US President Donald Trump severally criticized Pakistan for allegedly supporting and harboring militants. In contrast to Trump’s tirade against Pakistan, several significant states in the region have lauded Pakistan’s efforts in the war against terror. The fact that Pakistan’s all-weather friend China, as well as Russia, came forward in defense of Pakistan reflects the credibility and respect Pakistan enjoys within the international community. Regionally Pakistan was already enjoying significant diplomatic and military support from Russia.
Russia echoed sentiments in favor of Pakistan. Russian Presidential Envoy to Afghanistan Zamir Kabulov censured Trump’s Pakistan strategy and insisted that Islamabad is “a key regional player to negotiate with. Putting pressure [on Pakistan] may seriously destabilize the region-wide security situation and result in negative consequences for Afghanistan”.
One of the reasons behind Trump’s statement is considered as the means to counter growing Russia-Pakistan relations and Russia’s influence in the region. The two former Cold War-era rivals, who have the bitter past, have already managed to put their differences aside and step up their diplomatic, military and economic cooperation in recent years. Trump’s strategy provided an impetus to growing ties between Russia and Pakistan. Undoubtedly, Trump’s Pakistan strategy has eclipsed US-Pakistan relations.
Now, Islamabad would rigorously seek deeper ties with Moscow and recent developments imply that Russia has gravitated towards Islamabad.
Russia is likely to have greater influence in South Asia. Since the Indo-Russia relations have been eclipsed with the larger US weapon export to India, Russia may need to look for prospective markets for the sale of its military hardware and its gas. Thus, in the wake of Trump’s strategy, Pakistan is the best option for Russia to enhance its influence in South Asia. Now, Pakistan is likely to extend its relationship with Russia for military and economic cooperation, especially in the energy sector. Apart from economic opportunities, Russia views Pakistan as an important country in its backyard and very crucial in the Afghan settlement process. Trump administration has paved the way for these developments.
Some other factors can also be not over looked that are closing the distance between Russia and Pakistan. Renewed sanctions on Russia after the invasion of Ukraine, undoubtedly, have made Russia more pro-active in engaging with Pakistan. Ukraine episode has pushed Russia to explore new defense and energy markets. In such case, Pakistan might be lucrative market for Russia in these sectors.
A greater shift in international relations can also be predicted owing to the undesirable recent events between the US and Pakistan. India’s close defense ties with the US may further push Russia towards Pakistan.
Besides improving relations on the diplomatic front, Russia and Pakistan have already started to strengthen economic relations and trade because there has always been immense room for improvement in these sectors. In this regard, during the visit of the then President of Pakistan (Asif Ali Zardari) in 2011, it was decided that the capacity of the Pakistan Steel Mills would be expanded and an MOU on expansion and modernization of the Pakistan Steel Mills was signed by the two sides in February, 2013.
It is quite clear that Pakistan and Russia both find it mutually beneficial to develop economic and military ties at greater level. Axiomatically, there is great potential in fields of trade, energy and infrastructure development. It is to Pakistan’s utmost advantage to have good relations with all major powers in the region including Russia, especially after the changing dynamics of relations with the US and limited policy options with new administration in Washington which is acting idiosyncratically towards Pakistan.
Moreover, Pakistani and Russian security interests are increasingly intertwined, so Moscow is not likely to afford ignoring the emergence of threats from different terrorist groups in Afghanistan. Trump’s Afghan strategy has revealed the failures of US military in Afghanistan. In this regard, Pakistan may play a significant role in Afghanistan which can also be helpful for Russia to counter the emerging threats. Therefore, Pakistan must pursue its new relationship with Russia vigorously and should keep it independent of its relationships with other countries.
*Baber Ali Bhatti, Associated with Strategic Vision Institute (SVI), a think-tank based in Islamabad, Pakistan.