ISLAMABAD - Pakistan and Russia are all set for the first ever Strategic Dialogue that is aimed at upgrading political, diplomatic, economic and defence relations.

The inaugural session of the Dialogue begins in Moscow today (Wednesday) with Foreign Secretary Jalil Abbas Jilani leading the Pakistan side.

The decision to have this dialogue at foreign secretary-level was taken by the two countries last year. The dialogue could subsequently be upgraded to the level of foreign ministers, just like the Pakistan-US strategic dialogue.

Diplomatic sources told The Nation that the two sides will discuss bilateral economic, political, defence and security cooperation. Regional and global issues of mutual interests will also figure in the dialogue, including the Afghanistan situation. Notably both the countries have general convergence of views on key international issues including Afghanistan, Egypt, Syria, Iran and Iraq. Disarmament, counter-terrorism, drug-trafficking and global security are also among the key areas of convergence between the two countries at bilateral and multilateral levels.

For Islamabad the initiation of a strategic dialogue with Moscow assumes special significance as Russia is a major global power and is now effectively asserting itself as one of the five veto-wielding members of the UN Security Council. 

Pakistan has ongoing defence cooperation with Russia and prospects of it bolstering are evident by recent exchange of visits by the military top brass on both sides. In a significant development military Chiefs of both the countries exchanged visits for the first time recently.

Pakistan’s army chief Gen Ashfaq Kiyani visited Moscow last year and the Russian Air chief visited here earlier this month. Diplomatic sources refer to the exchange of visits as a signal of mutual interest in augmenting collaboration in the key areas of defence and security.

Pakistan and Russia have been exploring the prospects of enhanced bilateral cooperation through joint economic projects in the areas such as energy, power, railways, telecommunications and IT. Russia, which is one of the world’s leading energy producers, has offered Pakistan collaboration in oil exploration and its major transportation projects.

The two countries have had collaboration in the area of space and satellite technology and in the aviation field.

At present the two-way trade between Pakistan and Russia stands at almost US $542 million with the balance tilting in favour of Russia. The numbers are considered far low and the potential of increased trade is estimated in vicinity of US $4 billion. 

Russia has been supportive of Pakistan becoming full member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO). Pakistan has also shown its eagerness to develop strong political ties with Russia. In June 2005 Pakistan supported Russia’s bid for observer status in the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) and in turn Russia helped Pakistan obtain the observer status in the SCO.

Pakistan’s relations with Russia have been growing over the past decade with top-level political and diplomatic engagement. Pakistan’s Parliament and its envoys have repeatedly advocated the need for stronger ties with Russia during debate and discussions on Pakistan’s foreign policy priorities. Think tanks and former diplomats also appear to agree to this view.

Moscow re-established a political dialogue with Islamabad in February 2003 when President Musharraf visited Russia. However, due to Russia’s active engagement with India not much headway could be made on this front at that time.

President Musharraf blamed Moscow’s pro-India policy as an obstacle in the qualitative development of Pakistan-Russia relations in the post-Cold war world.

However, Russia is now no longer fixated on India and does not look at its relations through the prism of India. It is beginning to look in other directions too. The emerging global scenario and new strategic alliances including the Indo-US nuclear deal have made it accelerate engagement with more countries in the region.

Moscow and Islamabad have been cooperating in the UN and on key international issues. Both share the view on the need for a multi-polar world and the centrality of the UN role in the world affairs.