By Amjad Mahmood
Till a few years ago, to observe a Pakistani PM meeting Putin before a phone conversation or in-person meet with US President and Russian media labeling Indian Kashmir a “settler-colonial state” would be a utopian thought, but not anymore. Realpolitik has proven its prowess once again.
Pakistan and Russia have traditionally remained on opposing sides. From infamous U-2 incident till break up of Russia it has been a bumpy diplomatic ride. While Pakistan remained firmly affiliated with the Western camp barring her exemplary relations with China, Russia always preferred India shying away from any proactive role in conflict resolution between India and Pakistan. Additionally, Russia always seemed unsure of Pakistan’s future and its strategic direction. However, that all changed gradually mainly due to three factors, US disoriented policies and losing war in Afghanistan, China launching BRI/CPEC and Indian love affair with US and Western powers.
Pakistan from being the “most allied ally” in the 1960s through the “most sanctioned ally” in the 1990s, the US and Pakistan drifted apart as their strategic interests were increasingly more often in conflict than incongruity, especially in Afghanistan. Chinese emerging challenge to a unipolar world brought new realities to the region and as India commenced to align herself with US and Western strategic thinking, the whole mosaic rearranged itself. Challenges converted into opportunities and the best to grab these were Pakistan and Russia.
Pak-Russia military relations improved markedly in the recent past illustrated by high-level visits, arms sales, and enhanced cooperation. It took two years for Moscow to lift the arms embargo on Pakistan, and this did not sit well with India. The lifting of the embargo was a clear signal to Pakistan and India that a new Russia had emerged, and Moscow was redefining its strategic interests in the changing geopolitics of South Asia. While Pakistan and Russia are not publicizing the nature of their cooperation as openly as Islamabad would do in agreements with China, the trajectory is quite clear.
The recent visit to Winter Olympics opening ceremony by Imran Khan was another landmark and symbolic gesture winning him praise from Beijing. At the conclusion of the visit, a joint statement was issued both in Islamabad and Beijing, in which both sides reiterated their support on issues concerning each other’s core interests. The Pakistan side expressed its commitment to One-China Policy and support for China on Taiwan, the South China Sea, Hong Kong, Xinjiang, and Tibet. The Chinese side reaffirmed its support for Pakistan in safeguarding its sovereignty, independence and security, as well as, promoting its socio-economic development and prosperity. Expressing a strong determination to safeguard CPEC from all threats and negative propaganda, Pakistan and China agreed to strengthen cooperation across all areas including in the fields of trade, infrastructure, industrial development, agriculture modernization, scientific and technological cooperation and socio-economic wellbeing of local people. The communique essentially radiated a renewed commitment to further regional prosperity and enhanced connectivity through CPEC and as an open and inclusive initiative, third parties were welcomed to benefit from investment opportunities in CPEC.
With the Pak-China relationship blossoming, Russian inclusion in the regional development and geo-political alignments is a win-win equation for all involved, however will definitely have certain aspects which need deliberation. To commence with this new chapter, at the invitation of Russian President Vladimir Putin, Prime Minister Imran Khan will embark on a two-day maiden visit to Moscow by the end of February 2022. It will be the first time after 23 years that a Pakistani head of state will visit Russia, something which will not go unnoticed in regional and extra-regional rivals of this emerging bloc. Russia with her military and geopolitical weight coupled with strong and undeterred leadership and Pakistan with her strategic geography, human resource and military strength under an emerging world leader presents essential ingredients for a comfortable and confident relationship. However, the world waits anxiously for some interesting aspects that may be high on the agenda during this historic visit.
