Russia warms up to Pakistan

SYED MUHAMMAD SAAD ZAIDI

IN the realm of geopolitics, there are no perpetual enemies or friends. The national interest of a state drives the nature of its relations vis-à-vis other states. Thus, the nature of relations between states changes with time; old allies may turn into enemies or vice versa. This is evident when analysing the relations between Pakistan and then Soviet Union (USSR) and now Russia. Throughout the infamous Cold War, Pakistan and the USSR were stern adversaries, as the former was a vibrant member of the United States (US)-led capitalist bloc created to contain the latter. However, after the USSR disintegrated, the Russian Federation emerged, both sides no longer perceived the other as an adversary.

The pivotal factor that induced warming up relations between the  two states was the geostrategic paradigmatic shift in the policy orientation of Russia. Instead of pursuing a geo-military approach to increase its influence in the Indian Ocean region, particularly South Asia and Pakistan,1 Russia pursued a geo-economics strategy; forging strong economic ties, which, in turn, gave it the much-needed political capital – a win for all involved parties.2 As a result, decades-old animosities between Pakistan and Russia were forgotten and both states began to strive for socio-economic cooperation.

Furthermore, the regional political paradigm shift – India prioritising the United States (US) over Russia and the US shifting its focus from Pakistan to India – contributed greatly to the accelerated Pakistan-Russia rapprochement.3 Pakistan lost its decades-old key ally, the US; thus, ameliorating its relations with Russia, a resurging great power, was the best possible alternative. While Russia lost its trusted partner in South Asia, India, mending ties with Pakistan was its way to remain influential in the most geopolitically vibrant region of the world. Hence, the relations between the two states strengthened, especially in the economic domain.

This essay sheds light on the evolution of Pakistan-Russia relations. It highlights the key events that helped warm the ties between the two states. Most importantly, it explains how geo-economics collaboration trumps military or security matters in the two states’ bilateral relations.

After Russia, the primary descendant state of the USSR was established, the geopolitical baggage of the past did not characterise its relations with Pakistan. Instead, the ties between the two states hit the reset button. Soon after, high-level officials from both states were witnessed making frequent trips to the other state to lay the groundwork for improved and amicable ties. At the United Nations General Assembly session, both heads of state, Boris Yeltsin, then president of Russia, and Benazir Bhutto, then prime minister of Pakistan, met and agreed to strengthen bilateral ties.4 Shortly after, in 1996, Russia agreed to help Pakistan launch its second satellite, ‘Badr-B’.

In April 1999, Nawaz Shareef, then prime minister of Pakistan, visited Moscow; it was the first official visit by a Pakistani premier to Russia. Pakistan made the effort to develop much-needed political capital with Russia, which later translated into Russia assisting in the culmination of the Kargil War in 1999. In 2001, Russia sold 16 MI-17 military cargo helicopters to Pakistan, highlighting deepening ties between the  two states.5 Later, in 2003, Pervez Musharraf, then Pakistani president, visited Moscow and concluded several agreements to strengthen diplomatic ties – especially in resolving visa issues. Most importantly, Musharraf was able to win over Russia’s support for Pakistan’s bid as an observer member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO).6 

In 2007, Mikhail Fradkov, then Russian prime minister, visited Pakistan – the first visit of a Russian head of state to Islamabad. Bilateral relations further consolidated, and an agreement was inked on the joint exploration of oil in Pakistan. However, 2009 proved to be a watershed moment in Pakistan-Russia relations; the Indo-US strategic partnership materialised which brought Russia and Pakistan even closer, as both states  had a void to fill – Pakistan was in dire need of cultivating a trustworthy veto ally while Russia had to maintain its influence in South Asia.7 

The relations between the two states progressed rapidly. Interactions between Asif Ali Zardari, then Pakistan’s president, and Dmitri Medvedev, then president of Russia,  significantly increased. Consequently, multiple avenues of cooperation between the two states opened up. At the 2010 Sochi summit, both leaders agreed to establish the  Russia-Pakistan Inter-Governmental Commission on Trade, Economic, Scientific and Technical Cooperation. Furthermore, in 2011, while visiting Russia, Zardari expressed to his counterpart, ‘[We] are very close neighbours, we are in the same region. Our borders don’t touch, but our hearts do.’8 

