Are regional political changes bringing Moscow and Islamabad closer?

By Sitwat Waqar Bokhari

Relations between Moscow and Islamabad have remained strained since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, however, progress made by the two in their diplomatic and political ties in recent times bids well for an emerging regional partnership. Cooperation for peace in Afghanistan, military ties and the strategic stability dialogue are evidence of this developing alliance. As Moscow reaffirms its proactive role in the region, Islamabad also seeks new avenues to lessen its reliance on the “US and the West”.

Since Pakistan strategically fits as the gateway to Eurasia, linking many trade routes, the country actualizes Putin’s idea of making Eurasia a “centre of magnetism”. To meet this goal, Russia has been forging new alliances and expanding its partnerships in Asia. In 2016, at an economic forum, Putin announced his initiative to strike a balance in Eurasia, where he labelled Russia and Pakistan as Eurasia’s northern and southern poles, and China and Iran as its eastern and western poles. In this context, Russia also wants to offer an alternative model of global governance in Eurasia and is willing to have cooperation with China on CPEC, according to Russian research fellow Dr Nikolaevna Serenko.

On the Afghan conflict front, Russia has brokered talks to facilitate the Afghan peace process in Moscow, where its view on the conflict’s resolution appears to be more or less on the same page as that of Pakistan. Furthermore, in an attempt to assert its regional role as well as to improve its partnerships, Russia has also offered to mediate between India and Pakistan in the recent stand-off in February 2019. Moscow’s offer was welcomed by Pakistan, however, as expected, turned down by India.

In terms of bilateral trade, the two countries saw 660 million dollar trade in the first ten months of 2018. Through 2014 and 2017, the two engaged in several naval and military exercises, which reflects the cooperation the two have enjoyed in the defence sector. Russian companies have also started “looking eastward”. In mid-2017, Russia’s Gazprom International and Pakistan’s Oil and Gas Development Company Limited (OGDCL) signed an MoU in Moscow, which aimed at mutual cooperation, joint ventures and using the state-of-the-art technology with Pakistan to aid in exploration and development. Energy connectivity is a major priority for Russia in Asia and, in this regard, the country’s 14 billion dollars investment in Pakistan is certainly the first step in this direction.

Signs show that Russia is engaging in consistent multilateral efforts in the region to resurge at least as a regional superpower. However, unlike the US, Russia’s impulse for greater engagement is rooted in the country’s own security calculus, and for this reason, is revisiting its capacity to bring back multi-polarity in the world order. On the other hand, the US can be termed as a receding power which is, therefore, looking for proxy conflicts in order to maintain its sway in some form. This explains how the US-Indo relations have been shaped as well, where the US is engaged in making India a regional policeman. To strike this balance of multi-polarity in Eurasia, Kremlin has also actively pursued building bridges with the Arab world, while being on the side of Iran. On a similar pattern, despite certain tensions in the past, Russia remains on China’s side in trans-regional development.

Russia’s engagement with Pakistan though, so far, can best be described as transient, tactical, and transactional. However, as according to Pakistan’s Foreign Secretary, Tehmina Janjua, the map of the geostrategic location of any country is a great indicator of reality; thus, what happens in Afghanistan has a direct impact on Central Asia, Russia and Pakistan. An example is that of the opium supply, which affects both Russia and Pakistan. The two also share other regional challenges, such as tackling terrorism, where both can learn from each other’s experiences.

In Pakistan’s Foreign Secretary’s view, Pak-Russia ties have the potential of becoming an emerging partnership, with a tremendous scope for further cooperation. It was also due to Russia’s support that Pakistan obtained full membership of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). Now is the time for both countries to forge a better alliance, which would ultimately lead to forging of a stronger trade and economic link. While recently, there has been a $0.8bn boost in Pak-Russia trade, there still remains further room for improvement. The two would also benefit greatly from signing a trade preferential agreement.

Besides, Afghanistan appears to be a point of convergence between the two, where both the countries desire for stability as it affects not only their security but also the stability of the region. Speaking at a conference in Islamabad in late March 2019, Pakistan’s Foreign Secretary Tehmina Janjua proposed a blueprint for improving this relationship, which included signing of a free trade agreement to boost bilateral trade; deepening strategic cooperation and understanding; augmenting their defence relations; Russian participation in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC); strengthening of people to people relations; and development of a regional framework for peace and development in collaboration with “like-minded” countries.

Janjua further argued that the relationship was currently underpinned by a strong framework of 11 bilateral processes for structured dialogue on various issues of concern to the two countries, including, frequent summit-level interactions; growing military ties; strategic cooperation for Afghan peace; and collaboration in the fight against drug trafficking.

In crux, Pakistan and Russia should be seen as chess players sitting across the table, where each move should be a well-thought one. Both the countries cannot afford to commit a mistake, and therefore, they have to learn from the past. Pakistan should be well aware that Kremlin’s relations with New Delhi are spanned over decades and it would not let it go easily, just to please Pakistan. Moreover, Pakistan should not rely on other regional or superpowers as a substitute for the US. Instead, the relations should be based on an equal footing. Lastly, economics is apparently and should be the best avenue to take the driving seat of the ever warming relations between the two.  

The author Sitwat Waqar Bokhari is a Research Fellow at the Center for Research and Security Studies (CRSS). She tweets @SitwatWB.

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