New Strides in Pak-Russia Relations
A Primer on Russian Foreign Minister’s Visit to Pakistan
Relations between Pakistan and Russia have undergone transformation in recent years, thanks to the new alignments and strategic realities. The rapprochement between the former Cold War rivals began in 2011 when Pakistan’s relationship with the US hit the rock bottom. At that time, a decision was taken to bring a strategic shift in Pakistan’s foreign policy. The shift envisaged reaching out to Russia as part of Pakistan’s efforts to diversify its foreign policy options.
The two countries initially worked quietly to find common ground. The years-long efforts had resulted in the Russian decision to send its troops to Pakistan for the first time in history for joint exercises, in 2016. Moscow even overruled the Indian objections over holding joint drills with Pakistan. Since then, the two countries have been regularly holding these exercises under the name Druzhba (Friendship), and they are looking to further deepen that cooperation.
Pakistan is hoping that Russian President Vladimir Putin would visit the country, something that would complete the Pak-Russia ties from being Cold War foes to today’s friends.
A look at the visit
During the talks at the foreign office, both the foreign ministers reviewed the entire gamut of the bilateral relationship, besides having an in-depth discussion on situation in the war-torn Afghanistan. While speaking at a joint press conference, FM Lavrov said Russia was committed to promoting bilateral cooperation with Pakistan in diverse fields including economy, trade and defence. He expressed satisfaction over the 46 percent increase in bilateral trade but noted that there was a potential to increase and diversify it.
Terming the relationship between the two countries mutually beneficial and constructive, the Russian foreign minister said: “We have provided 50,000 doses of anti-Covid vaccine to Pakistan and intend to provide 150,000 more.”
While addressing the presser, Foreign Minister Qureshi said Pakistan was keen to build a strong, multifaceted relationship with Russia. “There is a new approach and mindset in Pakistan for a relationship with Russia. We feel that not just we have geographic proximity but Russia is a factor of stability in the region and the world at large,” he said, adding that Pakistan wanted to build a relationship of trust with Russia.
Lavrov’s visit came at a time when May 1 deadline for the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan loomed large. Agreed in a peace agreement signed between Washington and the Taliban in Doha last year, the withdrawal has been postponed till September this year. Russia held a one-day meeting of the “extended troika” on March 18, hosting members of the Taliban and the Afghan government, as well as Pakistani, Chinese and US representatives, in an effort to spur the peace process. “A common concern is the situation in Afghanistan,” Russia’s foreign ministry said in a statement during his visit to Pakistan, adding that “We look forward to an early finding of a constructive solution in order to end the civil war in the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan through agreements on the formation of an inclusive government with the participation of the Taliban movement.”
Lavrov met Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan and the country’s army chief for talks on the troubled peace process in Afghanistan, where both countries have long histories of involvement. PM Khan highlighted the importance of a negotiated political settlement to the war in Afghanistan during the meeting.
Lavrov met Pakistan’s army chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, at army headquarters in Rawalpindi. According to a statement from ISPR, “During the meeting, matters of mutual interest including enhanced defence and security cooperation, regional security, particularly Afghan peace process were discussed.” It added: “We have no hostile designs toward any country and will keep on working toward a cooperative regional framework based on sovereign equality and mutual progress,” the Pakistani army chief asserted.
The future of the Afghan peace dialogue holds profound leverage for peace in this region. What has further consolidated the relationship is interestingly the convergence on the way forward in Afghanistan. Russia is back in the new great game and is fully convinced of Pakistan’s indispensability in any settlement of the Afghan problem. Russia, Pakistan, China and Iran are on the same page regarding peaceful and responsible exit of the NATO troops. It is no surprise that Afghanistan dominated the discussions of Russia-Pakistan talks in Islamabad.
During Lavrov’s visit, the two countries also discussed military cooperation, with Russia offering new hardware to the Pakistani military. “We have confirmed that we stand ready to strengthen the anti-terrorist potential of Pakistan, including by supplying Pakistan with special military equipment,” said Lavrov. During his meeting with the COAS Gen Bajwa, according to ISPR, “ … matters of mutual interest including enhanced defence and security cooperation, regional security, particularly Afghan peace process were discussed. The visiting dignitary acknowledged Pakistan’s achievements in war against terrorism and contributions for regional peace and stability especially Pakistan’s sincere efforts in the Afghan peace process. He expressed that Pak-Russia relations are on a positive trajectory and will continue to develop in multiple domains. The COAS said that Pakistan values its relations with Russia and reciprocates the desire for enhanced bilateral military cooperation. Pakistan welcomes all initiatives which can bring peace and stability in Afghanistan as the whole region will benefit from it,” the COAS emphasized.