In 2011, on the sidelines of the 10th SCO Heads of Government Meeting in St Petersburg, the meeting between then prime minister of Pakistan, Syed Yusuf Raza Gilani, and Vladimir Putin, then prime minister of Russia, proved to be a game-changer in relations between the two states. After the meeting, not only did Putin openly supported Pakistan’s bid to become a full SCO member but  also proffered to assist in the expansion of the Karachi Steel Mills, provide technical assistance in the Muzaffargarh and Guddu power plants, and assist in the development of the Thar Coal Project.9 Putin also stated that ‘Pakistan is our major trade and economic partner and an important partner in South Asia and the Muslim world’,10 highlighting Pakistan’s geopolitical significance in the eyes of Russia. After the attack by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in Pakistan – the Salala incident – Russia not only publicly condemned the US’ actions but also praised Pakistan’s contribution to the war on terrorism.11 

In 2012, Putin had to cancel his visit to Pakistan, though he sent Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who concluded several agreements in metallurgy, railway and power. In nearly a decade (2000-2012), the trade volume between Pakistan-Russia grew six times, highlighting the rapid progress in the bilateral ties between the two states.12 More importantly, in 2013, the first Russia-Pakistan Strategic Dialogue was held, which paved the way for the establishment of military ties. Soon after, in 2014, the decades-old arms embargo imposed on Pakistan was finally lifted.13 In 2016, in Gilgit-Baltistan, ‘Druzhbha-2016’, a Pak-Russia joint-military exercise was conducted.14

In 2015, a landmark agreement of  US$ 2 billion  was concluded between Russia and Pakistan on the construction of a 1,100-kilometre long liquefied natural gas pipeline – the North-South Gas Pipeline – connecting Karachi, Pakistan’s major port city, with large industrial hubs located in the province of Punjab.15 Unfortunately, this project suffered from many delays due to issues ranging from US sanctions to dis-agreements over the project’s operational and financial details. However, in May 2021, an amended Inter-Governmental Agreement (IGA) was signed between the two states. It renamed the pipeline, Pakistan Stream Gas Pipeline, and changed the equity; Pakistan became the major stakeholder with a share of 74 per cent, while Russia owns 26 per cent.16 The signing of an amended IGA highlights how both states are striving to forge long-term cordial ties by exploring areas and using tools of ‘low politics’, contrary to past practices.

After more than two decades, in February 2022, Imran Khan, the recently ousted prime minister of Pakistan, was invited to visit Moscow. This visit was of great strategic significance as it clearly showcased Pakistan’s rising geopolitical status in the eyes of Russia, a clear Russian tilt towards developing cordial ties with Pakistan, and an emerging Pakistan-China-Russia triad, especially in the geostrategic context. Most importantly, even though a full-scale war erupted between Russia and Ukraine a day before the meeting between the two heads of state, the meeting went on as scheduled, highlighting the geostrategic and geopolitical significance Pakistan holds for Russia.

Since Russia’s approach changed from geo-military to geo-economics vis-à-vis Pakistan, there has been rapid rapprochement between the two states. Economic cooperation between the two countries increased manifold, evident from the massive growth in bilateral trade volume from a negligible US$ 92 million  in 2003 to over US$ 800 million in 2018.17 

While there has been tremendous geopolitical convergence between Pakistan and Russia in the last decade, there are obstacles which could impact the establishment of long-term cordial ties. These include the following: The troubling past of the two states, which, in turn, could lead to a possible trust deficit between the two states in the future; Russia does not want to provoke Pakistan’s arch-rival, India, one of its largest trading partners; Pakistan cannot afford to totally sever its long-standing ties with the US, Russia’s geostrategic competitor; Security concerns and political instability in Pakistan are of great concern to Russian companies. As a result, they are reluctant to invest in Pakistan; and the Arab world, in general, and Saudi Arabia, in particular, have never been comfortable with Russia. Pakistan would not want to harm its relations with the  Arab world. It could, therefore, remain cautious in its dealings with Russia.

Undoubtedly, contemporary geopolitical transformations have brought Pakistan and Russia closer. It is in their national interest to forge mutually beneficial relations with each other. The following are some policy recommendations that could help the two sides to strengthen their bilateral ties.

