Pakistan has offered Russia a ‘multidimensional strategic partnership’ on the eve of 70th anniversary of diplomatic relations. Pakistan’s foreign office said on May 01: “We believe that long term multidimensional strategic partnership between the two countries will be mutually beneficial for the people of Pakistan and the Russian Federation and would contribute towards regional peace and stability”. So far, President Putin has twice put off his visit to Pakistan, citing lack of preparation to make such visits meaningful.
Since then, a lot of mileage has been covered by two sides. Thanks to arrogant American behaviour, soon after aligning with the US after 9/11Pakistan realised that the US would abandon it at first available opportunity. Hence, Pakistan has been making a concerted effort, at least since 2005, to diversify its untenable one-way critical dependence on the US. It planned for a slow and steady transitions rather than a sharp cut off from the US and proverbially an instant embrace of the ‘Bear’.
Even though numerous recent developments have seen Pakistan-Russia relations explore new avenues, the US still continues to have abiding influence amongst the Pakistani State and Society. Pakistan’s military leadership and policy level bureaucracy feel that it is not tenable to cut off from the US. Budgetary support from the US, accounting around 20 percent and access to hi-tech military equipment have been the main incentive for remaining engaged with America. Over the recent years, American civil and military aid has dropped significantly, making it easier for Pakistan to extend its offer to Russia.
However, one should not expect that the US would easily cede space for Russia, for Pakistan there will be a price for each step towards Russia, in the form of direct and oblique pressures. Likewise, it is difficult for Russia to untangle from India any time soon, despite India’s fast-moving alignment with the US.
Notwithstanding, relations between Pakistan and Russia have already seen an unprecedented improvement in recent years. Fast-changing regional scenario have compelled both the countries to align themselves to protect their mutual interests. Pakistan has now expressed its desire to take the relationship to the next level. The move is seen as significant and a clear shift in Pakistan’s approach. The shift is essentially necessitated by America’s hard-line approach towards Pakistan.
Over the years, as American influence has been diminishing, Russia has moved closer to Pakistan offering energy deals, military partnership, infrastructure development etc. Relationship is fast evolving into a mature partnership. Relations between the two countries are now characterised by considerable roll back of mistrust, commonality of interests, and convergence of views on important regional and global issues. Both countries have similar stakes in durable peace and stability in their common neighbourhood, and harbour shared aspirations for regional development and prosperity. An up trajectory is being maintained through sustained high-level interactions through strong institutional mechanisms and cementing cooperation in such diverse fields as trade and commerce, banking and finance, agriculture and industry, defence and security, education and technology, and energy and infrastructure development etc.
The two countries have also collaborated closely at international forums including the UN. Russia has been a strong supporter of Pakistan’s membership of Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), at a time when even China was reluctant to expand the SCO. Now this platform provides another meaningful podium for close regional cooperation on matters of common interest.
Now, Pakistan views Russia as an important global power, a significant development partner, and a salient contributor to regional stability. Pakistan, Russia and China appear to have developed consensus on some of the regional issues including Afghanistan. Three countries want a negotiated settlement of the lingering conflict in Afghanistan. As American influence over Pakistan is now in for a perpetual nose dive, Russia is building military, diplomatic and economic ties that could upend historic alliances in the region and open up a fast-growing gas market for Russian energy companies.
Both Russia and Pakistan are also alarmed by the presence of IS in Afghanistan, which has a potential to expand its operations into adjoining Central Asia and South Asia. The two countries have announced plans to establish a commission on military cooperation to combat the Daesh threat in the region. Both have common ground on most issues at diplomatic levels, relationship is likely to grow substantially. There is an agreement to continue annual military training exercises that began in 2016 and followed the sale of four Russian attack helicopters to Pakistan, as well as the purchase of Russian engines for the JF-17 fighter jets. This development has been watched with unease by India.
During the last two decades, the close Russia-India relationship has been unhinged by huge arms sales by the US to Indian. “If the Russians start backing the Pakistanis in a big way at the political level, then it creates a problem for us,” said Sushant Sareen, of Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation. India’s foreign ministry is of the view that its own relations with Moscow have stood the test of time, and that the two nations are building up defence and energy relations, including collaboration on nuclear reactors in India.
Pakistan values enhanced ties with Russia in balancing the US influence. However, for now, Moscow-Islamabad rapprochement is, at best, in its infancy. So far it is China doing heavy lifting to fill the growing void left by the US. Some mega level energy deals and meaningful military cooperation could stimulate life into the Russia-Pakistan relationship. Opportunities for cooperation between the two countries are plenty and diverse. It will be a historic milestone in relations between the two countries if Russian President Vladimir Putin also visits Islamabad, which is long overdue.
—The writer is a freelance columnist based in Islamabad.