BACKGROUND: While there is good reason to assume that this relationship is connected with Russia’s overall pivot to Asia and the ensuing enhancement of the Asian vector in Russian foreign policy, one of the curious facts about this bilateral relationship is that due to the absence of analysis there is little or no public record indicating Moscow’s motives over time for moving closer to Islamabad. Three concurring and overlapping factors seem to be at work here though it is difficult to discern their particular importance. Nevertheless, they all more or less coincide with Putin’s return to power in 2012 and the ensuing strengthening of ties to China while Russo-American relations plummeted. First, there is reason to see in Russo-Pakistani relations an attempt to punish India for gravitating to the U.S., which certainly occurred during the coinciding tenures of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Barack Obama. Despite the ongoing and large Indo-Russian arms relationship, their economic relations have never seriously improved and India’s increasing turn to the West is discernible everywhere, in its arms imports and security policies, as well as its closer ties to Japan and Australia and cool relations with China.
A second, concurrent cause may be Moscow’s increasing concern about Afghanistan. Since 2013 Russian policymakers have increasingly openly expressed their mounting concerns that NATO was leaving the field in Afghanistan, and that the Afghan government, first under President Hamid Karzai and now led by President Ashraf Ghani, will not be able to stand up to the terrorist organization known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). As a result, Moscow opened up contacts with the Taliban whom it regards as distinctly the lesser of two evils and apparently not as a potential threat either to Central Asia or the North Caucasus. It thereby became necessary to open up and improve dialogue with Pakistan, the Taliban’s sponsor whom Moscow probably regards as possessing considerable leverage and influence over the Taliban and other terrorist groups, excepting ISIS. These ties have since improved while Afghanistan’s situation has visibly deteriorated. Indeed, in December 2016 Russia convened discussions with Pakistan and China but not Afghanistan over a possible peace settlement in Afghanistan. Those discussions have continued with Moscow convening a “peace conference,” offering to mediate between Kabul and the Taliban and urging a “government of national reconciliation” to include the Taliban.
Moscow’s contemporaneous intimacy with Iran has also led both those governments to promote the Taliban as a less dangerous alternative to ISIS, which has “usurped” the Taliban’s previous role as the leading Islamist insurgency in Afghanistan. Indeed, Moscow has been sharing intelligence with the Taliban since 2013 and may now also be transferring weapons to them, according to U.S. and Afghan observers.
Understandably, Kabul and Washington were furious with Moscow. Yet while Moscow may invite the Ghani government to participate in future meetings, the Taliban and Pakistan are clearly basking in the light of the latter’s recognition as a player in the resolution of the Afghan conflict after almost forty years. This bridge building over Kabul’s opposition may also signify Russia’s concurrent effort to make friends with anyone who is estranged, as Pakistan undoubtedly is, from Washington since anti-Americanism drives much of Russian foreign policy. Therefore, it would hardly be surprising if anti-Americanism plays into Moscow’s recalculation of its interests in South and Central Asia. Given the cooling of Indo-Russian relations while India gravitates ever closer to the West, a corresponding Russian reaction by inclining towards Pakistan as retaliation against India and the U.S. makes even more sense.
IMPLICATIONS: It is clear that since 2014, Russia has become substantially more dependent upon Chinese economic and political support. Moscow has moved towards supporting China’s position on key Asian issues like the Korean Six-Party talks, the South China Sea, and on joint resistance to the U.S.-ROK-Japan project of the Terminal High Altitude Air Defense (THAAD). Given the cooling ties with India and the all-weather friendship of China and Pakistan, as well as China’s immense investment in Pakistan to build a road to Gwadar port and the China-Pakistan-Economic Corridor (CPEC), it is reasonable to suspect that Chinese diplomats have urged Russia and Pakistan to improve their ties and find a basis for a common fight against terrorists who threaten those regimes as well as China’s, even if both Islamabad and Moscow are state sponsors of other terrorists.
If this assessment holds, it would represent another case where China, through purely diplomatic and economic means, had been able to induce Russia to change or reverse course on key foreign policies. We have already seen the sale of equity in Russian energy assets to China, often at fire sale or dubious prices. This is true for the Power of Siberia gas pipeline where the price of gas remains to this day a state secret, as well as for advanced weapons like the SU-35 fighter that Russia never before exported, but sold first to China and then to India. Russia’s rapprochement with Pakistan, even though Russian experts have long said that Moscow regarded that state as the most dangerous potential proliferator and sponsor of terrorism, might represent another example of this phenomenon. If so, it would represent another significant indicator in the trends of the overall Russo-Chinese relationship as well as an epochal development in Moscow’s South and Central Asian policies.
In its dealings with Pakistan, Russia’s instruments are the usual ones in its pursuit of partners, arms sales and potential energy deals. Pakistan clearly hungers for additional energy given its perennial energy shortages. Indeed, the rapprochement began with negotiations over arms sales that have now taken place and there have been several years of still inconclusive energy deals. Yet given the history of U.S.-Pakistan relations, these material inducements are unlikely to make Pakistan any more reliable or dependable to Moscow than it was to the U.S. Neither are they likely to stop Pakistan from continuing to sponsor myriad terrorist groups in South Asia and Afghanistan. Those assets are far too valuable to Islamabad for it to dispense with them to please Russia, of whom it probably remains suspicious and with good reason.
Thus, this new partnership may remain a marriage of convenience. But given the coincidence of the two sides’ interests in Afghanistan and the potential role of China, it may last quite a while longer and lead into new branches and byways that would leave behind important consequences in Asian and world politics.
CONCLUSIONS: Apart from the regional and global geopolitical dimensions, this relationship fully illustrates the utterly cynical and utilitarian Russian approach to terrorism. If terrorists like the Taliban and/or their sponsor, Pakistan, become useful to Russia they are tactically embraced, although probably not for the long term. Essentially Russia’s motto is “I decide who the terrorists are.” Thus it has shown little desire to challenge ISIS except insofar as to cement its ties with Turkey to draw Turkey away from the West. This attitude of a fully utilitarian and self-serving anti-terrorist practice goes back years. In 2007, Russia’s ambassador to Israel, Andrei Demidov, stated that Israel must talk with Hamas no matter what they do. Yet when queried about Russia’s refusal to talk with Chechen terrorists he stated that this is because the Chechen problem is an internal Russian one: “We decide how to settle the problem.” Moreover, in complete defiance of the facts, he claimed that Moscow has settled Chechnya by peaceful means and created a government, parliament, and judicial system there. He even recommended that Israel learn from Russia’s example.
This breathtakingly hypocritical statement shows the true Realpolitik calculations behind Russian policy along with the implicit belief that Israel is not truly a sovereign state while Russia is. Thus, while Russia’s sovereignty is inviolable, it can tell Israel to negotiate with terrorists who seek its destruction. Not surprisingly, Israel replied that Hamas is no different than the Chechen terrorists and just as it supported Russia it demands Russian support against Hamas. There is nothing new in Moscow’s utterly utilitarian double game regarding terrorists whether they are in Syria, Israel, or Afghanistan. Given Moscow’s pressure for the U.S. to collaborate with Russia on “anti-terrorism” against ISIS, it is advisable to remember just how much one can rely on Russia’s “anti-terrorism credentials” and take appropriate heed. Here as in so much of life the phrase “caveat emptor,” buyer beware, bears remembering.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Stephen Blank is a Senior Fellow with the American Foreign Policy Council.
Image source:kremlin.ru accessed on 02.08. 2017