling need to institutionalize and promote people to people contacts coupled with educational and cultural exchanges. The growing military and economic ties indicates a promising future. Both countries now need to explore, exploit and enhance their trade and investment opportunities.


In fact, Russia has a lot of opportunities in Pakistan, especially given its trade and investment insecurity in the Middle East and Europe. Besides manufacturing, it can invest in fields like oil and gas, textiles, and agriculture in Pakistan. However, these areas of exchange and opportunities could be capitalized only when there is a clear understanding in relations besides improving people-to-people interactions. It is worth noting how much Pakistan may expect from Russia in the midst of Washington’s sanctions and reduction in aid. As Michael Kugelman warns, Pakistan “shouldn’t overstate how much … Moscow can compensate for US aid cuts and sanctions.” Winston Churchill had famously portrayed Russia as “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” Therefore, Pakistan may be reluctant due to Russia’s unclear policy in the region and it would be too early to predict that decades of fractured ties could transform into bonhomie overnight.


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