Lavrov and his Pakistani counterpart, Shah Mehmood Qureshi, announced that construction by Russia of a 1,100-kilometre gas pipeline will begin soon in Pakistan. The pipeline, linking the southern port city of Karachi to the eastern city of Lahore, will cost an estimated $2 billion and is expected to transport up to 12.4 billion cubic metres of gas annually. “We are making necessary efforts to start the construction of the North-South gas pipeline — the flagship project in the energy sector,” the Russian foreign minister said, and added that “We hope that all remaining technical issues will be agreed upon in the very near future.”
The project will open a fast-growing gas market for Russian energy companies.
The steady growth in bilateral ties saw trade between Russia and Pakistan last year hitting an all-time high of $790 million, an increase of 46 percent, mainly due to large supplies of Russian wheat to help Islamabad bridge its domestic shortfalls.
Pakistan intends to buy about 5 million doses of the Russian-developed Sputnik V Covid-19 vaccine to boost Pakistan’s efforts with its recently launched program to inoculate its population against the pandemic. Lavrov said Russia also will look into a request put forward by Pakistan to help the country ultimately manufacture the vaccine.
Offering a Blank Cheque?
Some sources in the PM office have claimed that Sergey Lavrov delivered an “important” message from President Vladimir Putin to the Pakistani leadership. “I came with a message from my president that tell Pakistan we are open for any cooperation, whatever Pakistan needs, Russia is ready for it,” Lavrov was quoted as saying. He added: “If you’re interested in gas pipelines, corridors, defence or any other cooperation, Russia stands ready for it.” At the joint news conference with his Pakistani counterpart, the Russian foreign minister had said Moscow was ready to supply Pakistan with “special military equipment” to enhance its anti-terrorists potential. He, however, did not provide further details.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov struck the right tone during his visit to Pakistan. In a press conference along with his Pakistani counterpart, Mr Lavrov said Russia was ready to promote bilateral cooperation with Pakistan in diverse fields including economy, trade and defence. The importance of his visit can be gauged from the fact that it is after nearly a decade that the top diplomat of Russia has made a trip to Pakistan. In the last 15 years or so, both countries have made a concerted effort to improve ties and establish solid grounds for building a stronger and mutually beneficial relationship for the years ahead. The present times accord a good opportunity to undertake such an endeavour. Pakistan’s foreign policy is aligned with regional realities. In a strategically vital neighbourhood, Pakistan is well placed to leverage its ties with key countries in order to effectively pursue its national interests. Pakistan is doing well to avoid the label of being in any one camp and it is important that it is recognised as a regional player that is on good terms with major powers such as China, the US and Russia. While Russia retains a global reach in its policy, it is one of the most influential countries in our region and FM Qureshi was right when he said that Russia is a factor of stability in the region. This makes Pakistan’s ties with Russia crucial from all aspects.
Pakistan has genuine policy interests in Afghanistan, India, Iran and the Middle East. Russia wields significant influence in all these spheres. Pakistan has been gradually investing in this relationship in recent years and the Russian foreign minister’s productive visit appears to be one of the dividends of this diplomatic investment. However, the real challenge for Islamabad is to translate this improved relationship into tangible projects. The key project that requires Pakistan’s highest priority is the North-South gas pipeline from Karachi to Lahore. Prime Minister Imran Khan also highlighted the importance of this joint Pakistan-Russia project in his meeting with Mr Lavrov. In addition, Russia has also shown an interest in the Steel Mill which, in fact, had been initially set up by the USSR. Pakistan can benefit from this renewed interest from Moscow.
Mr Lavrov also assured his counterpart that Russia would be sending more Sputnik vaccine to Pakistan and this is a welcome gesture as vaccines are not easy to come by in the international market. Similarly, defence cooperation is a key area. It was announced that Russia would provide more counter-terrorism equipment to Pakistan which is perhaps an acknowledgement of Pakistan’s success in this area. Five rounds of Pakistan-Russia military exercises have already taken place. Pakistan-Russia ties are on an upward trajectory and it is important that Islamabad put greater effort into strengthening them even further.
