Pakistan-Russo Détente In New Epoch – OpEd


After independence, Pakistan-Russia hot and cold relations could be understood through an Indo-centric prism. Both countries remained unfriendly during cold war era due to convergence of Pakistan towards US. Pakistan and Russia had not a single dispute.

Both countries acted against directly or indirectly in quest of geopolitical goals. Due to security needs, Pakistan joined US-sponsored military alliances which grew Soviet suspicions. Hence, India developed close relations with Russia, which disturbed the balance of South Asian region. Russia endorsed stand of Indian Kashmir issue at United Nations Security Council (UNSC). Pak-Russia relations were not pleasant in the cold war period as Russia supported Afghanistan government on issue of the Pakhtunistan issue.

The decade from 1979 to 1989 witnessed the worst relations between the two countries. This was the time when Pakistan supported US in Afghan war militarily and strategically. Russia and India came close to each other due to Pak-US alliance in Afghan war. This bitter phase ended in 1991 with the dissolution of Russia. 

In the later part of 1990s, a major tension produced between both countries that Pakistan was supporting the Afghan civil war of Taliban and recognized the government of Taliban in Afghanistan. Russia considered it dangerous for stability of entire region. Both countries found chances for developing better relationship in the post-cold war era. Pakistan and Russia took different initiatives to develop close ties and reviewed their old policies.

The initiatives taken by both countries include visits of government officials. The Russian Vice President Alexander Rutskoy visited Pakistan in 1992, in the same year Foreign Secretary of Pakistazn Akram Zaki visited Russia. Foreign Ministers of both countries visits in 1994 resulted in sign of an important protocol. A Russian parliamentary delegation visited Islamabad in September 1995. Alexander Vengerovsky (leader of delegation) revealed that Russia was thinking about supply of military hardware to Pakistan.

The support of Pakistan to the government of Taliban was interrupting the development of close relations between Pakistan and Russia. Russia was considering it as threat of separatism in Russia itself. Despite of this factor, both countries sustained their efforts for improving bilateral relations. In 1999, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif visited Moscow and signed trade and industrial agreements with Russia. This successful visit broke the ice and opened new chapter of pleasant bilateral relations. Russian President Boris Yeltsin declared this visit as a new hope in bilateral relations of both countries oriented into the 21st century.

The exchange of official visits between two countries became a routine in that decade. A special representative of Russian President visited Pakistan in September 1999. After meetings with officials of Pakistan he admired Pakistan in these words: “Pakistan is playing constructive role in this region and taking steps against various issues like terrorism, religious extremism and narcotics.” 

President Musharraf sent his special envoy General Mehmood to visit Russia which proved as a major development in Pak-Russia bilateral relations in 2001. In this visit, an agreement was signed between the two countries for the sale of sixteen MI-17 military cargo helicopters to Pakistan. Both countries have been indulged in positive negotiations to improve their relations since that visit which took place before 9/11 attacks. 

A major shift took place in Pakistan’s policy after 9/11 and became a front line state in war against terror. This change of policy assisted in development of pleasant relationship between Pakistan and Russia. Both countries established the Consultative Group on Strategic Stability in 2002. They signed an agreement of cooperation in the same year to maintain regional stability. Pak-Russia Business Forum and Council was created in 2002 after the visit of a Russian business delegation to Pakistan. This was the consequence of visit of Aziz Ahmed Khan Foreign Secretary to Russia in early 2002.

The target of Business council was turnover of one billion dollars investment and trade in future.  On Russian President Invitation, President Musharraf visited Moscow in 2003. It was the first visit to Russia by any Pakistani President in 33 years. This visit proved a major development in relationship of both countries. This landmark visit helped both in developing mutual buoyancy.

After talks with Russian President, Musharraf signed three different agreements to cooperate in diplomatic relations.  In July 2004, Russian Duma delegation and Foreign Minister visited Islamabad. Russia showed interest in cooperation with Pakistan in energy sector. Presidents of Pakistan and Russia met in the assembly session of UN in 2005. In the same year heads of government of both countries met during Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) meeting.