Since February 2019, when Pakistan embarrassed India globally by shooting down two fighter aircraft and capturing one pilot, Indian defense planners are on a shopping spree, and the world market, including its traditional supplier, Russia, is ready to make business. However, Moscow, in all probability has delinked Indian and Pakistan military sales from each other. A decade ago, India’s objection would have created ripples in Moscow over any decision on arms sale to Pakistan; however, Russia’s new policy is to treat both countries on merit. This virtually means degradation of India’s status in relation to Pakistan. Russia has most likely realised Pakistan’s defence needs legitimate in the interest of the balance of power in the region. Previously, India was the sole beneficiary of Russian stance in South Asia. This paradigm shift came about with a realization that nuclear-armed Pakistan would never ever accept Indian regional hegemony and that China would continue to ensure Pakistan security. Moreover, as Pakistani reliance on Chinese military technology continues to rise, Russian desire to chip in cannot be ruled out, thus creating a slightly irking environment in Islamabad. It will be Pakistani desire to see some change of heart on the issue by Moscow as it will serve as a litmus test of a developing relationship from the Pakistani point of view. Meanwhile, Russia’s concern of rise of religious proxies/radicalism and support on Ukraine situation may be discussed. Pakistan will need to exercise diplomatic balance viz a viz US and EU concerns on Ukraine, notwithstanding that even India is in a fix on the issue. From Russian angles, this may turn out to be their litmus test for Pakistan.
President Putin’s approved document labelled Foreign Policy Concept of 2016 had envisaged creating a favorable external environment that would allow Russia’s economy to grow steadily and become more competitive” in parallel with “[consolidating] Russia’s position as a center of influence in today’s world”. The expansion of Russian influence in South Asia could lead to Moscow reaping some of the economic benefits of CPEC, which inherently brings in Pakistan, as it sits on the most critical segment of BRI. President Putin simplified this grand strategic vision as “[being formed] on the basis of the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) and China’s Belt and Road initiative (BRI)”. He added that “this is a flexible modern project open to other participants”. On a grander scale, Pakistan could be the trans-regional gateway state for the EAEU’s further bloc-to-bloc integration with not only SAARC, CPEC but also the SCO and even the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) considering that the Gulf countries are investing in CPEC too and could take advantage of its terminal port of Gwadar. This is a key point that needs discussion about the trans-regional integration opportunities afforded by CPEC. The tremors of such a plan can be felt in EU, where the security and economic impact of BRI is being assessed along with three broad categories: the effect on EU unity, the impact on European security, and the competition for trade, investments, and market access in Europe and Asia. Again, Pakistan surfaces as an important element as only a successful CPEC will create the right vibes for other (Russian) initiatives to progress.
Probably, Prime Minister Imran Khan’s most uphill task will be to convince Moscow that Pakistan firmly stands aligned with her new bloc and any revival of previous alliances will never reach levels of irritation for Moscow. This can be guaranteed by offering investments, energy and trade deals thus creating a web of inter-dependence. Hopefully, any apprehensions, if exist will be handled mutually. While US may have accepted, unwillingly though, a strategic partnership between Pakistan and China, Islamabad’s successful warming up of Russia will likely not go well with Washington and response through differing vectors may be observed soon. Russia will need to realise and absorb Pakistan’s limitations and reflect maturity and trust in the new Pakistani direction of thinking with patience.
Historically, at level of masses, Pakistanis have never felt hostile towards Russian public. Probably removing Afghanistan invasion from pages of history, Pakistan and Russia would have warmed up at least two decades earlier. Nevertheless, history being brutal does not imply similar fate in future. The visit symbolises a win-win situation for both Moscow and Islamabad and as Imran-Putin meet navigates through bitter history, future presents mutually beneficial and brighter horizons.
Note: Amjad Mahmood holds a Master’s degree in war and strategic studies from National Defence University, Islamabad. He occasionally contributes his views on regional issues. He tweets @Flyingtastic and can be reached on firstname.lastname@example.org.
The views and opinions expressed in this article/Opinion/Comment are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the DND Thought Center and Dispatch News Desk (DND). Assumptions made within the analysis are not reflective of the position of the DND Thought Center and Dispatch News Desk News Agency.