By Adnan Rehmat
Pakistan offered Russia a “multidimensional strategic partnership” on the 70th anniversary of their diplomatic relationship on May 1, adding new depth to their entente in place of bilateral ties better known historically for its Cold War-era frigidity and borderline hostility. The offer builds on a bilaterally choreographed growth in political, security and trade ties between the two nations.
Two Pakistani prime ministers, Nawaz Sharif and incumbent Shahid Abbasi, have visited Moscow three times in three years and met President Vladimir Putin. There have also been several trips by former foreign minister Khawaja Asif and army chiefs Raheel Sharif and Qamar Bajwa to meet their counterparts in Moscow. Russia’s prime minister, foreign minister and senior military leadership were also in Islamabad during the same period to cement ties further, while an Islamabad visit by Putin is in the works. The deepening friendly relations now morphing into a strategic partnership were preceded by unprecedented tangible confidence-building measures.
Commercial ties have deepened: bilateral trade trebled to over $2 billion in three years, while Islamabad and Moscow agreed in December 2017 to ink a strategic energy accord for Russia to invest $10bn in the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) gas pipeline.
The two sides have also deepened their military co-operation. The Pakistani military conducted its first-ever joint anti-terrorism exercises in Russia in the fall of 2017; Russian generals embarked on their first visit to Pakistan’s tribal areas, where U.S.-Pakistani military operations against Soviet Union forces in Afghanistan were based during the 1980s, which resulted in the eventual defeat of Moscow; and Islamabad received its first batch of four Mi-35 advanced Russian attack helicopters last year.
Supported by Russia, Pakistan also became a full member of the strategic security platform of Shanghai Cooperation Organization in mid-2017, with Moscow and Beijing as its joint political core. Why the accelerated thaw in bilateral ties, which until five years ago was merely perfunctory in nature?
The answer lies in changing geopolitical realities in the broader Central and South Asian region. Nature, they say, abhors a vacuum – and more so if it is political. In the same period, India’s ties with the U.S. have transformed from lukewarm to strategic at the cost of watering down the erstwhile long-solid Moscow-Delhi relationship; a resurgent Putin has asserted a stronger security policy in Central Asia as a counterweight to the U.S.; while China has accelerated its $9 trillion One Belt-One Road economic and political integration of the broader region. Meanwhile, Islamabad and Washington have also fallen out over the future of Afghanistan and India’s role in it.
Improving political, business and cultural ties between Russia and Pakistan do not surprise anyone, but it is where their regional security interests converge that is raising eyebrows. At the core of this is the paradoxical American shift in the region: Washington has simultaneously grown weary of its security footprint in Afghanistan while a new U.S. president has altered the regional policy to enhance its presence and assertion of a military strategy in pursuit of a fuzzy endgame in Kabul.
Both states are clearly becoming lockstep in a common strategy of anti-US containment in Afghanistan. Pakistani Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif, during a visit to Moscow in February, emphatically reiterated Russia’s oft-repeated criticism of the long-running war in Afghanistan as a “monumental failure.” And in April, Pakistan’s Defence Minister Khurram Dastagir announced that Moscow had agreed to sell Islamabad its star Su-35 fighter jets and T-90 battle tanks. Both incidents show clearly that the bilateral strategic security partnership in the offing is set to become the salient feature of South Asia’s geopolitical environment for years, possibly even decades to come. Washington’s increasingly strident rhetoric and actions against Islamabad, plus a closer relationship with New Delhi with stated support for a deeper Indian role in Afghanistan, have pushed Pakistan towards Moscow. For Pakistan, a political bear hug with Russia not only encourages joint political possibilities in Afghanistan as Trump’s options are squeezed, it also represents a smarter strategy of limiting India in Kabul. From Islamabad’s perspective, the strategic partnership with Moscow is an extension of its existing lockstep strategic partnership with China.
The Russo-Sino-Pak triangle is syncing by the day. Since Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal represents its security deterrence against a nuclear India, with whom it has fought three wars, strategic partnerships with the other two nuclear powers – Russia and China – helps increase its nuclear alliances in the neighborhood. It not only gives Pakistan a greater sense of strategic security cover but also greater clout in regional geopolitics.
(The author Adnan Rehmat is a Pakistan-based journalist, researcher and analyst with interests in politics, media, development and science. Twitter: @adnanrehmat1)