Pakistan and Russia — past, present and future | By Imtiaz Rafi Butt


Pakistan and Russia — past, present and future

PAKISTAN came into existence in 1947 in extremely volatile times in a swiftly transforming geopolitical canvas. The Second World War had just ended.  The cold war era was reshaping global alliances. East Berlin was under the clutches of the (former) Soviet Union while West Berlin was under the command of Allied forces. The NATO Alliance was under the intense influence of the USA while WARSAW signatories were being commanded by Russia.

The Iron Curtain had become the symbol of extreme political and ideological boundaries that divided Europe in an effort by the Soviet Union to block itself and its satellite states from contact with the West, its allies and neutral states. Joseph Stalin was sending millions of prisoners and political opponents to Siberian Concentration Camps or Gulags. It has been estimated that about 50 million people died in these Gulags. Meanwhile in China the Long March of over 10,000 Km through the most difficult terrain made the survival of the imperilled Chinese Communist Party possible and gave Mao Zedong a secure grasp on its leadership and ultimately led to the creation of the People’s Republic of China.

Liaqat Ali Khan, the Prime Minister of Pakistan cancelled his trip to Moscow at the last minute and went to Washington. Pakistan eventually became a member of SEATO and CENTO pacts. Economic activity and growth of infrastructure and wealth began in Pakistan due to influx of financial and military aid from the United States. In 1954 Public Law 480: “Better Than a Bomber” was passed by Congress that  enabled food-deficit “friendly countries” to purchase US agricultural commodities with local currency, thus saving foreign exchange reserves and relieving US grain surpluses. Wheat started pouring in Pakistan from the port of Baltimore. A facility was established in Badaber 10 miles (16 km) from Peshawar as a cover for a major communications intercept operation run by the United States. Badaber was an excellent location because of its proximity to Soviet Central Asia. Missile sites were put in place. American spy aircraft U2 carried covert missions from this airbase.

Francis Gary Powers, who was discharged from the US Air Force, joined CIAs U2 program to carry out espionage missions equipped with state-of-the-art cameras designed to take high-resolution photos of hostile countries, including the Soviet Union. He flew from Peshawar airbase on 1st May 1960 to go deep into Russia but was intercepted and caught. He was deeply interrogated by the KGB and he confessed to espionage. The revelation that he flew from Peshawar marked a black day for Pak-Russia relations and Nikita Khrushchev marked Pakistan as a hostile neighbour.

Contrary to Pakistan, India, from its very inception under Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru nurtured very strong relations with Russia. In addition to acquiring the latest military equipment, India also obtained MiG 19 and MiG 21 from the Soviets. In spite of that, India was crushed by the Chinese in Ladakh in 1962. The fate of the region swung as Russia invaded Afghanistan in 1979. The CIA with Pakistan’s support nurtured the Taliban, and the first batch of 6000 Taliban was launched into combat in Afghanistan. After a long struggle, the United States was able to oust Russia from Afghanistan and cause the Soviet Union to disintegrate.

The resilience of Russians and their strong resolve has now led them to rise again under the ex-KGB, President of Russia Vladmir Putin. Overtime GDP Annual Growth Rate in Russia averaged 2.67 percent from 1996 until 2022 which shows that slowly but surely Russians have not only continued to grow but also stabilized exports of oil and gas and increased efforts to rearm the military. With the rise in oil exports and fuel prices, Russia’s earnings increased to $337.5 billion in 2022 which is a 38% increase from 2021.

In another unfortunate turn of events, Russia has started a military campaign against Ukraine. Irony is that the Russian invasion and Pakistan’s Prime Minister’s visit coincided, and the international community viewed it negatively. NATO Alliance is once again engaging Russia in Ukraine. Aid in the form of funds and military equipment has started to pour in Ukraine. Germany will provide a company of 14 Leopard 2 A6 tanks to Ukraine and train the Ukrainian crew. Russia has been placed under strict sanctions and Russia has stopped its gas supply to Europe that is struggling to meet the requirement in winter causing gas bills to spike exponentially and causing hardship for residents across Europe including the UK.

Pakistan on the other hand is enroute to sign its first ever contract for cheap gas and oil with Russia. An 80 member Russian delegation under Energy Minister Nikolay Shulginov visited Pakistan in January to finalize the details and sign agreements. Reportedly, the supply of oil and gas from Russia to Pakistan will begin from March 2023 marking the beginning of a new era in Pak Russia relations.

The global canvas today is an epoch of “Realignment”. As Heraclitus, the Greek philosopher said “It is only change that is constant”. However, fear of change is also constant.  As the world realigns itself, the bond between Russia and China is getting stronger by the day. They are finding more reasons to trust and back each other.  The United States and China are entangled in a tug of war on multiple issues such as disputed islands of South China Sea between China, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia, Vietnam and Brunei, concerning “ownership” of the Spratly Islands, a group of islands and associated maritime features.
The presence of US Aircraft carriers near Hong Kong and Taiwan poses interference in China’s sphere of influence. The US has clarified its stance on China’s claim on Taiwan on numerous occasions. China, on the other hand, is an established economic giant that has multiplied its influence through CPEC and OBOR that are running successfully, carefully tying nations together in a rosary of joint interest and mutual benefits. China is soon to develop complete road and rail access to Gwadar through the Central Asian States. With Russia on its side and established trade and economic ties with Iran, Pakistan and Central Asian States, this realignment possesses a serious and insurmountable challenge to the United States. Pakistan with its longstanding and time-tested friendship with China and providing access to warm waters through Gwadar port has a distinctive advantage. Russia will also gain from this win-win situation. High paid jobs, tax-free environment, high-tech industries, mega shopping malls, luxury resorts and Pakistan’s largest international airport, are all included in the blueprints of Gwadar that also guarantees a prosperous future for Pakistan.
—The writer is Chairman, Jinnah Rafi Foundation, based in Lahore.