Pakistan Reader# 171, 21 April 2021
The recent visit of the Russian Foreign Minister to Pakistan highlights the two countries efforts to building a strategic relationship for defence and geopolitical reasons.Abigail Miriam Fernandez
On 7 April, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov arrived in Islamabad for a two-day visit – the first by a Russian foreign minister in nine years. He was received by FM Shah Mahmood Qureshi and was also scheduled to meet the political and military leadership. During his visit, he held a wide range of talks with his Pakistani counterpart, with the issue of Afghanistan high on the agenda.
FM Lavrov stated that Russia was ready to supply "special military equipment" to strengthen Pakistan's counterterrorism abilities. The former Cold-War rivals agreed to conduct joint drills both on the mountains and at sea. Later while speaking at a joint press conference, FM Shah Mahmood Qureshi said, "This is in the interest of all states of the region," he said, adding that both sides also agreed on joint military exercises and drills. (Iftikhar A. Khan, "Pakistan, Russia agree to boost defence ties," Dawn, 8 April 2021) Further, he said, "Building multi-dimensional relations with Russia is a key priority for Pakistan, and we believe a strong relationship contributes to regional stability and global security." Further, FM Lavrov thanked FM Qureshi for the warm welcome and reiterated his commitment to enhancing bilateral cooperation in areas of mutual interest, including the promotion of bilateral economic, trade and defence cooperation. (Naveed Siddiqui, "FM Qureshi holds delegation-level talks with Russian counterpart at Foreign Office," Dawn, 7 April 2021)
Beginning of 'a new era' with Russia
FM Qureshi termed the meeting as the beginning of 'a new era' with Russia; he said: "This visit that has taken place a decade later is significant. We hope that Russia will play a role in bringing peace to the region." The next meeting of Pakistan-Russia cooperation is set to be held in Moscow, after both sides agreed to hold the next meeting of the intergovernmental commission at the earliest for the promotion of economic relations. ("Pakistan-Russia talks mark the beginning of 'a new era': Qureshi," The Express Tribune, 7 April 2021)
FM Qureshi also said, "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." Further, he termed the visit as important, stating that it was the visit was taking place after almost a decade, adding that this would further deepen bilateral relationship and friendship and the two countries intended to maintain high-level contacts and momentum.
During FM Lavrov's meeting with PM Imran Khan, the two discussed Pakistan-Russia bilateral relations and issues of regional and global importance. Further, PM Khan reiterated the importance Pakistan attaches to its relations with Russia as a key foreign policy priority. Further, he also reaffirmed Pakistan's resolve to expeditiously conclude the requisite legal process for the "Pakistan Stream" (North-South) Gas Pipeline project and commence the work soon. Further, he also appreciated Russia's efforts in promoting the Afghan peace process, including through the hosting of the recent meeting in Moscow. (Kamran Yousaf, "Russia ready to supply 'special military equipment'," The Express Tribune, 8 April 2021) ("Pakistan to receive Russian weapons," The News International, 8 April 2021)
In the background:
Five reasons for Pakistan's bear hug
First, the evolution of Pak-Russia relations. The recent warming of ties between Pakistan and Russia must be understood in the context of the historical baggage in the relation that the two countries share. Beginning with the Cold War period, three distinct periods wherein Pakistan's proactive role in pursuance of US strategic objectives can be seen as the basis for distrust between the Soviet Union and Pakistan. First, in the 1960s, Islamabad provided the United States with air bases and intelligence assets on Pakistani soil that facilitated reconnaissance on and monitoring of the Soviet Union in the pre-satellite era. Second, in the 1970s, Pakistan facilitated President Richard Nixon's geopolitical summit that brought rapprochement between China, and the United States angered the Soviets. Third, in the 1980s, Pakistan and the US were united against Russia as the Soviet Union sent 150,000 soldiers into Afghanistan to set up its communist ally Kabul. At the time, Pakistan, with US backing, used Peshawar as a staging arena to arm and deploy Islamic insurgents, referred to as mujahedeen, to wage war on Russia. After ten years, Russia failed to win the war and, on 15 February 1989, left Afghanistan in a negotiated exit. ("Analysis: Why is Russia warming up to Pakistan?," Dawn, 27 January 2018)
Later in the mid-1990s, Russia and Pakistan attempted to reset their relations with little success. Subsequently as its relations with the United States were gradually eroding, Pakistan began to see the emergence of the China-led Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) as an opportunity for closer relations with Russia and China through a common platform. Then moves into the 2010s, relations between Pakista006E and Russia improved markedly with numerous high-level visits, arms sales, and increased cooperation. Apart from this, Russia and Pakistan began a series of joint military exercises, such as the Arabian Monsoon naval drills as well. Thus, over the years, Pakistan and Russia have moved a long way in warming up to each other as well as reduced their trust deficit significantly.
