THE BEAR HUG

The Tribune

FS Aijazuddin

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s recent overtures to Islamabad go well beyond Tsar Nicholas’ nostalgia for Central Asian affinities

Nicholas Romanov II (once Tsar of all Russias and now St. Nicholas) should congratulate Vladimir Putin (once a KGB operative and now Tsar of a truncated Russia) on reviving Russian presence in the areas that are now in Pakistan. In February 1891, Nicholas (then Tsarevitch) visited Punjab during his grand tour of the East. His scribe described Lahore as ‘picturesque in its oriental flavour’, resembling ‘Central Asia’. That cultural affinity may have inspired Putin to reconstruct a modern monument to Pakistan-Russia connections, albeit on uneven foundations.

Since 1947, Pakistan’s relations with Russia have alternated between Siberian winters and Black Sea summers. The first chill occurred when, in the 1950s, Pakistan played the US card to tantalise Soviet Union. In the 1960s, despite the U-2 spy-plane incident, the Soviets collaborated with Pakistan to conduct oil and gas exploration across Pakistan’s geography. (That was the age of pre-satellite espionage).

The Indo-Pak wars of 1965 and 1971, ironically, threw Russia and Pakistan together, first at the Russian-brokered peace conference in Tashkent in 1966 and then with the Trojan horse gift of the Pakistan Steel Mills (PSM). No one in Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s government had the temerity to examine PSM’s minutiae: the outdated technology, the onerous terms of finance; and the irreversible dependence on imported iron ore in preference to local ore from Kalabagh. The PSM project (conceived under duress) began in 1973 and took over 10 years to complete. After 30 years of mechanical negligence, it has accumulated losses and debts of almost Rs 500 billion.

A thaw in the Pakistan-Russia relations came almost without warning. In 2017, Putin decided to sell four Mi-35 — Hind attack helicopters — to Pakistan (could there have been a more provocative name?). If Putin had offered 400 tons of caviar to Pakistan, they would not have caused the same discomfort to India than these four helicopters did. The paradigm of Indo-US-Russian-Pakistani relations suddenly took on a new configuration. Previous alliances (India/Russia; Pakistan/US) were swapped into new partnerships spawned by unabashed self-interest.

Putin’s recent overtures to Pakistan go well beyond Tsar Nicholas’ nostalgia for Central Asian affinities. Maturely, Putin has chosen to forget the abrupt cancellation of his visit to Pakistan (scheduled for October 2012), citing a ‘lack of substance’.  Now seven years later, that substance has begun to solidify.

In January this year, a large Russian energy company, RAO-Engineering, expressed an interest in investing $2 billion in Pakistan’s cash-hungry energy sector. This was capped by an agreement this month between Pakistan’s Inter-State Gas Systems (ISGS) and Russia’s Gazprom. They signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) to conduct a joint feasibility study regarding gas supplies from the Middle East to South Asian countries.

And this month, a Russian state enterprise, Tyazhpromexport, (undaunted by PSM’s insolvency and closure for the past three years), has proposed to the Pakistan government a plan for balancing and modernisation of the huge PSM complex. The plan envisages financing from a loan and support by Russian expertise to run the refurbished mill. It is the promise of a miracle that would have tempted even Lazarus to resurrect.

Will all these Russian MOUs and proposals reach fruition? Only President Putin knows for sure. He is shrewd. He has calculated that PM Narendra Modi may be re-elected, albeit with a reduced majority; Trump intends to quit Afghanistan but not the White House; President Xi Jinping is secure for life; and PM Imran Khan will wear boots for the next four years. Could there be a better time for the Russian bear to emerge from its hibernation and to give its Pakistani neighbour an ominous hug?