Growing Pak-Russia relations
mark changing regional geopolitics

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By Zahid Hussain

Prime Minister Imran Khan’s forthcoming visit to Russia this month signals strengthening of relations between the two nations in times of fast changing geopolitics. It will be the first trip to Moscow by a Pakistani leader in two decades. The emerging alignment of regional forces makes the timing of the visit highly significant.  The visit is taking place on the invitation of Russian president Vladimir Putin.  

While regional developments post the American withdrawal from Afghanistan are likely to be the main focus of the discussions, economic cooperation between the two countries will also figure in the talks. Pakistan’s foreign minister has termed the coming visit “evidence” of positive change in the bilateral relations between Pakistan and Russia.

The relations between Moscow and Islamabad have warmed up over the last few years with increasing bilateral interactions at the senior official level. Last month, the prime minister spoke to President Putin over the phone and exchanged views on regional and global issues. Khan also emphasized the need for expanding trade and economic relations between the two countries. 

President Putin was invited to Pakistan some time ago but the visit couldn’t materialize because of several reasons including the Covid pandemic. Last April Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov visited Islamabad after a gap of almost nine years. The two leaders earlier this month attended the inaugural ceremony of the Beijing winter Olympics.

The thaw in Pak-Russia relations came after the break-up of the Soviet Union and the end of the cold war in the 1990’s. Pakistan’s close alliance with the United States during the cold war and their joint covert operation against Soviet occupation forces in Afghanistan in the 1980’s had increased the hostility between Islamabad and Moscow. The situation however, changed after the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan. 

A major breakthrough in the relations between the countries came after prime minister Nawaz Sharif visited Moscow in 1999. Shedding the mutual distrust, the two countries started moving forward. Relations between Pakistan and Russia improved substantially as illustrated by high-level visits and increased military cooperation. In 2014, the Russian Defense Minister visited Pakistan and signed a defense cooperation agreement with Islamabad. In 2018, Pakistan’s foreign minister visited Moscow and signed several agreements 

In the same year, General Qamar Bajwa, visited Moscow and the countries formed the Joint Military Commission.  Russia has shown an interest in selling arms to Pakistan that it had earlier avoided because of Indian pressure. The two countries have been holding regular joint military exercises since 2016.

The Prime Minister of Pakistan Imran Khan made a telephone call to the President of Russia Vladimir Putin on Monday. Imran Khan lauded the positive comments of President Putin against the blasphemy of the Holy Prophet Muhammad. During the telephonic conversation, both leaders exchanged their views on bilateral relations and common benefits that will include trade and cooperation. Before ending the conversation, both heads of state invited each other to visit their countries.

Pakistan and Russia also have convergence of views on Afghanistan and other regional issues. Under a Shanghai Cooperation Organization mandate, Russia and Pakistan have pledged to jointly tackle growing threats such as Daesh in the region post-US pullout.

Among many other factors the souring of relations with the United States has also pushed Pakistan to diversify its foreign policy options. Not only has it led it to a deepening of Pakistan’s strategic relations with China but also to improving its relations with Russia. 

Meanwhile, the belligerent US policy towards China and Russia has also impacted regional geopolitics and has led to a new alignment of forces. Although Pakistan maintains that it would not be a part of any alignment, the recent development has brought it closer to the growing Beijing-Moscow axis. 

The three countries share concerns over the rising tensions emanating from America’s aggressive stance.  The situation in Afghanistan following the American exit has also changed regional power dynamics. Moscow sees new opportunities in South Asia in the changing situation. 

Prime Minister Imran Khan’s visit will be taking place at the height of tension between Russia and the US over the Ukrainian crisis. Pakistan may not like to take any sides over the issue but the outbreak of military confrontations could increase Pakistan’s foreign policy predicament. It would become more complicated as China is fully siding with Russia in the conflict. 

The prime minister’s visit to Moscow in the midst of the crisis could reinforce the perception of Pakistan moving away from Washington. But it’s certainly in Pakistan’s interest to broaden its relations with Russia. It’s not a zero-sum game in diplomacy. Undoubtedly, the forthcoming visit will give a huge boost to evolving relations between Islamabad and Moscow. 

Pakistan has its own importance in emerging regional geopolitics. But our policy makers need to move cautiously in order to safeguard its interests.  Improving relations with Russia is in the best interest of Pakistan. It will be a challenge for our foreign policy czars to maintain a balance in the emerging power equation.

(Zahid Hussain is an award-winning journalist and author. He is a former scholar at Woodrow Wilson Centre and a visiting fellow at Wolfson College, University of Cambridge, and at the Stimson Center in DC. He is author of Frontline Pakistan: The struggle with Militant Islam and The Scorpion’s tail: The relentless rise of Islamic militants in Pakistan. Frontline Pakistan was the book of the year (2007) by the WSJ. His latest book ‘No-Win War’ was published this year. Twitter: @hidhussain)