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Understanding Pakistan-Russia Rapprochement

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Until recently, the bilateral ties between Russia and Pakistan remained hostage to historical baggage. Trust deficit (Pakistan’s almost blind pursuit of US strategic objectives and Russia’s continuing strong ties with India), regional dynamics, mutually exclusive geopolitical and geo-economic considerations, economic imperatives and strategic culture of both countries impeded normality, let alone cordiality, in their relationship. But the global politics is undergoing drastic transformation and the ensuing realignments have effected policy review in many a state. India, which was once a close ally of the USSR and later of the Russian Federation, is now being termed as the most trusted strategic partner for the West. The contours of the ongoing Sino-US cold war – encompassing trade, technology, Taiwan, North Korea and fierce competition to hold sway in international financial and political organizations – are fast maturing into clearly discernible blocs. The waves upon waves of Covid-19 have undermined the post-war era of the international liberal world order. China has become risk-acceptant and assertive and has manifested its intentions to offer alternative political and financial models to replace or, at least, amend the current world order so as to accommodate the grievances of the developing world. Afghan Taliban has ascended to power and is attempting to rebuild Afghanistan and consolidate its regime. Amidst this fluid geopolitical and geo-economic situation, both Pakistan and Russia have found enough converging grounds to build a new chapter in their ties to better protect their national interests and create enabling regional environment for peace and stability. To build further momentum, it would be imperative to learn from history so as to have mutually beneficial relations and strategic coordination at multilateral platforms.
Partition of the Indian Subcontinent happened in the backdrop of the emerging bipolar international system. By that time, both USSR and the United States had developed deep distrust and were mobilizing their resources to lure de-colonized sovereign states into their respective spheres of influence. Both Pakistan and India had to choose one superpower, and both acted out of their peculiar economic, political, geostrategic and bureaucratic circumstances. India inherited comparatively stable political, economic and security infrastructure and it preferred strategic autonomy over military alliance. On the other hand, Pakistan, which was struggling to overcome security, economic and political challenges, decided to join the Western bloc. Pakistan signed the anti-communist Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO), or Manila Pact, in 1954, and Central Treaty Organization (CENTO), or Baghdad Pact, in 1955. Throughout the 1950s, Pakistan provided the US with logistics for military and intelligence assets on its soil for reconnaissance and surveillance over USSR territories. Resultantly, USSR retaliated and voted against Pakistan in UN Security Council on all issues, particularly Kashmir.
The infamous shooting down of the US spy plane, U2, which flew from PAF Camp Badaber, near Peshawar, further elicited a strong response from USSR and it even threatened retaliation in case US espionage activities remained unrestricted. Later on, there were some improvements. Both countries inked an Agreement on Cultural and Scientific Cooperation in 1965 and USSR mediated Tashkent Agreement in 1966 to end hostilities between India and Pakistan in the wake of the War of 1965. But this brief bonhomie was dealt a deadly blow when Pakistan arranged and facilitated Henry Kissinger’s visit to China that laid the groundwork for rapprochement between the United States and China. The fracturing of socialist bloc angered USSR and it retaliated against Pakistan with the signing of the Indian-Soviet Friendship Treaty of 1971. The treaty proved costly for Islamabad and Soviet-supported India succeeded in carving out Bangladesh out of the eastern wing of Pakistan. In other words, Pakistan paid the heaviest price in the form of its dismemberment for facilitating Sino-US rapprochement.
The Fall of Dhaka proved a turning point, and Pakistan started reviewing its decades-old policy of pursuing pro-West foreign policy. Consequently, Bhutto attempted to strike some semblance of balance by managing to convince USSR to invest in Pakistan. Bhutto’s slogan of Islamic Socialism and his policies of nationalization of industries and businesses provided some ideologically common ground for building a working relationship. Bhutto visited USSR in 1972 to normalize bilateral relations. Pakistan also left SEATO in 1973 in protest against the failure of the US to protect Pakistan’s territorial integrity against foreign invasion, and withdrew from CENTO as well in 1979. In a drastic shift in foreign policy, Bhutto also decided to join Non-Alignment Movement (NAM) in 1979. These actions proved quite helpful in luring USSR to invest in Pakistan (Pakistan Steel Mills) and bridging the trust deficit. The unceremonious sacking of Bhutto and imposition of martial law by Zia-ul-Haq changed the strategic calculation. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and largely unfounded theories of ‘hot waters’, put the bilateral relations again on a collision course. The Reagan administration’s decision to avenge humiliating US defeat in Vietnam suddenly increased Pakistan’s geostrategic importance and Zia’s calculated policy of arming, training, recruiting and sheltering of Mujahideen further enhanced Pakistan’s relevance in the eyes of Western countries to exhaust USSR resources through proxy war, on the model of Vietcong. The crucial role that Pakistan played in fighting a proxy war for the US naturally angered USSR as Afghan Jihad did play a pivotal role in its disintegration. Hence, both Pakistan and Russia have played a role, albeit indirect, in the dismemberment of each other. That is historical baggage that has long plagued the bilateral ties.
