ISLAMABAD - Pakistan and Russian foreign ministries are in constant talks to finalise the dates for President Vladimir Putin’s much awaited visit to Islamabad and both the sides expect significant defence pacts during the visit sometime this year, diplomatic sources said on Wednesday.

A highly placed diplomat told The Nation that Islamabad is confident the visit will take place sometime this year bringing the two nations closer as they work to improve bilateral ties.

“We are in contact with the Russian foreign ministry authorities to make it (the visit) happen (this year),” the source, a senior official at the foreign ministry, said.

In 2012, President Putin had abruptly cancelled a visit to Islamabad. It would have been the first visit to Pakistan by a Soviet or Russian head of state, and a strong signal that something might be changing in the foreign-policy calculus of a country that has always strictly regarded India as its number one regional partner. The Kremlin said Putin’s trip to Islamabad was never officially confirmed and his working schedule was “too tight” to accommodate the two-day visit, which was to have included participation in a regular summit of regional leaders on Afghanistan and bilateral talks on trade, technical, and military cooperation with then President Asif Ali Zardari.

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

Experts say that 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 the Nato’s complete pullout.

“Pakistan is also interested in buying defence equipment from Russia and talks in this regard are going on,” the official said. 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 the relations between these two countries.

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 some unease in India as Moscow shared a special relationship with New Delhi going back to the 1950s.  Not only did the Soviets support 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.  “Pakistan would like to expand relation with Russia in all fields, including military technical cooperation”, said another diplomat.

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.

“Currently, we are focusing on the supply of MI-35 helicopter gunships by Russia. Russian made jet engines (RD-93) are also used in Pakistan’s JF-17 Thunder fighter aircraft,” the diplomat said.

Last month, Pakistan and Russia agreed to carry first-ever joint military exercises as a part of their increased defence cooperation.

The agreement was reached during a gathering in the Russian capital between Defence Minister Khawaja Mohammed Asif and his Russian counterpart Sergei Shoigu.

“We are in agreement to reinforce cooperation in defence trade”, Mr Asif had said in Moscow. “Joint participation in military exercises is promoted,” an official statement said later.

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.