BACKGROUND: Russia and Pakistan share a history of interchanging friendship and animosity. Their relationship began in New York on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly meeting on May 1, 1948, when Sir Zafarullah Khan, foreign minister of the newly created Islamic republic, met his counterpart from the Communist USSR. The real impetus to reinforced ties is attributed to Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto who first visited Russia in 1960 as Minister of Fuel Power and Natural Resources. Both nations signed agreements on oil exploration and many of today’s oil fields in Pakistan resulted from the efforts of Soviet geologists.
The USSR managed to bring the archrivals India and Pakistan to the negotiating table after the 1965 war. The mediator role resulted in agreement on the Tashkent Declaration in January 1966. The USSR openly backed India in assisting the Bengalis’ bloody insurgency to separate from Pakistan. The conflict eventually resulted in the creation of Bangladesh on December 16, 1971, dividing Pakistan into half. Nonetheless, Bhutto again visited Moscow in 1972 as president and in 1974 as Prime Minister of Pakistan.
The Pakistan-Russia relations started nose-diving with the launch of General Zia-ul- Haq’s military coup on July 5, 1977, eventually leading to the hanging of Bhutto in 1979. The same year in December, the USSR invaded Afghanistan, triggering a massive influx of refugees in Pakistan. Already skeptical since Bangladesh’s war of independence, the Pakistani military leadership suspected Soviet intentions towards the country. As Islamabad became a frontline country against the Red Curtain, Moscow sponsored terrorist activities in Pakistan, mainly through its spies and rogue Afghan groups. Though no confirmed figures are available, the death count soars above 10,000.
With the collapse of the USSR, Pakistan hoped to harness better ties with the Russian Federation, becoming the very first state to recognize it. Plagued with severe economic and political crises in its early years as the USSR’s successor, the Kremlin gave no priority to improving relations with South Asian countries. Months before he was dethroned in a bloodless military coup, Nawaz Sharif visited Russia in 1999.
After 9/11, the Kremlin shared Delhi’s perspective on Pakistan as a safe haven for terrorists. Thus, the gulf enlarged until General Pervez Musharraf visited Moscow and called for “a new era of friendship.” Russia and Pakistan formed two joint working groups on counterterrorism and strategic stability, while the trade volume rose from US$ 92 million in 2003 to US$ 500 million a decade later.
IMPLICATIONS: Despite its investment in a couple of mega projects, the Kremlin has failed to obtain the popular appeal that is commonplace for the U.S. The Pakistanis have a unique love-hate relationship with America, thus its policies and lifestyle do not go unnoticed amongst the public. A friendlier Russia may take a couple of decades to win the same mass appeal. However, Moscow has taken a route that can grant it influence and revenue in Islamabad. The belated cooperation boost is taking place primarily in the military realm.
Russia’s and Pakistan’s navies recently conducted a joint exercise in the Northern Arabian Sea. Though focused on dealing with challenges of piracy and drug trafficking, the first ever Pakistan-Russia military drill opens avenues for more in the future. Russia gave Ukraine a green light in late 2008 to sell Pakistan four Il-78 refueling aircraft [NATO reporting name Midas]. The deliveries, which began in 2009 and were completed in 2012, signaled increasing comfort levels on both sides in treading previously unchartered waters. Though Moscow had turned down the then Pakistani army chief General Ashfaq Kiani’s shopping list for gunships and electronic warfare equipment in 2009, the need for long-term cooperation with Pakistan on Afghanistan and diplomatic support on Syria in 2012 changed the Russian approach to the country.
Shunning the widespread skepticism about the sale of gunships to Pakistan under India’s pressure, Russia’s ambassador in Islamabad recently told the media that the deal to sell Mil Mi-35 “Hind E” had been “politically approved,” implying that modalities are being worked out. Islamabad is eyeing the purchase of 20 Mi-35 attack helicopters for now.
The Pakistani military has found its fleet of U.S.-made AH-1 Cobra Gunships too costly and difficult to maintain in the wake of ongoing anti-Taliban operations. The Russian gunships are not only superior to the Cobra gunships but also far less expensive. The development builds on the mutual trust developing after Russia proved ready to re-export 150 KlimovRD-93 turbofan engines from China for Pakistan Air force’s future mainstay, the JF-17. Now the Block-II of the Pakistani challenger to Mig-29 will have seamless supply for its engines. The fighter jet, jointly developed with China, is set to become Pakistan Air Force’s future mainstay platform.
After India’s newly elected Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s clear orders to reduce the country’s reliance on foreign defense hardware, Delhi will increasingly seek military cooperation from its longtime ally Russia and other suppliers such as France, Britain and the U.S. Moreover, India has exhaustively shopped from the Russian weapons market besides signing vigorous technology transfer regimes. Thus, the potential threat posed to India by Russia’s provision of MI-35 gunships to Pakistan is not intense.
Undoubtedly, today’s Russia is no Soviet Union. Its lifting of the longtime arms embargo on Pakistan represents a break with the past and signals a search for new friends and markets. Pakistan, on the other hand, has been searching for a politically manageable partner and affordable supplier besides China. Russia clearly comes with no strings attached.
As part of Putin’s Asia policy, Moscow has lured Pakistan in through a military cooperation pact but it is too early to predict realignment in the wake of NATO’s pullout from Afghanistan. The other prime Russian interest in Pakistan has been investment in the energy sector. Islamabad is wooing Moscow for investment in its Thar coalfield besides attempting to secure its investment in the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline, a project that may otherwise remain unrealized.
CONCLUSIONS: The lifting of the arms embargo and strengthening of military ties set the tone for future Pakistan-Russia relations. Islamabad has chosen the current path after finding its partnership with Washington politically costly and unreliable. During the July 2015 summit in Ufa, Russia, Pakistan hopes to receive full-member status of the SCO, mainly focused on security issues and projected as a counter-weight to NATO. Moscow is returning Islamabad’s favor in granting Russia observer status in the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. While India is becoming closer to the U.S. and the western bloc, Pakistan is gradually shifting towards Russia. Eyeing a likely power vacuum in Afghanistan after NATO’s exit, Pakistan is becoming more relevant and significant for Russia. The Islamic republic may, however, not support Russia’s policies on Syria or Ukraine. Russia’s readiness to supply vital military systems to the Pakistani military aims to achieve leverage in the country on issues important for Russian geo-strategic ambitions as well as internal security. However, Islamabad may not see Russia’s sale of military hardware from the prism of strategic cooperation. Learning from its experience of NATO-alignment, Pakistan will likely seek to confine ties to defense cooperation rather than long-term strategic partnerships.
(Image Attribution: PID Pakistan)