The year 2016 proved a watershed for Pakistan in terms of foreign policy and external relations. It was in the second half of this year that the newfound bonhomie between Pakistan and its Cold War adversary, Russia, started becoming more and more spirited and lively. In September, troops from both countries held their first-ever joint military exercises— the Friendship 2016—in Cherat region of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. And, on December 14, perhaps the most significant manifestation of improvement in bilateral ties was witnessed in the form of the first-ever consultation between Pakistan and Russia. In this bilateral meeting in Islamabad, a wide range of regional issues and key areas of mutual interest including economic cooperation and connectivity were discussed. This growing relationship continues to give sleepless nights to Indian policymakers.
The bid to improve Pakistan-Russia relations is a move that could prove to be a game-changer not only for Pakistan but for the whole South Asian region as well. Russia’s inclination toward Pakistan increased when it observed Pakistan’s successes in the war on terror. Moreover, Russia already knows Pakistan’s strategic significance in this part of the world in the context that Pakistan could play a central role not only to achieve peace in Afghanistan, but also to checkmate the spillover of terrorism from Afghanistan to the Central Asian Republics (CARs) and Russia. In addition, given the dynamic strategic parameters in South Asia and a policy transition that might overcome the long drawn US-Russia Cold War rivalry that had also disconnected Russia from Pakistan, Moscow is now busy resetting the balance of power in South Asia.
What induces this new attitude? Does the move lead to derail the Russian proximity with India?
A closer look at the Russian experiment with Pakistan would provide an insight into the fact that this step is purely a product of Moscow’s emerging strategic calculus. Moscow’s move could also be read as a sign of proscribing the growing rapprochement between Washington and New Delhi. Through this move, Kremlin seems to be signalling to India to reconsider its increasing camaraderie with the US and to re-tilt relations in Russia’s favour.
Moscow’s refusal to call off its first-ever bilateral military exercise with Pakistan on India’s request, following the terrorist attack on the military base in Uri in September 2016, revealed the change in Moscow’s psyche.
In another instance of this change, at the Sixth Heart of Asia Conference held in Amritsar, India, on 3 and 4 December 2016, the Russian Envoy disapproved of branding Pakistan as a “terrorism-sponsoring state.” Similarly at the October 2016 BRICS Summit in Goa, India, Russian President Vladimir Putin made no mention of Pakistan’s sponsorship of terrorism which India had specifically emphasised upon at the meeting. In addition, both Russia and Pakistan along with China consulted on Afghan issue especially the rise of ISIS in South Asia on 27th December in Moscow.
However, Moscow’s policy is also indicative of the vitality it associates to Islamabad’s cooperation in the efforts to stabilise Afghanistan. Kabul’s stability is an add-on to peace in Central Asia.
Russia’s hunt for sprawling markets in the region to sell Russian-manufactured goods is threatened by the political instability and the dangerous security situation in Afghanistan. While Pakistan will play an indispensable role in the Afghan peace process, Russia can also take Pakistan’s help to leverage its commercial linkages in the region in the long run.