The writer is an advocate high court.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov visited India and Pakistan in early April, underscoring Moscow’s growing clout in South Asia. Russia’s recent influence in the region includes its mediation of border talks between India and China and its increasing role in Afghan peace process with major Pakistani involvement.
Lavrov’s first stop was New Delhi. Russia and India forged a strong friendship during the Cold War, but it has lost momentum in the last decade as each side has strengthened ties with the other’s rival: India with the United States, and Russia with China. In recent years, the partnership has seemed to be driven more by nostalgia than by substance. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said in 2014 that “if asked to say who India’s best friend is, [a child in India] will reply it is Russia because Russia has been with India in times of crisis.”
Strikingly, Lavrov didn’t meet with Modi during his trip. Indian media reports suggest the Indian government was unhappy that Lavrov’s trip to India was combined with one to Pakistan. Another theory goes that Washington urged New Delhi not to have Modi meet Lavrov. US climate envoy John Kerry also held a brief meeting with Lavrov while both officials were in India. The official explanation was that they met by happenstance and spoke about climate change. But they may well have spoken on other issues, including the Iran nuclear deal.
Russia and India still cooperate on multiple levels. According to Indian External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar, he and Lavrov discussed existing nuclear, space, and defence sector partnership and pledged to expand security collaborations. Meanwhile, India’s planned purchase of the S-400 missile defense system from Russia runs the risk of triggering US sanctions. Lavrov sidestepped questions about the deal during his visit.
New Delhi’s willingness to make a major arms acquisition from a US rival, despite its growing defence partnership with Washington, underscores its continued reliance on Russian military support—and Moscow’s continued influence over New Delhi. As Emily Tamkin wrote for Foreign Policy last year, India also has strong incentives to maintain ties with a partner like Russia, which it regards as reliable and low maintenance.
Lavrov’s India visit covered two topics that illustrate Moscow’s growing regional clout: China-India border talks and the Afghan peace process. Russia, one of the few world powers to enjoy cordial ties with both India and China, quietly facilitated bilateral negotiations between the two countries after a deadly border clash last June. Beijing was a key agenda point during Lavrov’s meetings in New Delhi. In an interview with the Hindustan Times, he said that Russia was “closely watching the process of normalization” along the border.
Meanwhile, three decades after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, Moscow has become a key player in its peace process. Russia has hosted multiple meetings on Afghan reconciliation in the last two years, including one in March with Taliban leaders and representatives from Kabul, Beijing, Islamabad and Washington—but not New Delhi. On this trip, Lavrov—accompanied to New Delhi by the Russian special envoy for Afghanistan—did call for a prominent Indian role in the peace process.
Lavrov’s second stop was Islamabad, the first visit there by a Russian foreign minister in nine years. In private conversations, Russian analysts have played down the idea of a deepening Russia-Pakistan relationship. But Lavrov’s visit, coupled with growing counterterrorism cooperation, emerging energy collaborations, and convergent views on Afghanistan, tells a different story. His meetings resulted in pledges to increase military cooperation.
Afghanistan topped the agenda for Lavrov in Islamabad, which unlike New Delhi is heavily involved in the peace process due to its close ties to the Taliban. (And Russia, unlike India, does not oppose Pakistan’s ideal endgame: a future government with a role for the Taliban.) In Islamabad, Lavrov articulated shared interests in identifying conditions that reduce conflict, including the “establishment of inclusive power structures.” This was likely a reference to an unelected interim government to oversee the peace process, an idea rejected by Kabul and opposed by New Delhi.
Energy was another important topic. This summer, a Russian consortium will begin construction on a 680-mile natural gas pipeline north from Port Qasim in southern Pakistan to the eastern city of Lahore. Russian support for Pakistan’s energy sector, which includes new plans to invest $14 billion in gas infrastructure, will enhance its influence in the country, which seeks to diversify its energy partners.
Lavrov’s trip shows that Moscow’s footprint in South Asia is poised to deepen. The impending departure of US forces from Afghanistan, coupled with Russia’s warm ties with the region’s largest nations and China, puts Moscow in a strong position to shape the region’s geopolitics. This influence won’t please the United States, but it likely won’t be resisted in South Asia.