In the early 1990s, Pressler Amendment banned US economic and military assistance to Pakistan and degraded Pakistan’s status from “Most-Allied Ally” to “Most-Sanctioned Ally”. So, in order to meet its requirement of modernization of military and defence equipment, Pakistan reached out to Russia for the latter had no incentive to establish ties with the former, at the expense of its decades-old strategic partner, i.e. India. Pakistan’s open support to the Afghan Taliban stood in direct opposition to Russian, Indian and Iranian backing of the Northern Alliance that further added bitterness to the bilateral relations. In the late 1900s and early 2000s, Russia also accused Pakistan of sponsoring and abetting terrorism in Chechnya and Caucasus. The ice melt in 2003 when President Musharraf visited Russia and termed the Chechen issue an internal matter of Russia. As a result, Pakistan decided to withdraw whatever political or moral support it was offering to Chechen Mujahideen at that point. Throughout the first decade of the 21st century, bilateral relations remained more or less strained and hostage to divergent geopolitical objectives.
In 2010, a marked improvement was seen. Pakistan’s relations with the US hit a rock after a series of incidents in quick succession: the assassination of Osama Bin Laden by US Navy SEALs in Abbottabad, the cold-blooded killing of two Pakistanis by CIA operative Raymond Davis, and Nato-led destruction of Salala Checkpost (a post on Afghanistan border), which caused the martyrdom of 28 Pakistani soldiers. The resultant estrangement provided some space for both Russia and China to step in, and they started cultivating strategic ties with Pakistan. In this regard, the year 2014 proved to be another turning point. That year, Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula and resultantly suffered heavily due to sanctions imposed by the West – it was even expelled from G8. Naturally, it decided to look eastward to find new security and economic partners and sought de-coupling of its economy from the European Union. Pakistan, by dint of huge market and insatiable defence needs, was the logical option. Russia lifted the decades-old arms embargo it had imposed on Pakistan, thereby helping Islamabad to acquire Russian military and defence equipment, Russian Defence Minister visited Pakistan after 45 years and both sides started joint naval exercises to improve interoperability to contain smuggling, drug trafficking, piracy and terrorism. Since 2016, Pakistani and Russian armed forces have been conducting annual joint military exercises under the banner of Friendship or Drouzba. Since 2018, the bilateral ties have expanded to include many areas in addition to military cooperation and assistance. Energy, counter-terrorism, anti-narcotics, economy, defence, cyber security, information and communication technology are fields that have attracted the attention of both countries.
Defence cooperation has become the bedrock of Pakistan-Russia ties. Since the signing of the Bilateral Defence Cooperation Agreement in 2014, both sides have made appreciable strides in strengthening the defence collaboration. Russia’s decision of lifting the arms embargo on Pakistan helped the later sign $153 million worth deal of four Mi35 attack helicopters. These military assets were delivered to Pakistan in 2018. The country’s military leadership further expressed its interest in procuring twenty more such helicopters. Later on, bilateral defence cooperation expanded to include military training, intelligence cooperation, joint exercise, defence industrial production, counter-terrorism and piracy, as well as other areas of mutual interest. Joint Military Consultative Committee is the highest forum of defence collaboration and it met for the third time in September 2021. Druzhba (Dosti, Friendship) joint military drills have become a regular feature. The 6th annual Druzhba drills concluded in October 2021.
There is no denying that Russia no longer considers South Asia the exclusive hegemonic space for India. It has now accepted the reality that Pakistan can go to any extent to thwart India’s hegemonic ambitions. The Pulwama Crisis in February 2019 further convinced Russia that Pakistan would not compromise on its decades-long strategic direction. The expanding nature of the Pakistan-China strategic partnership, and India’s tilt towards the US and the West, has also forced Russia to expand its footprints in South Asia.
However, despite these potentially promising scenarios, we should bear in mind that Pakistan-Russia defence relations have some structural impediments. One of these bottlenecks is Pakistan’s sagging economy. We don’t have enough deep pockets to afford prohibitively-expensive defence equipment like S-400. In addition, the growing bitterness between Russia and the US over the rapidly unfolding Ukraine crisis and Pakistan’s continuing dependency on IMF and other West-backed international financial institutions would mean that we have very limited strategic sovereignty.
Regional integration and development is another plank of Russia-Pakistan ties.
Both countries have engaged in bilateral and multilateral diplomacy to improve regional connectivity, streamline communication and reduce trade barriers. Trans-Afghan Railway Line project is one such initiative that underscores the growing alignment between the two countries. Initially, the project was envisioned to connect Pakistan, Uzbekistan and Afghanistan. On December 29, 2020, both Pakistan and Afghanistan signed a letter with Uzbekistan and sent it to international funding institutions to seek $4.8 billion worth of loans to execute this project. The project has been proposed to build a railway line that would connect Afghanistan’s city of Mazar-i-Sharif with Pakistan’s ports of Karachi, Bin Qasim and Gwadar via Kabul and Peshawar. Russia has also decided to join the project and is offering full diplomatic and political support to it. In a positive development, during a recently concluded two-day Conference of Multilateral Joint Working Group, Afghanistan has offered complete security to Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Russia.