* Promote Pakistan-Russia comprehensive dialogue – high-level officials from both states should continue make frequent bilateral visits. This will help overcome mistrust and help develop positive perceptions, which, in turn, will lay the groundwork for enhanced relations.

* Geoeconomics should be the cornerstone of their bilateral relations. This will lead to greater economic interdependence and will lead to a win-win situation for both sides.

* People-to-people contacts need to be increased between the states. This will help build trust and goodwill. For this purpose, programmes such as student and cultural exchanges should be promoted by both states.

* Both states share common security concerns (for example, terrorism and extremism) especially vis-à-vis Afghanistan. Thus, both states should devise common strategies to safeguard their interests.

* A triad comprising Pakistan, Russia and China should be formed in view of the international and regional geopolitical realignments.

In conclusion, Pakistan-Russia relations have often been underrated  due to misperceived notions and a mindset based on historical legacy. Now, both states have geopolitical and geostrategic compulsions to im-prove their relations. The way forward for both countries is to enhance mutual cooperation through a multifaceted approach to maintain robust and durable relations. In many respects, geo-economics cooperation is the corner-stone of the perceived future alliance between the two sides.

Footnotes :

1. Feroze Hassan Khan, ‘Russia-Pakistan Strategic Relations: An Emerging Entente Cordiale’, Journal of Indo-Pacific Affairs 4(1), Special Issue, 15 January 2021, pp. 43-65.

2. Ibid.

3. Syed Muhammad Saad Zaidi and Adam Saud, ‘From “Geo-Strategic Rivals” to “Probable Allies”? A Constructivist Analysis of the Pakistan-Russia Relations’, Herald of the Russian Academy of Sciences 91(2), 1 March 2021, pp. 153-62. doi:10.1134/S1019331621020106.

4. Rouben Azizian and Peter Vasilieff, ‘Russia and Pakistan: The Difficult Path to Rapprochement’, Asian Affairs 30(1), 2003, pp. 36-55.

5. Muhammad Owais, ‘Pakistan-Russia Relations: Economic and Political Dimen-sions’, Pakistan Horizon 60(2), 2007, p. 130.

6. Muhammad Hanif, ‘Pakistan-Russia Relations: Progress, Prospects and Constraints’, IPRI Journal 13(2), 2013, pp. 63-86.

7. Zaidi and Saud, op. cit., p. 159.

8. ‘Meeting with President of Pakistan Asif Ali Zardari’, President of Russia, 12 May 2011, http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/11224.

9. Almas Haider Naqvi and Yasir Masood, ‘Rejuvenating Pakistan-Russia Relations: Discernable Trends and Future’, Strategic Studies 37(4), 2017, pp. 18-38.

10. ‘Prime Minister Vladimir Putin Meets with Prime Minister Syed Yousuf Raza Gilani of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan’, Official Website of the Government of the Russian Federation, 7 November 2011. http://archive.government.ru/eng/docs/16991/.

11. Khurram Abbas, ‘Russia’s Revival: Opportunities and Limitations for Pakistan’, IPRI, 4 February 2016. https://ipripak.org/russias-revival-opportunities-and-limitations-for-pakistan/.

12. Claudia Chia and Zheng Haiqi, ‘Russia-Pakistan Economic Relations: Energy Partnership and the China Factor’, ISAS Working Papers: Long-Term Studies on Trends and Issues in South Asia, 6 October 2021. https://www.isas.nus.edu.sg/papers/russia-pakistan-economic-relations-energy-partnership-and-the-china-factor/.

13. Zachary Keck, ‘Russia Ends Arms Embargo Against Pakistan’, The Diplomat, 4 June 2014. https://thediplomat.com/2014/06/russia-ends-arms-embargo-against-pakistan/.

14. ‘Joint Exercise with Russia Progressing Well: ISPR’, Dawn, 28 September 2016. http://www.dawn.com/news/1286616.

15. Abbas, ‘Russia’s Revival’, op. cit., p. 201.

16. ‘North South Gas Pipeline Project: Pakistan, Russia Sign Amended IGA’, The News, 29 May 2021. https://www.thenews.com.pk/print/841561-north-south-gas-pipeline-project-pakistan-russia-sign-amended-iga.

17. Zaidi and Saud, op. cit., p. 161.