Sahar Anwar Khan
DIVERGENCE of outlook between Pakistan, with its Islamic background and the Soviet Union, with its background of Marxism and atheism didn’t lead to warm relations between the two states after the inception of Pakistan. Moreover, the military leadership was skeptic whether Russia could provide the necessary material and technical aid against India. Worsening the situation was PM Liaquat Ali Khan’s rejection of USSR’s invitation and subsequent visit to US in May 1950. Pakistan’s alliance with the West left USSR no choice but to support India on Kashmir issue in United Nations and Afghanistan’s claim on NWFP and Baluchistan.
Despite bitter political relations, USSR offered technical and economic assistance to Pakistan for oil exploration, purchase of heavy machinery and construction of Steel Mills. Russia agreed to assist in Third Five Year Economic Plan (1965-70) during President Ayub Khan’s first visit to Moscow in 1965. Relations between the two states were getting better; Russia mediated in 1965 Indo- Pak War (Tashkant Declaration) and supplied weapons to Pakistan in 1968 after US arms embargo. This advancement halted when Pakistan refused to endorse the erstwhile Soviet Union backed Asian Collective Security System. Pakistan’s role in US-China rapprochement was also not taken well by USSR which resulted in its ‘Treaty of Peace and Cooperation’ with India that played a crucial role in Pakistan’s defeat in 1971 war.
Pakistan left the Western sponsored defence alliances during Bhutto’s rule and a new era of bilateralism commenced. His first visit to Moscow (16-18 March 1972) broke ice in the backdrop of East Pakistan crisis and both sides agreed to restore Pak-Soviet trade, enhance cooperation in geological prospecting, building a metallurgical works in Karachi and help in power generation. Agreement on peaceful resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict, withdrawal of foreign troops from Vietnam, termination of the arms race and keeping nuclear disarmament under effective control was also reached. Bhutto’s time was the golden era of Pak-SU relations but history repeated itself and all of the progress was lost with the Soviet’s invasion of Afghanistan. Pakistan felt threatened by the presence of a great power in its backyard, perceiving that Pakistan will be the next stop in SU’s expansionist designs to reach the warm waters of Arabian Sea. Relations deteriorated due to Pakistan’s cooperation with US and support to Afghan Mujahidin and Soviet’s disapproval of Pakistan Nuclear programme and bombing raids on Pakistan’s border areas.
Russia viewed ISI support for religious extremist organizations with suspicion but appreciated Pakistan’s effort against terrorism after 9/11. 2007 marked the first official visit of a Russian Prime Minister when Mikhail Fradko visited Pakistan. Russia offered technical support for the Guddu and Muzaffargarh power plants and development of Thar Coal Project. A millstone was achieved with Russian lifting embargo on arms supplies to Pakistan and signing of an energy deal of $1.7 billion in 2014. A bilateral defence cooperation agreement and sale of four Mi-35 attack helicopters to Pakistan in 2015 shows the re-bridging of ties between the two states. Along with strong support to the China-funded CPEC project, Russia has made its intentions clear to connect it with the Eurasian Economic Union project.
The changing global and regional security environment provides both states with environment to create a mutually beneficial relationship. With India getting close to Europe and its strategic partnership with the US, Pakistan and Russia are eyeing each other as future allies. Russia seeks to reassert itself as a major power and intends to do so by looking for new markets as well as to go beyond its traditional sphere of influence for which Pakistan makes a suitable partner with strategic important of its geopolitical position which places it at crossroads of S Asia, ME and Central Asia.
Russia solidified its relations with Pakistan by rejecting India’s criticism of Pakistan at BRICS and Heart of Asia conferences last year. Both the states along with China consulted on Afghan issue especially the rise of ISIS in South Asia on 27th Dec in Moscow. Russia is prepared to work closely with Pakistan to stabilize the region as continuous civil war in Afghanistan threatens Central Asia which is as important market for Russia. It seems like the economic and strategic needs has overcome the historical bitterness of cold war between the two states and a cautious but strong relation is budding between Russia and Pakistan which has potential to go a long way.
—The writer is freelance columnist, based in Islamabad.