By Abdul Basit
As Additional Foreign Secretary in charge of Pakistan’s relations with European countries, I accompanied President Asif Ali Zardari on his official visit to Russia in May 2011. We were upbeat, because we found the Kremlin receptive to almost all our suggestions aimed at putting the bilateral relationship on a substantive trajectory against the backdrop of new geo-strategic and geo-economic considerations. Indeed, it was a new beginning.
Since then, bilateral relations have come a long way. However, Islamabad is still waiting to welcome President Vladimir Putin in Pakistan. He was scheduled to visit in 2012 but the trip was cancelled at the last minute for unknown reasons. In what was seen as a damage-control exercise, President Putin immediately dispatched Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to Islamabad, reassuring the latter that the President was looking forward to visiting Pakistan as soon as possible.
Interestingly, there has been no summit level visit from Moscow, except one and that too, in 2007 by then Prime Minster Mikhail Fradkov. Another important visit that took place from Moscow was by Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu in 2014.
On the other hand, almost all Pakistani leaders have visited Moscow post-Cold War, including Nawaz Sharif in 1999 and President Pervez Musharraf in 2003. Prime Minister Imran Khan’s visit is yet to be scheduled though he met President Putin in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit (SCO).
Be that as it may, the two countries have still been able to warm up to each other. Many bilateral frameworks, including the Inter-Governmental Commission (ICG) which is currently holding its sixth meeting in Islamabad and Foreign Secretary-level consultations have been established to expand the relationship in all areas. Russia has also agreed to invest $1.7 billion in the Karachi-Lahore gas pipeline. Though the bilateral trade figures are still not very impressive (around $400 million), a mutual desire exists to attain the target of $1billion as soon as possible.
All said and done, Russia is still careful not to upset its historical and substantive relations with India. Hence, every step is taken with the utmost circumspection. Needless to say, Russia continues to be the biggest arms supplier to India and has recently signed an agreement worth $5.5 billion for the supply of five S-400 air defense systems. India went ahead and signed this deal despite a demurral from the US and this goes to show how much India values its relations with Russia.
On the other hand, Russia also realizes fast changing ground realities and the evolving Indian strategic partnership with the US. This gives it considerable diplomatic space to reach out to Pakistan, breaking from Cold War dynamics. Russia’s decision to supply four combat Mi-35 helicopters to Pakistan in 2017 while ignoring India’s objections was a huge leap of faith. Similarly, instituting bilateral military exercises under the rubric of ‘Druzhba’ (Friendship) is another important breakthrough. Russia also eventually supported Pakistan’s membership of the SCO along with India.
It is also interesting to see how Russia reached out to the Taliban and its attempts to positively contribute towards promoting reconciliation in Afghanistan. It was an unprecedented act, when in Dec. 2016, the Russian representative at the Heart of Asia Conference in Amritsar (India) took the floor and defended Pakistan following President Ashraf Ghani’s gratuitous tirade against the country. I was present at the conference and personally thanked Mr. Zamir Kaboulov for his crisp and fair intervention.
Whereas both Pakistan and Russia have now decided to gradually improve relations, some other limitations also affect the pace. For instance, Pakistan’s economy is still struggling and not in a position to pay hard cash for possible purchases of Russian defense equipment. It also cannot ignore US and EU sanctions against Russia. As for Russia, it is also struggling economically and thus is not in a very comfortable position to offer long-term soft loans.
These limitations aside, Russia is still willing to upgrade the Pakistan Steel Mills and Guddu and Muzaffargarh power plants. It is also ready to spend in CASA 1000 and TAPI projects. In short, Russian policy has undergone a tremendous change in the region. Importantly, it has been able to engage with Pakistan without estranging India.
Inter-state relations are not a zero-sum game. Pakistan must be patient and persistent. To begin with, ICG should be held regularly. Annual political consultations should also be upgraded to the Foreign Minister level. As things progress, Islamabad may eventually win Russian support for its Nuclear Suppliers Group membership, and be able to persuade the Kremlin to mediate on Kashmir. Why not have another Tashkent-type meeting of 1966 that the Soviet leadership had organized between Pakistan and India following their 1965 war?
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Imran Khan is expected to visit Moscow at the earliest, and it is high time for President Putin to experience Pakistan’s unparalleled hospitality.
(Abdul Basit is the president of Pakistan Institute for Conflict and Security Studies. He was previously Pakistan’s ambassador to Germany and Pakistan’s High Commissioner to India.)