Second, the mutually interested alliance, the multifaceted expansion in the relations. The warming of relations between Pakistan and Russia involves both sides interest in each other. For Pakistan, the interest ranges from defence to economic cooperation. Pakistan wants to build a better relationship with Russia to leverage its position with the United States. Pakistan also has an eye for Russian military equipment supply and technology assistance that is better than China. Pakistan wants to gain from the many commercial incentives from Russia, for example, Karachi to Lahore Pipeline and Russia is also interested in the renovation of Pakistan Steel Mill. According to some reports, Russia may join the CASA-1000 energy project providing electricity to Afghanistan and Pakistan. Pakistan seeks commercial gains from improved relations with Russia. The Lahore Karachi pipeline, for one, will resolve some of its energy problems. It will also help it develop its infrastructure. There are reports that Russia will help modernize Pakistan Steel Mills. Other reports indicate that Russia may also join Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan in the CASA-1000 energy project, providing Afghanistan and Pakistan with electricity. Russia's natural resources and technology are an added incentive for Pakistan in its industrialization goals.
Conversely, Russia interest in Pakistan stems from its strategic location and venture to find new markets. Russia motivation for engaging with Pakistan is primarily due to its strategic location, being very next to Afghanistan and Central Asian states; the two share the same geopolitical space. Further, Russia hopes to create strategic space for itself in the region; thus, by improving ties with Pakistan, it is trying to fit its pivot to Asia and become an influential player in the Indo-Pacific region. Additionally, Russia is also of the view that building better relations with Pakistan will partially counter any alignment between India and the US. Lastly, Russia is also hunting for new defence and energy markets, and Pakistan fit this need perfectly. (Muhammad Akram Zaheer, "Pakistan and Russia are Shaping New Era of Strategic Relationship," Modern Diplomacy, 7 April 2021)
Third, the Afghanistan factor, a point of convergence. As seen in the recent visit, Afghanistan was at the top of the discussion between the two countries. Undoubtedly, the foundation of Pak-Russian convergence lies in mutual thinking regarding Afghanistan. This began at the end of 2008 after Washington realized that Islamabad was unlikely to act in full compliance with the US strategy for Afghanistan. Similarly, Pakistan has been convinced that the US strategy in Afghanistan was unlikely to succeed and was destabilizing Pakistan.
Conversely, Russia and Pakistan hold a mutual view the US war in Afghanistan had reached its limits and it was a matter of time before the US would seek withdrawal from Afghanistan. Thus, a point of convergence, since then Pakistan and Russia have been carrying out mutual consultations on the same for the past decade. Further, Russia seems to understand Pakistan's indispensability in any settlement of the Afghan problem, one of their objectives has been to convince Pakistan to moderate the Taliban and to subdue radical Islamic forces within Pakistan, with the view Pakistan can considerably rein in the Taliban and other Islamic militant movements in the region, which it sees as critical for its security. Meanwhile, as Moscow becomes more involved in the Afghan negotiations, Islamabad is facilitating both the Russian as well as US initiatives thus keeping its options open. (Brig Feroz Hassan Khan, "Russia–Pakistan Strategic Relations: An Emerging Entente Cordiale," The Journal of Indo-Pacific Affairs, 15 January 2021)
Fourth, the China factor, a drawing force. It is believed that the warming of relations between Russia and Pakistan is a result of both countries close ties with China. Given that Russia is now to China because of their converging views on global governance and strategic issues for Pakistan, China has been its all-weather friend, a what they term as 'iron brother.' Thus, the current rapprochement between Moscow and Islamabad could also have to do with China's desire to bring its two closest partners together. Given the economic problems in both Russia and Pakistan, both countries desire to benefit from Chinese investments.
Fifth, the strategic balance in South Asia, is it changing? With the warming of ties in between Pakistan and Russia, there is the anticipation of a shift in alliance formation in South Asia, vis a vis the US, Russia, India and Pakistan. However, the realities may argue differently. Even though Pakistan and Russia's engagement over defence is increasing, in past India may have objected to the same. However, Russia's new policy is to treat both countries on merit. Additionally, as equal members of the SCO, Russia expects India and Pakistan to respect the multilateral nature of the organization's charter.
Despite this new closeness to Russia, Pakistan is not likely to thwart its relationship with the US, given that it continues to receive vast amounts of military aid and financial assistance from the US. However, closer ties with Moscow gives Islamabad some leverage over Washington. Conversely, for Russia, concern about the spread of Islamic extremism from Afghanistan to the Central Asian Republics has drawn it closer to Pakistan. Thus, a cordial friendship between Russia and Pakistan is mutually beneficial for both countries. ("A Warming Russia," The Nation, 2021; Michael Kugelman, "Russia Makes a Power Play in South Asia," Foreign Policy, 8 April 2021)
Nevertheless, it is anticipated that there will be a time of considerably more serious and wider association in different fields between the two nations. It is only natural for Russia and Pakistan to come closer given the larger geopolitical situation across the region.
About the author
Abigail Miriam Fernandez is a Project Associate at the School of Conflict and Security Studies at the National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS), Bangalore. As a part of her research focus at 'Pakistan Reader' she looks at issues relating to gender, minorities and ethnic movements. She is also a Teaching Assistant to the NIAS Certificate Course on Contemporary Pakistan.