By Air Commodore (R) Khalid Iqbal 

Reaction to ‘postponement’ of President Putin’s visit to Pakistan is quite interesting. Conspiracy theorist blame American and Indian pressure, some also talk about American pressure via Saudi Arabia. Over the last two years or so, there has been a quantum jump in high level Pakistan-Russia interactions. Hence, expectations have been snowballing in the context of a pleasant reset of bilateral relations. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Viktorovich Lavrov visited Pakistan and General Kayani visited Russia on the heels of postponement of the Presidential visit. This indicates that it is not a crisis situation.

Bumpy Pak-US relations have prompted an urge in Pakistan to balance out and diversify its interests. Decades of reliance on America has resulted in multifaceted and lopsided dependencies. As of now, Pakistan can only act as a mere spectator against US policies and demands. Hence, when Obama said he had no time in New York to meet with President Zardari, no one was surprised. Obama had acted in a similar way during the NATO conference in Chicago.

Pakistan is not looking for a cold war era style break-away from the United States; it only seeks a balancing out of its relations by constructively engaging with other major powers. Moreover, it was with American urging that process of Pak-Russia normalisation started in the late 1990s. In this regard, visits by former President Musharraf in February 2003 and by President Zardari in May 2011 were landmark events. However, Russia is watching whether Pakistan is serious in bringing about a paradigm shift in its foreign policy.

Apparently, Russia and Pakistan have left behind the bitterness of the past. Nevertheless, a total interchange in roles with India switching to the US camp and Pakistan to the Russia’s is not envisaged. Russia and India have historic ties, which are unlikely to rupture. Likewise, Pakistan cannot do without the US, because Russia is not in a position to offer it requisite level of aid and defence support. Things are not set to change dramatically. Nevertheless, even a modest change would be immensely useful. Things in Afghanistan are changing where both Pakistan and Russia have a convergence of interests. The main purpose of Mr Putin’s visit was to attend the quadrilateral summit. However, he was to extensively engage with Pakistani leadership for what was described as “formalising the silent reset” in Pak-Russia relations.

There have been serious reservations and anxiety in the Indian and the US circles over the growing Pak-Russia relations. India and America have been striving hard to impede the pace. Despite its strategic alliance with United States, India still enjoys very good political, military and diplomatic relationship with Russia. India certainly cannot digest that its old and time tested partner also becomes a friend of Pakistan. Furthermore, the US too would oppose this development. In fact, America cannot afford that at this critical moment of Afghan war, Russia gets closer to Pakistan and offset the pressures that America has directed on Pakistan.

Whatever caused the deferment, Mr Putin prudently left the door open, “I am confident that in future we shall be able to find opportunities for arranging our personal meetings.” However, it is obvious that he does not intend to visit Pakistan anytime soon.

Recent signing of three MoUs between Pakistan and Russia despite the postponement of Putin’s visit suggests that planned cooperation between the two countries is continuing. Russia will provide assistance of $300 to $500 million for modernisation and expansion of Pakistan Steel Mills. It will also help in constructing New Jamshoro Power Plant of 500 MW capacity. Russia is interested in Tarbela-4, Keyal Khwar and CASA 1000 projects as well. However, there was no progress on IP pipeline project during talks held with a visiting Russian delegation. No firm commitments were given to the Russian delegation which wanted to get the project without bidding. Diplomatic observers believe that Putin was not pleased with Pakistan’s less than keen response to Russian interest in the IP project.

There is a perception that Putin may have postponed his visit because of mismatch of thinking between military and political leadership of Pakistan. Russian military chief Col-Gen Alexander Postnikov visited Pakistan last year. He had proposed the possibility of expanding defence ties by holding joint military exercises, exchanging trainees and trainers and selling and buying weapons. Air Chief Marshal Tahir Rafiq Butt visited Moscow in August. His visit has been reported as a significant development towards greater cooperation with Russia in the field of defence, particularly in air defence. Pakistan’s dependence on American military hardware is phenomenal. Pakistan’s military has always been keen to diversify its supply sources. An opening towards Russia would certainly serve the interests of military leadership.

Pakistan and Russia enjoy an excellent relationship based on mutuality of interest in enhancing greater bilateral cooperation and convergence of views on various important regional and international issues. Russia also has other reasons for moving ahead with attempts to improve links with Pakistan. Russia is seeking new markets for its military hardware to keep its economy afloat. There has also been anxiety in Moscow over India’s new found warmth with the US and other Western countries in the context of military procurements.

Russia is also keen to gain Pakistan’s help in controlling its own Muslim insurgents. It thinks that better bilateral ties could help sort out some of these problems or at least mitigate their fallout. The endgame in Afghanistan is one of the major factors behind the evolving Pak-Russia rapprochement. Russia would not like US military bases in Afghanistan and so would Pakistan. India foresees a role in Afghanistan and US military bases would provide her a dedicated strength to continue as an American proxy. Russian President’s special envoy for Afghanistan Mr Zamir Kabulov said, “Our own experience in the past and the track record of others in recent years has taught us that the problem of Afghanistan cannot be resolved without the constructive involvement of Pakistan and Iran”.

The US-Russia relationship has also run into difficulties. The US has repeatedly rebuffed the Russian attempts to insert the Collective Security Treaty Organization as a security provider for Afghanistan. Moscow’s recent decision to shut down USAID activities in Russia reminds us of the Brezhnev era. Russia is irritated by President Obama’s stance on Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) deployment in Europe. America is hitting hard at Russia’s first circle of strategic interests. Likewise, America is also helping India in developing a Ballistic Missile Defence system that would strain Pakistan’s capability of minimum credible deterrence.

These factors favour an enduring Pak-Russia relationship. In Pakistan there is a nation-wide consensus, cutting across the political divide, to develop a robust relationship with Russia. We look forward for an early rescheduling of President Putin’s visit. Both the governments should speed up the preparatory work to make the summit a resounding success.

Writer is Consultant, Policy & Strategic Response, IPRI.