In fact, Russia decided not to veto presence of Pakistan in SCO as an observer, in return Pakistan assisted Russia in obtaining observer status at the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC). These improved relations of both countries continued in 2006 with high level official’s contacts. Again, meeting of presidents of both countries held in June 2006 on sidelines of the SCO meeting.

Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Khursheed Kasuri said in press conference on visit of his counterpart visit in November 2006: “Pakistan considers Russian assistance as an engine for Pakistan’s economic development and a symbol of stability and peace in the SCO.” The improvement in bilateral relations was happening after shift of policy of Pakistan after 9/11. The role of Pakistan in war on terror gained favours of Russia.

Russia also changed its post-cold war strategies and perceptions about Pakistan. Mikhail Fradkov, Russian Prime Minister, visited Pakistan in 2007. That was the first visit to Pakistan by Russian Prime Minister in 38 years. During his meetings with Pakistan’s president and Prime Minister, he emphasized on increasing economic cooperation between both countries.

The coming years witnessed visit of General Kayani (Chief of Army Staff of Pakistan) to Moscow in 2009 and meeting of Russian and Pakistani leadership in 2010. Both countries negotiated to boost economic and trade relations.

The basic hiatus between Pakistan and Russia relations was related to the sale of military arms. But Russian defense technologies have always trickled to forces of Pakistan via a third country. The supply of battle tank (T-80) by Ukraine to Pakistan was main example of it as these tanks were built on Russian technology.

Similarly China provided JF-17 fighter planes to Pakistan in 2009 which were powered by RD-93 engines of Russia. Pakistan and Russia have realized the importance of each other in last ten years. The struggle of both countries to re write history in their relations is just like covering a distance of hundred miles.

A great development took place in bilateral relations when Prime Minister of Russia Vladimir Putin clearly supported the request of Pakistan for SCO membership in 2011. He admired Pakistan for its efforts against terrorism. He declared Pakistan as an important partner of Russian in South Asia. Russia proposed its technical assistance to Pakistan for the Guddu and Muzaffargarh power plants.

Actually India-US strategic partnership was the major factor behind efforts of Russia to develop warm relations with Pakistan.  Now, three way strategic relationship is developing; between India and Afghanistan, India and US, and Afghanistan and US. In this context US is going to favour India as compare to Pakistan. Hence, this factor is bringing Pakistan and Russia closer.

In his visit to Moscow in 2011, President Zardari tried to assured Russian leaders that Pakistan is interested in developing positive relationship with Russia forgetting bitterness of old relations.  Both countries signed an agreement regarding energy and air services. Pakistan and Russia has covertly developed strategic ties due to changing International scenario. Russia finally has reached a conclusion that Pakistan will be an important partner in Afghanistan in the wake of departure of NATO led ISAF and US forces by 2014.

In this regard, Russia speeded up the enhancement of relations with Pakistan. Pakistan and Russia have increased contacts in context of strategic relations. In October 2012, Chief of army Staff of Pakistan Ashfaq Kayani visited Moscow which proved as an important milestone in bilateral relations.

In return, Russian Col. Gen. Vladimir V. Chirkin visted to Islamabad in 2013. Correspondingly in 2014, all three Commanders-In-Chief of Russia’s armed forces visited Pakistan.  In the same year, Russia showed interest to Pakistan in sale of its military arms. Hence, Russia lifted its self-induced ban on military hardware supply to Pakistan in June 2014.

In this regard, both countries signed an agreement to supply four Mi-35 Hind attack helicopters to Pakistan. Following this, Pakistan also showed interests in military hardware of Russia such as combat aircrafts, advanced tanks and the Su-35.  In November 2014, Russian Defense Minister visited to Pakistan and signed a broader military cooperation agreement with Pakistan. General Raheel Shareef, the Chief of army staff of Pakistan, visited Moscow in July 2015. In the enchantment of the military agreement of 2014, first joint military exercise of the two countries held in October 2016 which was named as “Friendship 2016”.

Nearly 200 military persons participated in these exercises. Pakistan became a full SCO member with the support of Russia in 2017. The participation of Pakistan in this regional summit will provide more chances to both countries to cooperate in security and economic realm.

