ISLAMABAD - Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif yesterday formally invited Russian President Vladimir Putin to visit Pakistan as the two countries draw closer, brushing aside the bitter past of the cold war.

In September 2012, President Putin had abruptly cancelled a visit to Islamabad. It would have been the first visit to Pakistan by any Soviet or Russian head of state and a strong signal that something might be changing in the foreign-policy of a country that has always strictly regarded India as its No 1 regional partner.

The Kremlin said Putin’s trip to Pakistan was never officially confirmed and his working schedule was “too tight” to accommodate the two-day visit, which was to include participation in a regular summit of regional leaders on Afghanistan and bilateral talks on trade and military technical cooperation with the then president Asif Ali Zardari.

However, Putin despatched Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in October 2012 to Islamabad in what looked like a hastily arranged effort to explain the change to Pakistani leaders and keep the door open for future warming of ties.

Experts suggest an increasingly anxious Russia wants very much to engage with Pakistan and sees it as an indispensable regional player in dealing with whatever emerges in Afghanistan following Nato’s complete pullout.

A military cooperation agreement that Russia and Pakistan signed during Russian Defence Minister Sergey Shoigu’s recent visit to Islamabad marked an important shift in relations between these two countries.

After a long history of bilateral turbulence when Islamabad supported Washington in the cold war, Pakistan and Russia now appear to have initiated a new era of cooperation – closely watched in New Delhi and Washington.

The defence cooperation agreement is the first of its kind between the two countries and has been described in Pakistan as a “milestone” in Pakistan-Russia relations.

The Pakistan-Russia defence pact and growing ties have caused unease in India as Moscow shared a special relationship with New Delhi going back to the 1950s.

The Soviets not only supported the building of the Indian economy and the military, they also backed India in the Security Council by repeatedly wielding the veto on the Kashmir question.

Military technical cooperation between Pakistan and Russia is not new. Pakistan imported a variety of defence equipment from Soviet Union in 1960s and 70s. Military technical cooperation is an important sphere of the two countries’ bilateral relations. Russia is one of the largest exporters of military hardware in the world.

During the last decade, there have been increased military-to-military contacts between the two countries. All heads of Pakistan’s armed forces have visited Moscow in the recent past for bilateral interaction with military leadership of Russia. There have also been similar visits from the Russian side. Russian Naval Chief Admiral Viktor V Chirkov visited Pakistan last August.

Officials said, currently, Pakistan was focusing on the supply of MI-35 helicopter gunships by Russia. Russian-made jet engines (RD-93) were also used in Pakistan’s JF-17 Thunder fighter aircraft. In April, Pakistan and Russia agreed to conduct first-ever joint military exercises as a part of their increased defence cooperation.

Pakistan is also keen to enhance bilateral trade between the two countries, which currently stands at $ 542 million and does not correspond to their trade potential.

In July, Prime Minister Sharif met President Putin on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit, expressing the desire to enhance bilateral ties.

Nawaz Sharif had then told Putin that Pakistan was keen to enhance its relations with the Russian Federation and wanted a multi-dimensional relationship with Russia in the fields of trade, defence, energy, infrastructure, culture and other spheres.

Prime Minister Sharif has now extended an invitation to Russian President Putin to inaugurate North South Gas Pipeline which is the largest investment by Russia in Pakistan.

In a meeting with a Russian delegation, led by Co-Chairman of the Russian-Pakistani Intergovernmental Commission on Economic, Trade and Scientific Cooperation, Victor P Ivanov, the PM forwarded the invitation wishing to jointly inaugurate the gas pipeline project.

The inter-governmental agreement for the construction of a gas pipeline from Lahore to Karachi was signed last month in Islamabad by Federal Minister for Petroleum and Natural Resources Shahid Khaqan Abbasi and Russian Energy Minister Alexander Novak in the presence of PM Sharif.

Russia will invest $ 2 billion in the project, the first phase of which is expected to conclude by December 2017. The 1,100-km pipeline with a capacity of 12.4 billion cubic metres per annum will connect Karachi’s liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminals with those in Lahore.

Sharif said Pakistan-Russia relations had entered a new phase that marked strength and extended cooperation in different sectors. He added bilateral ties between the friendly countries would benefit both.

The PM said Pakistan was making sincere efforts to curb terrorism and extremism.

He said the militants’ hideouts and infrastructure had been destroyed in the ongoing operation Zarb-e-Azb. Sharif said the people of Pakistan stood by the government on its policies to counter insurgency.

During the meeting, the PM also talked about opportunities of trade between Russia and Pakistan. He stressed the need to initiate direct flights between Moscow and Islamabad. “Traders and investors would benefit a lot from the act,” he added. Talking about Afghanistan peace progress, the PM said Pakistan believed in resolution of the issue with the consent of the people there. He said all economic indicators showed Pakistan had become an attractive destination for foreign investors.

An official statement said the Russian delegation appreciated peace initiatives by Pakistan in the region.

The meeting was attended by Federal Finance Minister Ishaq Dar, Investment Board Chairman Muftah Ismail and others.