By: Mian Sanaullah
The euphoria is swelling in our military circles that Pakistan has finally reached a point in its diplomacy where it has started weaning away the Russian Federation from its strategic partner India. On the face value, the swell seems justified but not to the extent that Pakistan would replace India ever for Russia. The Russia- Pakistan interdependence is imbalanced and marginal, nowhere nearing the partnership witnessed between India and Russia. At best, recent warm up can be deemed as necessary adjustments to advance respective national interest. The volatile developments in the region will continue to ensure that such adjustments should dominate their relations. How far Russia moves from its cold war ally inversely depends how far India deepens its ties with US in areas where Russia directly feels threatened or isolated globally. That stage has not come yet.
The first positive readjustment came when in 2014 Russia agreed to sell arms to Pakistan including four Russian-made Mi-35M attack helicopters to be delivered in 2017 to Pakistan’s military. Then, in September 2016, the Russian Federation ignored the Indian protests and held its first joint military exercise (Friendship -2016) in September – October 2016 at the Special Forces Training Centre (Cherat in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa). Not only, Russia ignored the Indian protests, it decided to hold the Second joint exercise in 2017. In 2016, the Russian Kalashnikov Concern participated in the trials for a main new assault rifle for Pakistan’s infantry. These developments caused speculations of possible deals regarding Su-35 and Su-37 aircrafts, and even air-defence systems. Media reported Russian investment ($2 billion) for the proposed natural gas pipeline agreement with Islamabad.
In early December, Russia came to Pakistan’s rescue at the Heart of Asia Conference when the Indian Prime Minister and the Afghan President used very offensive language against Pakistan. Russian special envoy to Afghanistan Mr. Zamir Kabulov while addressing the conference said that the speech by Pakistan’s Advisor to Prime Minister on Foreign Affairs Sartaj Aziz was friendly and constructive. He said that bilateral relations should not cloud forums like the Heart of Asia. In December 2016, both sides met for their first bilateral consultation on regional issues. It is also likely that the China-backed CPEC might be merged with the Russia-backed Eurasian Economic Union. During the same month, (December 27) they along with China held a tripartite meeting on the future of Afghanistan in Moscow, to the exclusion of Afghanistan and US.
The bilateral trade statistics are however woefully low. Bilateral trade volume between Russia and Pakistan decreased in 2015 by 13 per cent and reached $395 million (as compared to $453 million in 2014). From our side, Pakistan has helped Russia to ensure its food security, when after a self-imposed food embargo against Western countries, Russia needed to find to food suppliers. Pakistan started supplying Russia with agricultural products.
In this equation of emerging readjustment of regional alliances, we have to keep in mind the circumstances and the string of reasons, which are weaving the re-adjust in regional alliances. The key factor may be Russia’s effort to create space for itself with the help of China on regional and international level and other regional powers. The strategy is to nurture China, work on its apprehensions regarding the new US administration’s unpredictability and using Chinese economic muscle to conclude a broad based solution in Afghanistan. In this context, both China and Russia are keen to involve regional countries to stabilize the region and keep the ISIS / Daish away from Russia and the Central Asia. Russia and China has started cooperating with Taliban to fight ISIS. They are willing to further expand the group and have invited Afghanistan and Iran to join the tripartite future meetings on Afghanistan. All these measures are hedging factors and may not yield any tangible results. Perhaps, Afghanistan may not sit with Taliban to sort out power sharing formula in Afghanistan now but may choose to do so later in 2017 when the Afghan National Government start collapsing. China as a close friend can help Russia if President Putin fails to strike an understanding with President Trump.
Even if this is not the case, both sides need each other to resist US pressure and balance the shifting global agenda on trade, immigration, climate and nuclear issues in their interests. The Chinese role how it manages its bilateral relations with US and India as a US new ally will be important. India’s relations with China are already heading for trouble. The immediate causes include the Indian changing policy on Dalai Lama, continued criticism of CPEC (China Pakistan Economic Corridor). India’s desperation over Chinese refusal to lift a hold on Pakistani Jaish-e-Mohammad’s Chief Masood Azhar for inclusion in UN list of terrorists as well as blocking India NSG (Nuclear Suppliers Group) membership. Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister have met three times in 2016. They have not been able to narrow down their differences.
Pakistan and Russia are trying to strengthen their relationship based on evolving regional situation and the global uncertainty, which has come to dominate after the demise of the Cold War era. This warm up presents some worry for India. It is, however, highly unlikely that Pakistan would ever replace India in Russian strategic partnership priorities. Many Indian analysts believe that Russia and Indian relations are still very vibrant. Russia remains the biggest weapon supplier to India. There is no evidence that the growing ties between Moscow and Islamabad have eroded their partnership or is being caused by a decline in the former’s ties with India.
If one looks at the internal debate in Russia what kind of relations should be developed with erstwhile enemy, which with the help and on the behest of US led to disintegration of Soviet Union, one finds no coherent South Asia policy. In 2008, President Dmitry Medvedev came up with a Foreign Policy Concept declaring Pakistan as one of the key regional powers, that Russia intended to develop relations with on bilateral and multilateral levels. However this emphasis and focus disappeared in 2012. As a result, the agreed visit of President Putin to Pakistan was cancelled. In 2013 document, Pakistan was completely ignored. Increasingly now, India and Pakistan are emerging two independent entities in the Russian Foreign Policy.
The message from the recently held (October 15, 2016) India-Russia Summit was strong that both sides valued each other. President Putin then emphasized the Russia’s determination to back India’s fight against terror. He also supported India’s surgical strikes on the terrorist camps in Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir. Prime Minister Modi after his meeting with President Putin said that ‘old friends are better than new friends’. He indicated that Russia should focus on strengthening its time-tested, special and privileged relationship with India as a strategic partner, rather than fortifying Moscow’s relationship with China and Pakistan.
As in the past, India wants to benefit from its historic relations with Russia and use its growing relationship with the US to fortify itself as a credible regional power. It cannot afford damaging the time-tested and special and privileged relationship with Russia. India still upholds its relationship with Russia strategic and useful. Russia sees Pakistan as a useful country in containing Islamic terrorists emanating from the region, which have an impact on Russia and its neighborhood. Russia feels that Pakistan’s geo-strategic location will help the country in reasserting its role in its immediate sphere of influence and beyond.
Pakistan can never replace India in terms of trade and source of weapons. There are structural problems in the relationship. Pakistan depends on American weapons plus Chinese for its armed forces. It does not have the capacity to match the current Indian Russian trade figure of $7.8 billion.
President Putin is making a shrewd move to adapt Russia’s foreign policy to the new geo-political realities through its multi-sector approach in South Asia. It is misleading to speculate that Moscow is using its ties with Islamabad as a bargaining tool with its long-standing ally New Delhi. Russian economic interests remain anchored in its relations with India after China. Russia just wants to work with different partners in the region and not be stuck with one partner. “Russia is finally getting a balanced approach towards the region” and in no way it manifest a strategic diversion from its earlier approach to South Asia.
The author Mian Sanaullah is a former Ambassador, political analyst and Advisor to Center for Research and Security Studies (CRSS). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.