Written By: Aroosha Farzeen Durrani
Russia and Pakistan have rarely enjoyed cordial relations in the past. However, in the recent years, the two countries have undertaken some important initiatives to normalize their relations that encompass economic, political as well as military dimensions. The article analyses this developing thaw in Russia-Pakistan relations and assesses its future trajectory in the context of what can be arguably termed as an evolving post-9/11 regional scenario.
Russia-Pakistan bilateral relations have witnessed some important transformations in the recent past. The two countries are now regularly talking to each other on almost all aspects of inter-state relations including military-to-military contacts. Far from the rhetoric of the past, President Putin has even remarked that his government views Pakistan as a reliable and very important partner. What factors are contributing to this unprecedented change in this relationship, and what opportunities and constraints shape this process? This article focuses on these questions and aims at presenting an analysis of evolving warmth in Russia-Pakistan bilateral relationship.
Russia-Pakistan relations are heavily influenced by their Cold War past. Soon after independence, the bipolar global politics forced Pakistan to choose either the United States (US) or the Soviet Union (Russia’s predecessor) as its ally as it faced an existential security threat from the neighboring country India. As Pakistan chose, Washington as its preferred partner, its relations with Moscow naturally ‘got off to a cool start.’
With the passage of time, Pakistan increasingly got sucked into the US-led anti-communist alliances namely Central Treaty Organization (CENTO) and South East Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO), and any overtures by its leadership towards Moscow in the subsequent years, aimed at seeking a normal relationship, remained mostly fruitless. This divide was further widened, when New Delhi developed a closer relationship with the Soviet Union soon after its independence.
The Indo-Soviet relationship flourished in the subsequent years, encompassing the economic as well as political dimensions, and soon New Delhi attained a sort of veto power over Russia’s independent maneuverings in the region. India emerged as the major buyer of the Soviet arms. For the first time in February 1957, Russia used its veto power in the UN Security Council (UNSC) in favor of India to bar a resolution on Kashmir, putting a permanent blockade on any progress on the Kashmir dispute in the UNSC and, hence, any chances of friendly Soviet-Pakistan relations.
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China emerged as another factor in the Russia-Pakistan divergence during the Cold War. This occurred in the context of development of Sino-Pakistan entente in the wake of deteriorating Sino-Indian and Sino Soviet relations during the 1960s. In the wake of the Indo-Pakistan rift,Beijing naturally viewed Pakistan as a valuable partner, when China’s increasingly troublesome relations with New Delhi became noisy, during the 1960s, as demonstrated by their border clash in 1962. On the other hand, Pakistan viewed China as an important counterweight to India and the situation resulted in a new regional balance, where an Indo-Soviet alliance was facing a Sino-Pakistani entente.
Russia-Pakistan differences over Afghanistan emerged as another factor in their bilateral divergence since the final major episode of the Cold War unfolded with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. Pakistan’s decision to support the Afghan resistance against Soviet occupation while becoming the conduit for the transfer of Chinese and American weapons to various Mujahideen groups naturally enraged the Soviet leadership. It, thus, added another chapter of distrust in their bilateral relationship.
The growing thaw in the Russia-Pakistan relationship is a function of many factors that are embedded in the evolving geopolitical and geo-economic transformations in the region. These factors can be summarized as follows: Afghanistan Moscow has been facing a strange dilemma in Afghanistan since 9/11. While it welcomed the removal of the Taliban regime in Kabul, in the wake of the US invasion of Afghanistan after 9/11, it has also been uneasy about the long-term implications of the continued presence of the US forces in the country.
Moscow thinks that the geographical location of Afghanistan is highly suitable for setting up military bases that can “exert pressure on a vast region, including Central Asia, the Caspian littoral states and the Persian Gulf, which is rich in oil and gas and otherresources.” Russia has been uneasy about the US presence in Afghanistan, which it thinks has the potential of undermining Russia’s position in the region and beyond.
This Russian dilemma has recently gained a new twist in the wake of contradictory signals emanating from Washington, regarding future trajectory of the US mission in Afghanistan with a complete pull-out being offered as one option, and the possibility of development of permanent US military bases in the country as another. Consequently, Moscow has been concerned about the stability of Afghanistan if Washington opts for a complete withdrawal of its forces from the country, where the Afghan National Army (ANA) will face daunting challenges in controlling the widespread Taliban insurgency while, on the other hand, it has been deeply uneasy about the possibility of a permanent establishment of western military bases in Afghanistan.
Russia’s strategic culture oscillates between a Western/European identity on the one extreme and a unique Eurasian self, encompassing both European and Asian traits on the other. According to its western self-image, Russia is a normal European power and an equal member of the Western community of nations. On the other hand, the Eurasians stream in Russian self-identification ‘underlines Russia’s closeness to Asia’ and states that “Russia is neither the West nor the East” and is rather ‘special.’ The cumulative effect of these contending trends has been an ‘existential ambivalence’ in Russia’s foreign relations producing competing pulls in the Russian foreign policy debates.
Consequently, Russia has paid more attention to the broader Asian region in the recent years. Russia has further solidified its partnership with China toward off growing western pressure and has sought close relations with other Asian countries. Russia has even actively involved itself in the political dynamics of the Middle East in the recent years as demonstrated by its role in the Syrian civil war occurring as a dire consequence of the ‘Arab Spring.’ Moscow’s more attention towardsPakistan, in the recent years, thus, can also be viewed in the context of this general trend of the Russian foreign policy towards the larger Middle Eastern region.
India, however, continues to be a factor in Russia’s calculations regarding Pakistan and the Russia-Pakistan relationship. Russia-India defense trade continues to thrive. Though India has diversified its arms imports in the post-Cold War era after the development of its strategic partnership with the US, it continues to remain a major buyer of the Russian weaponry. For example, New Delhi has inked large defense deals with Russia amounting to some US$6 billion in 2016, during Putin’s visit to India. This includes the supply of S-400 long-range air defense missiles, naval frigates, leasing of Russia’s nuclear submarine and a joint venture for production of Ka-226T helicopters. Besides, Russia also has lucrative deals with India in the nuclear energy sector and is installing nuclear power plants in India.
Despite that there is no doubt Pakistan has developed a niche in Russia’s strategic outlook towards the larger Asian region with a sustainable upward trend in the bilateral relationship. The recent RussiaPakistan beginning has its limits in the short run due to India factor and will depend on New Delhi’s ability to foot the bill of Russian ‘obedience’ in the form of major defense purchases.
However, there can be great opportunities if there occurs an increased convergence between Moscow and Islamabad on the evolving situation in Afghanistan. More importantly, if a successful economic integration can be achieved in the region where Pakistan’s coastal areas are able to become an outlet for the oil and gas resources of Russia and the Central Asian nations. In such a scenario, Pakistan may be able to realize a newer version of ‘triangular tightrope,’ a policy it tried to follow unsuccessfully during the 1960s in an effort to cultivate equally good relations with the US, Russia and China.