Exploring Russia’s Tilt to Pakistan

Spearhead Opinion – 16.01.2017

By Shirin Naseer
Research Analyst, Spearhead Research

The evolving international order means states are constantly reshaping policies to suit their regional and international interests. There is little room for permanence and hardly any constant friends or foes. A country’s geographical location and strategic significance can at any point in time make it desirable, despite its internal competency or lack thereof. It is within the sovereign right of any country to choose its allies. And that is how international relations work.  

Since the trilateral meeting on regional peace and stability between representatives from Pakistan, Russia and China, expectations have been snowballing on the likelihood of a pleasant reset in Pak-Russia relations. In this terrain, Pakistan’s footing is shaky at best. International media has not helped Pakistan’s case either. There is a lot of speculation on Russia’s supposed ‘tilt’ towards Pakistan and the dangers this tilt could pose to the future of Russia-India relations.

In order to fully comprehend and appreciate Pakistan’s standing in the international community there is a need to identify the motivations behind such a tilt- if there is any at all.

Russia and Pakistan have been Cold War rivals since the late 1980s when Pakistan assisted the US in taking on the mighty Red army in Afghanistan; about 14,000 Soviet soldiers were killed and more than 35,000 were wounded as a result. Pakistan sponsored the Afghan Islamist mujahideen responsible for most of the casualties. While Pakistan joined the US camp, Russia drew closer to India forming deeper political, military and diplomatic relations. The geopolitical vector did not alter for a long time after the USSR collapsed. 

Of late, however Russia has shown willingness to rekindle bilateral relations. According to one view tremendous change can be expected in the tides of Pak-Russia relations.

After a quarter of a century has passed, things seem to be looking up. Prompted by the war against ISIS, the growing axis between China, Russia and Pakistan has led to a quantum jump in Pak-Russia interactions.

At this point, relations between Pakistan and Russia can be characterized as vulnerable, conditional, and marked by great uncertainties—a “partnership of convenience”.

Afghanistan is a key Russian interest. Russia wants to curb a radical jihadists’ spillover to Central Asia. Hence, Russia’s own counter-terrorism and security concerns can be understood as the raison d’être behind Russia’s rapprochement with Pakistan. Russia also has contacts with former Afghan President Hamid Karzai who is now openly anti US. Russia with India also has links to former Northern Alliance members now in Afghanistan’s National Unity government.

Moscow’s sense of vulnerability in the face of the ISIS threat can serve Islamabad’s interests well: Russia’s diplomatic outreach toward the Taliban has both given legitimacy to the Taliban insurgency and has also upset the Afghan government’s efforts to militarily defeat the Taliban. Pakistan is largely dependent on China for economic and political support. It is faced with international pressure, scorn, and isolation stemming from India and Afghanistan. Pakistan has also received criticism by US and NATO countries ‘to do more’ and find a political solution to the Afghan conflict.

The decision for rapprochement took the international community by surprise because Russia had risked impinging on Moscow-New Delhi relations. Those that deem the Pak-Russia alliance an alliance of convenience see the future of Pak-Russia relations as unlikely- questioning whether the two will or can grow any closer by virtue of that fact that the alliance is contingent on Russia’s interest in eliminating the ISIS threat.

Added to that, actual signs of improvement in the Pak-Russia friendship are also scant.  

Last year, the first joint military exercises were held in Cherat (home of Pakistan’s Special Forces) involving 70 Russian and 130 Pakistani Special Forces. After the 18 September militant attack on an Indian army base, despite India asking Russia to call off the exercise, Russia went ahead with the military games and senior army officers from both countries visited the exercise.

Pakistan offered Russia the use of Gwadar port. From Tsarist times, Russia has expressed interest in getting access to a port in the Gulf. The Gwadar port is however yet to become fully operational and it is surrounded by insurgencies in Afghanistan and Balochistan province. Moreover, Pakistan has not yet made it clear whether it would allow Russian warships to dock in the area.

Russia lifted its decades-old arms embargo against Islamabad. With that, Moscow agreed to sell four Mi-35M helicopters to Pakistan and welcomed Islamabad to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). Russian Army Commander-in-Chief Oleg Salyukov also announced the first-ever “mutual special drills in mountainous terrain,” and Khawaja Asif, Pakistan’s defense minister, visited Moscow to discuss prospects for enhancing cooperation. Pakistan has expressed interest in the Russian T-90 tank.

It is argued that the Russian pivot towards Asia, especially Pakistan, has been overplayed in the media. Bilateral relations have been far from harmonious during previous decades. Presently, the Pak-Russia relationship is ascending- but only gingerly. Part of the reason why Russians are proceeding with such caution is because of their lengthy partnership with India, which they still value very much.

India is the largest market in the world for Russia’s arms and military aircraft, and has remained so for the past three years. Russia reveres its relationship with India. Russia and India are supplying arms and helicopters to Afghanistan. Supplying weapons is a tenet of Russia’s foreign policy strategy. Neither does Russia want nor can it afford to completely cut its outreach to India and that too for Pakistan- a country that has only recently become a friend.

In March 2016 PM Sharif pushed for President Vladimir Putin to visit Pakistan.  Russia however declined the offer saying that there was not enough reason on the agenda to warrant a visit. No Russian or Soviet president has ever visited Pakistan. Several high-ranking Pakistani officials however have traveled to Moscow to help lay the groundwork for a robust Pak-Russia strategic partnership. 

Altering geopolitical realities has motivated Russian foreign policy to venture forth and explore new horizons; despite historic relations with New Delhi, Russia is moving closer to accepting Pakistan as a potential partner. However, Pakistan cannot be expected to become a major partner to Russia any time soon.

Russia is keen on staying closely connected to India. Given recent developments, India recognizes Russia’s security concerns and at the same time it also acknowledges that the Pak-Russia partnership will likely continue to evolve in proportionality to India-US ties.

Russia and Pakistan share a common threat: the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) recruiting in Russia, Central Asia, Pakistan and Afghanistan. The most important challenge is finding a balance between Russia’s relations with Pakistan and its relation with India. Both Pakistan and Russia have a long way to go before bilateral relations can be held in comparison to Pak-China relations.

The Pak-China friendship has crossed the uncharted waters of cooperation and diplomacy time and time again. The extent to which Pak-Russia relations can take a similar path is yet to be discovered, since several challenges await the two new friends.