The mere possibility of new contender for world leadership in the form of China, maybe in the distant future, has exacerbated geopolitical realignments in the international system. These alignments are primarily from regional to international. International politics has never been and will never be on linear progression at any given time. There always have been and will be countries dissatisfied with the dominant order. During the Cold War, the opposing world orders were structured on an ideological basis. These ideological divisions held sway on relations among the states in the last decade of the 20th century. The ideology that will primarily drive relations among states in the 21st century is none other but that related to economics.
Pakistan and the Russian Federation started rapprochement in the 21st century towars establishing meaningful bilateral relations after decades of troubled relations. Pakistan and the former Soviet Union — to that of Russia as a successor state — were poles apart with respect to international and regional politics during the Cold War. Factors like 9/11, the economic rise of China, the American presence in Afghanistan and terrorism resulted in bringing both states together and narrowing the gaps about regional outlooks that both states followed. Though Russia initially welcomed the American-led attack on Afghanistan, but over period grew wary about prolonged presence of Western forces.
Pakistan and Russia after conducting naval exercises for the curbing of drug trafficking moved to joint counterterrorism exercises between ground forces. Both these exercises sent strong political tremors, rather than just marking the dawn of an era for military collaboration. The reaction from India about Pakistan-Russia counterterrorism exercises showed the hypocrisy that India attaches to regional counterterrorism collaboration. Instead of welcoming such cooperation, India showed reservations.
Pakistan-USA relations remained a strong base when Pakistan and Russia were on opposing sides and now that same bilateral relation has been bringing both countries together. Regional instability will enhance the areas of convergence between the two countries along with presence of China as a positive enabler. Pakistan and Russia now seem to be having a convergence of interest when it comes to peace in Afghanistan. For Pakistan, the Afghan-led reconciliation process for enduring peace and political stability by bringing all political forces, including Afghan Taliban, on term with each other is a primary objective. Russia is concerned about possibility of ISIS having ranks and safe havens in Afghanistan. The fear of fighters who have gone from Central Asian states to fight under the banner of the terrorist organization ISIS gaining an advantage to destabilize Afghanistan has made Russia to show an increased interest in South Asia.
The dynamics of the onslaught of irregular warfare by terrorist organizations tests the limits of power that state actors wield. Often despite amassing massive power, states have been unable to convert power into influence when it comes to influencing negative non-state actors. America has been inhibited despite being the sole super power in the international system to influence the Afghan Taliban fora political reconciliation and accepting the US established political structure by becoming part of the system on its terms.
The US military establishment believes that the drawdown implemented during Barack Obama’s tenure in White House hamstrung the US and Coalition Forces in Afghanistan for effectively manufacturing the strategic objective of forcing Taliban for political reconciliation by effectively defeating them in the battlefield. Donald Trump’s position on fighting ‘Islamic Militancy’ and the Republican Party-led US Congress mean that budgetary constraints that forced the draw down and a relative disengagement through force restructuring in Afghanistan will be reversed and potentially break the stalemate. Though no general is ever satisfied with the availability of resources at his disposal, the grievance of a shortage of men and money will be addressed for US counter terrorism efforts in the Afghanistan theatre.
For Pakistan, Russia could be an alternative to China, in meeting its security needs through the procurement of advanced weapons systems. Both Pakistan and Russia can play productive roles for regional security, especially with reference to terrorism and fighting drug trafficking via the Shanghai Cooperation Organization platform. Any regional connectivity initiative linking South Asia with Central Asia cannot be successful without strong Russian support.
The effective utilization of the geographic advantage of Pakistan for providing sea access to Central Asian Republics will become a reality after taking Russia on board. The possibility of Russia eventually joining the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) cannot be ruled out as growth in Russia is linked with that of the Chinese economy. With the rise of China as strong economic power, and regional connectivity initiatives, foreign policy realignments will be the obvious consequence.
Pakistan is facing an energy shortage and Russia has abundant energy resources, but substantial ground work has not been done for structuring relations on a sound economic basis. Expecting a highest level political visit from Russian leadership without doing the necessary ground work for commercial projects — including the proposed North-South pipeline for pumping Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) from Karachi to Lahore — will not be realistic. Pakistan should explore and seek Russian assistance for investment in constructing electricity lines and gas supply pipelines from Central Asian countries to Pakistan. The policy makers in Pakistan have a tendency to put all their eggs in one basket. Pakistan needs to play a balancing act when it comes to establishing strong long-term relations with Russia without estranging America.
*The author is Research Associate with Strategic Vision Institute, a think tank based in Islamabad.