The incompatibility of the gauge system has long hamstrung the regional integration. The different gauge used by different countries means that at every national border, the development of a dry port infrastructure including cranes becomes unavailable because reloading of cargo onto different trains requires transboundary movement. Therefore, the participation of Russia to remove this logistical handicap would pave the way for the speedy materialization of this project. With the completion of this project, it has been estimated that the time required for freight transport from Russia to Karachi would be reduced to 16-18 days and from Uzbekistan to Karachi, cargo trains would take 8-10 days to export goods from Central Asian Countries. These landlocked countries have to pay 3 to 2 times more transport and transit cost in comparison with countries having free access to sea lines of communication. CARs can save their precious resources by improving railway infrastructure through this project and Pakistan would also earn massive revenue by facilitating transit trade for these landlocked countries. Trans-Afghan Railway Project would certainly be a win-win situation for the whole of the region and a much-needed initiative for regional peace and development.
Cybersecurity and information are fast emerging as another pillar of bilateral ties. There is no denying that cybersecurity has become a serious headache for many countries, particularly, the emergence of the 5th generation war has alarmed many countries about the threats to physical and digital strategic efforts. Pakistan’s National Security Advisor, Moeed Yousaf, visited Moscow on December 2, 2021, and conducted in-depth and wide-ranging talks with his Russian counterpart. Apart from energy, defence cooperation, counter-terrorism, anti-narcotics, both discussed strengthening of bilateral cooperation to tackle the looming threat of cyber insecurity. The Russian news agency, TASS, later on, reported that Chief of Russian Security Council, Nikolay Patrushev, had paid special focus on cyber security and anti-narcotics. Furthermore, Russian Security Council showed satisfaction over good dynamics of bilateral relations, regular political dialogue at the summit and ministerial level, and their collaboration at various international organizations including UN and SCO. Cybersecurity has gained significant traction among policymakers and there is international consensus that national security remains vulnerable unless some impregnable defence mechanism is not adopted to cope with the fluid nature of cyber threats. Dr Moeed Yousaf has certainly done an exemplary job by expanding the gamut of bilateral ties and his latest visit has been termed a major leap forward in strengthening the relations in cybersecurity and information domains. Though both sides have not shared detailed information in this regard, the exchange of expertise and regular interaction at expert levels would go a long way in improving Pakistan’s safeguards against the perils of cyber insecurity. Russia ranks at 5th position in Global National Security Index and Pakistan can gain massively by learning from Russian experience.
The North-South Gas Pipeline project that was renamed Pakistan Stream Gas project has become a symbol that heralds deepening bilateral ties between Islamabad and Moscow. Initially, this project was inked in 2015 but it hit a snag due to West-imposed sanctions on Rostec, a Russian state-controlled company that is a shareholder of this strategic project. To overcome this hurdle, Russia gave Pakistan a majority stake (74%) in a shareholding agreement in July 2021 and now this project is set to complete by 2023. The $3 billion worth project of Pakistan Stream Gas Pipeline would help Islamabad secure 16 billion cubic feet delivery of natural gas from LNG terminals at Karachi and Gwadar to Lahore. After the development of the Oil and Gas Development Company and Pakistan Steel Mills in the 1960s and 1970s, the PSGP project is the biggest Russian investment in Pakistan. Russia-Pakistan economic cooperation is not limited to the construction of a gas pipeline. Both sides are exploring different vistas of business opportunities. There are reports that Russia has shown keen interest in building LNG-based floating power plants, provision of gas to Pakistan, resumption of direct flights via Dubai, developing of modern locomotive for Pakistan railways and, most importantly, Russia has shown its willingness to import Pakistani food and agriculture products. The Custom Duty Regime has been signed and after meeting sanitary and phytosanitary requirements, Pakistani exporters would be able to export potato and other commodities to the lucrative Russian markets. That bodes well for Pakistan and helps resolve the oft-repeated phenomenon of the glutted market.
Pakistan’s decision to skip US Democracy Summit despite an invitation from President Biden indicates a rapidly-enlarging gulf between Islamabad and Washington. This drastic decision, which is set to have serious financial and diplomatic repercussions, points to the fact that Pakistan is willing to accept risks to protect its strategic autonomy. Both Russia and China had vehemently opposed the Summit and termed it a manifestation of a cold-war mentality. Afghanistan is also proving a converging point for Russia and Pakistan and coupled with the decision to withdraw from Democracy Summit, one can hope that entente among Pakistan, Russia and China would further strengthen in coming years.

The writer is a graduate of the University of Agriculture, Faisalabad. He writes on national and international affairs.

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