In what can be regarded as one of the most resounding shifts in Pakistani foreign policy, during his visit to Moscow in May this year, Pakistan’s President Asif Ali Zardari offered Russia the use of Pakistani territory to gain access to the southern seas, a geopolitical goal which Russians have pursued throughout their entire history. When, in 1979, the Red Army invaded Afghanistan, many in the Soviet Politburo conceived the operation as the first step for a subsequent invasion of Iran and the neutralization of Pakistan, with the aim of creating a pro-Soviet bloc stretching from the Mediterranean coast of Syria to the Indian Ocean. US support to the mujahideen, through Pakistani ISI, eventually turned Afghanistan into the graveyard of the Soviet empire.
After the end of the Cold War, relations between Moscow and Islamabad remained cold, mostly due to continued Pakistani support to Islamic fundamentalism first, and closer US-Pakistan relations later, after the September 11 attacks. Nevertheless, throughout the last two decades, neither the ISI has completely ceased support to Islamist groups in Central Asia, nor the Pakistani government has regarded its alliance with Washington as genuine. Significantly, in his 2006 memoirs, former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf claims he was given an ultimatum after military threats “to go back to the Stone Age” by US President George W. Bush through Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage and Secretary of State Colin Powell should Pakistan refused to join the Americans in the War on Terror.
As a result of deteriorated relations with Washington – partly because of always less tolerated American interference in its internal affairs, and partly because of the rising “strategic partnership” between the US and India, Pakistan’s traditional rival – Islamabad is diversifying its foreign policy, improving its relations with China, Brazil, Malaysia, Indonesia and Turkey, and working on its ties with Germany, France, and especially Russia. The latter’s relations with India are, in fact, not as good as they used to be during the Cold War, when Delhi was a Soviet ally against the Sino-American axis, while the Russian leadership is increasingly concerned about the future of Afghanistan following US withdrawal, scheduled for 2014. Therefore, the Russian-Pakistani rapprochement is the adequate response to the new balance of power in Southern Asia for both Moscow and Islamabad.
Not surprisingly, India is apprehensive about a possible further strengthening of the Russian-Pakistani relationship. In the past two months, a number of events have indeed indicated Moscow’s preference to Islamabad over Delhi. A visit to India of former Russian defense minister Anatoly Serdyukov, scheduled for October 4, was postponed to allow the Russian official to meet with Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, who had on the very same day arrived in Russia on an official visit. Later on, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov cancelled his visit to India and landed in Pakistan, where he tried to clarify the misperceptions that had arisen due to the postponement of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to the country, taking that chance to express Russia’s support for Islamabad’s stance on Afghanistan.
Contrary to the US perceptions, Russia in fact realizes the importance of Pakistan for a peaceful settlement of the Afghan conflict. Furthermore, the Kremlin knows that a geopolitical alliance in which Moscow recognizes Pakistani influence in Afghanistan would make it easier for Islamabad to put under control the ISI’s secret “S wing,” – which is suspected of aiding terrorist groups in South and Central Asia – thereby helping to preserve stability along the southern border of the future Eurasian Union. As a result, the rising Moscow-Islamabad axis might actually lead to the establishment of a Russo-Pakistani condominium in Central Asia and be a factor of stability for the entire Eurasia, realizing the alliance between Orthodoxy and Islam envisioned two centuries ago by Russian thinker Konstantin Leontiev as a geopolitical response to the decline of the West.
This article appeared at Window on Heartland and is reprinted with permission.