The US-India strategic partnership was a basic assumption due to which Pakistan and Russia came closer. India was much displeased on this development and expressed strong objections on Pak-Russia military joint exercises. The envoy of India to Pakistan remarked that the military cooperation of Pakistan and Russia was a wrong approach and it would create tensions in South Asian region. The Indian Prime Minister expressed his unhappiness on Pak-Russia joint military exercises by invoking a Russian proverb in October 2016 “an old friend is better than two new friends.” Russia witnessed a strange dilemma since 9/11 with regard to Afghanistan. Moscow welcomed the termination of Taliban government in Afghanistan but it also worried about the long-term stay of US forces in the region.

Russia considers that Afghanistan possesses highly suitable geographical location for military bases set up which can exert pressure on oil and gas rich regions like Central Asia and the Persian Gulf. Russia is much concerned about the presence of US forces in Afghanistan.  The interest of Russia towards Pakistan can be viewed in the background of Moscow’s challenges in Afghan scenario.

For the stabilization of Afghanistan, Russia is considering Pakistan as an important partner. Russian government believes that Afghanistan issue cannot be resolved without constructive interaction of Pakistan and Iran. Pakistan and Russia have same views on the issue of US forces in Afghanistan. 

With the normalization of China-Russian relations in the post-cold war era, China played a role of facilitator in Pak-Russia rapprochement. Russia and China initiated the formal process of introduction of India and Pakistan in SCO. Moscow and Beijing also cooperated on issue of Afghanistan and showed common concerns in this regard. In recent years, Pakistan, Russia and China are doing trilateral consultations on security situation of Afghan region.

Being two important states of the region, Pakistan and Russia can play important role in international politics. One can conclude after observing the international changing scenario that if Pakistan and Russia work together in various grounds like liveliness, security and trade, they can bring prosperity and concord in all over the world.  Pakistan still doesn’t want to jeopardize its relation with the US government despite of its newfound close relations to Russia. The major factor behind this was vast financial and military assistance from the US. The concern about religious extremism from Afghan state to Central Asia has drawn Russia closer to Pakistan.

On the other side, Russia is giving special importance to India and it will not jeopardize its partnership with India over Pakistan. India is much alert about China-Pakistan-Russia bloc and trying to deepen its relations with all three countries. But if we consider the other side of picture that is Russia increases its influence over Pakistan then it can persuade Pakistan not to stand against India. 

But if Russia continues to provide military assistance to Pakistan and deepens its interests in selling military weapons to Pakistan then Indo-Russia relations will face detrimental effects. Pakistan being a smaller country in economic sense, it can never be compare with the Indian market in context of military weapons purchase from Russia. India is still buying military equipment worth of around $ 2 billion from Russia yearly.  India and Russia are having partnership in different multilateral forums like the RIC (Russia, India and China) BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa), and the SCO (Shanghai CooperationOrganization).

Russia considers that its better relationship with Pakistan will prove effective for normalization of Pak-India relation. Hence it can be expected that both countries will share intensive and extensive partnership in several fields. Pak-Russia relations improvement remained tense for several years for the Central and South Asian regions. The extremism and terrorism can be lessened which have proved serious threats for regional stability of Central and South Asia.

If both countries are able to forget the bitterness of their past then the opportunities to develop strong relationship through trade and energy sectors are enormous. Both countries are facing various issues like extremism, radicalism and terrorism as they are affecting the stability of entire region. 

Actually, Russia is showing much interest to Pakistan that ever before in the history. The priorities of Russia in Asian region are obviously delineated. Russia wants stability in Afghan and South Asian region. Pakistan and Russia have to manage and overcome the systematic transition and crisis in global politics. Russia wants to enjoy close relations with India as well as Pakistan to retain its markets in Central Asia and South Asia.

*Rana Danish Nisar is a PhD (International Relations) Student at the School of Politics and International Studies (SPIS). He holds Mphil in (International Relations), Masters in (Pakistan Studies), and Masters in (International Relations) degrees. He won acceptance Harvard Project for Asian and International Relations HPAIR (USA), 2017.  His research interests are broadly in South Asian Affairs, South Asia Geo-Politics, US and South Asia, Indian Ocean, Security studies, South Asian developments studies.

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