That the Russians have been eying Pakistan’s hot waters is one of the greatest myths continued to be taught in our curricula – and the foreign service academy. While Russian interests in the region have been manifold, now might be as good a time as any for Islamabad to reheat those waters, as relations with the US reach freezing point.
Russia’s traditional military cooperation with India was overtaken by the US eventually becoming India’s largest defense partner in 2014. With several deals lost to US, that put Russia on the back foot. Moscow then saw the ‘warm waters’ again.
The same year Moscow signed an agreement of cooperation with Pakistan as the Russian Defense Minister, Sergei Shoigu visited Pakistan – a first in the last 45 years. The agreement encompassed education, history, healthcare, hydrography, topography and even culture.
In August 2015, Russia sold Mi-35M helicopters – totally 20 in number – to Pakistan, four of which have already been delivered. Joint military exercises, including Druzhba, were conducted in September 2016 and February 2017.
With Washington suspending military aid, and Islamabad already taking Beijing for granted, a continuation of the collaboration with Moscow would be pivotal. The good news for Pakistan is that the right noises are already coming out of Russia.
Russian Presidential Envoy to Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov, says Pakistan is “a key player to negotiate with. Putting pressure may seriously destabilize the region-wide security situation and result in negative consequences for Afghanistan.”
More tangible than the ‘warm waters’ is the need for Moscow to seek new energy and defence marks, following the Ukraine crisis. With Russia and Pakistan in negotiations over fighter jets, including the Su-35 and Su-37, Pakistan Army looks like hiking up the share of Russian weaponry in the near future.
This underscores how military agreements can lay the bedrock for multi-pronged cooperation, especially traversing the commercial zone.
Energy of course is the main sector on this front. In October 2015, an agreement was signed to build the $2 billion North-South pipeline, which is expected to be completed this year. Also, Gazprom International and the Oil and Gas Development Company Limited successfully signed an MoU in July 2017 for “cooperation, joint ventures and use of advanced technology to aid Pakistan in its exploration and development efforts.”
With New Delhi successfully wooing Washington, Islamabad can one up the archrival by getting Moscow on board. However, more prudently – should it ever be an approach on either side of the LoC – Russian mediation could do what the American version seemed to have regularly failed to achieve: bring Pakistan and India closer to resolution over the many mutual conflicts and crises.
Among these could be both Kashmir and Afghanistan, vying to control which has forced Pakistan’s hands into masochistically backing Islamist militancy on both sides, which continues to boomerang on the state. A sovereign Afghanistan that is not ‘controlled’ by any country – US or Russia, Pakistan or India – and is capable of formulating policies that benefit the region as a whole, is in the larger interests of all the powers – and quasi-powers – currently vying to dictate their own policies.
But since regional cooperation with all powers on board is as quixotic as things can get, more crucial for Islamabad and Moscow, Pakistani and Russian interests merge in Afghanistan. This is especially true with regards to the geostrategic importance of AfPak vis-à-vis Central Asian states – which Islamabad has been gradually growing close to, and which Moscow has long considered part of ‘Greater Russia’.
And therefore, getting closer to Moscow is the right move both in the short-term confrontational atmosphere, and the ideal long-term regional symbiosis.
Washington under the Donald Trump regime might have laid the foundation for formal inauguration of the China-Russia-Pakistan axis, but it’s Islamabad that remains its fulcrum and hence needs to need to make the decisive moves in the near future.
Let’s start with reheating the waters.