By Sabah Aslam
The diplomatic and bilateral relations between Pakistan and Russian Federation were first developed on May 1, 1948.
History has witnessed that the relationship between Pakistan and Soviet Union, and then with Russia, has been marked by many ups and downs. In the past, there were numerous disturbing issues that even for some time divided both the countries, but, a true diplomatic relationship has always been preferred because of the geographical proximity, historical linkages and common developmental interests in Asia. The recent initiative of Joint Pakistan-Russia Military Exercises is a new brick in the wall to strengthen the relations a bit more.
From the early years (1948 to the late 1950s), relations between the two countries were affable and of responsive nature. Nevertheless, due to some conflicting issues the ties between both the countries took a u-turn and deteriorated. However, in 1965 after President Mohammad Ayub Khan made numerous efforts relations between the two became warm again. Furthermore, in the mid-1970s Pakistan–Soviet ties improved and Mr. Bhutto influenced the then Soviet regime to establish steel mills in Pakistan and invest billions of dollars. Cultural, economic and trade ties were developed immensely between the two.
Pakistan was the first country to recognize Russia as a successor of the Soviet Union in the wake of the disintegration of the USSR. Nevertheless, economic and political ties were somewhat cold during the 1990s because of the internal issues of both the countries — Russia was busy in reshaping and managing its economic and political issues and Pakistan was also suffering from many problems including economic, political and social.
In 1999, the then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s official visit to Moscow helped improve the diplomatic relations. Relations were further improved to high levels and gained popularity with President Pervez Musharraf’s visit to Moscow. Since then the two countries have enjoy far smooth relations than ever before.
However, Pakistan’s reliance on the US, and Russia’s friendly ties with India is viewed as a one of the main hindrance in establishing defense ties between the both countries. Both the countries somehow ignored each other for time due to misconceptions, but the leadership of both the sides has tried to overcome these challenges and put forward the diplomatic designs to maintain interaction and cooperation at all levels.
In addition, the recent high level visits of Pakistan and Russia diplomatic officials and military personnel not only bolster the diplomatic relations, but also the strategic ties between the two. One such example is is the first ever joint military exercises between both the countries that was launched on 24 September 2016 in the Northern part of Pakistan. A joint military exercise is an omen of strong future military links between the two countries.
In addition, Russia has also shown interests in the socio-economic development of Pakistan.
Pakistan’s cooperation with Russia brings huge benefits in the areas of infrastructure development, investments, and growth in trade sectors. Furthermore, Russia’s support for the reconstruction, modernization and expansion of Pakistan’s steel mills could also have positive implications for Pakistan and Russia.
In the contemporary international arena, regional alliances are important — and for a power like Russia to have cordial relations with all its regional countries is of vital interest. It is for this reason that Russia seeks to have good relations with Asian countries such as China, India and Pakistan.
Pakistan and Russia are eager to boost their bilateral collaboration and have shown convergence on a number of issues especially pertaining to security and economic issues at regional and international level. Pakistan and Russia’s role in establishing peace in Afghanistan, economic cooperation, training programs (especially for military and security personnel), and infrastructure etc is vital for both the countries.
Russia’s Interests in Having Affable Relations with Pakistan
Following are Moscow’s key interests in establishing friendly ties with Islamabad:
1. Russia’s flourishing military hardware companies need new markets to maintain its economic status and for which Pakistan could be a potential buyer,
2. Terrorism and extremism is perceived as a potential threat in the contemporary world, and hence Russia is eager to work jointly to counter the threat,
3. To curtail EU and US role in the region, Russia wants to strengthen its influence in the near-abroad,
4. Moscow wants to pursue its multi-vectored foreign policy in the region,
5. Russia wants to keep an eye on the US, especially when it comes to already established military bases and missile shield deployments in Asia-Pacific region, and
6. Pakistan’s geographical position as an energy gateway has also prompted Russia to have cordial relations with Pakistan
Russia: New Windows of Opportunities for Pakistan
Following are the factors that prompted Pakistan to further its relations with Russia:
1. Islamabad’s keen desire to lessen its dependence on its western ally,
2. Islamabad’s views that regional collaboration to solve regional problems would proof fruitful,
3. Pakistan views US as an unreliable friend with vague interests and therefore wants to further its relation with its northern flank, and
4. To maintain strategic balance in the region in relation to US-India growing military relations, Islamabad needs to have healthy relations with Moscow.
Pakistan and Russia: Convergence of Interests
Following are the some point highlighting Pakistan-Russia convergence on some mutual issues/interests:
1. Combating terrorism, extremism, and separatism,
2. Energy crisis in Pakistan and a energy gateway for Russia,
3. Gas pipelines including Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India gas pipeline (TAPI), and Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline (IPI),
4. Thar Coal Project,
5. Pakistan and Russia’s cooperation and collaboration in Afghanistan in wake of complete withdrawal of foreign forces,
6. US permanent military bases in the region,
7. CPEC, and
8. Maintaining strategic balance in the region.
To further strengthen the ties, Pakistan-Russia still needs to fill-up the gaps and draw designs to institutionalize the ties more. For instance, the steps taken in 2002 in Musharraf’s era i.e. joint working group on counter-terrorism, strategic stability and inter-governmental joint commission should be re-looked and enhanced.
Moreover, people to people contacts, defense ties, cultural and scientific links, and academicians/student exchange programs should be promoted between the two countries. Pakistan-Russia relations should be further developed in energy sector, oil and gas, telecommunication, space technology, and steel production.
*Sabah Aslam is running an independent research institute as Executive Director. Islamabad Institute of Conflict Resolution (IICR) focuses on the regional security issues and on peace initiatives.