Russia’s Foreign Policy Challenges

Spearhead Opinion – 25.09.2017

By Shirin Naseer
Research Analyst, Spearhead Research

President Trump’s August 21 speech infuriated Pakistan by accusing it of supporting terrorism and undermining US efforts in the region. Following the speech, Russia became one of the first few countries to rush to Pakistan’s defense. A senior foreign office official told The Express Tribune that Russia only stepped up upon Pakistan’s request. Shortly after, Pakistan put off the visit of a US delegation led by acting representative of US on Afghanistan & Pakistan, Alice Wells. Since then Pakistan has made efforts to enhance relations with Russia; Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff General Qamar Javed Bajwa will be visiting Russia in the first week of October. 

The Pak-Russia relationship has come a long way. Given the history between the Cold War-era rivals, Russia rushing to Pakistan’s aid is significant even today. Pakistan has increased its military and diplomatic contacts with Russia remarkably. The fact that it has been able to do so when Russia shares a long and close friendship with its arch-rival India is indicative of the success of Russia’s foreign policy strategy in South Asia.

Russia has far greater economic and security links with India than it does with Pakistan. Still, Russia has chosen to deepen military cooperation with India and Pakistan simultaneously. Days after Pakistan and Russia held negotiations over the purchase of S-35 war planes, Moscow hosted comprehensive joint military drills with India on August 13.

Conscious of the disparate and diverse challenges involved, Russia has managed to bilaterally engage both countries in two crucial areas of mutual interest: counter-terrorism and border tensions.

Fighting transnational terrorism is an important issue to India and Pakistan alike. India has routinely called “Pakistan-sponsored terrorism” a major threat to regional stability. Pakistani media outlets have even pinned terrorism on the marginalization of Muslims in India. All the while, Russia has refrained from holding any one of the two countries solely responsible. Moscow has instead negotiated with the two countries in areas where constructive solutions can be reached, carefully keeping in mind their individual sensitivities. This has helped Russia maintain a highly effective balancing strategy.

Russia’s counter-terrorism efforts with respect to supporting its ally India have consisted of helping enforce stricter cross-border controls on the movement of religious extremists. In an attempt to show his commitment to fighting the facilitators of terrorism, Russian President Vladimir Putin supported India’s ‘counter-terrorism raid’ in Kashmir after the 2016 Uri attacks and publicly commended New Delhi’s counter-terrorism policies during his June meeting with PM Modi. 

For Islamabad, Moscow has repeatedly highlighted Pakistan’s indispensability as a counter-terrorism partner. Russia has had to oftentimes counter the Trump administration’s tough rhetoric in a show of solidarity. Moscow has played a crucial role in giving Pakistan a diplomatic profile in the Moscow-based peace talks hosted on the Afghan crisis. Subsequently, this has helped relieve Pakistani officials of any doubts on Russia’s motives. Convinced of its support, Pakistan has worked for the expansion of Russia’s diplomatic presence in the Afghan peace-making process.

Russia opted for a non-committal approach in the Kashmir conflict as well. In many ways this has contributed to the stability of Russia’s balancing strategy. Instead of pushing for the interests of either side Russia has stressed its impartiality in the impasse– projecting itself strictly as a mediator in the security crisis. Bilateral dialogue between Putin and former Pakistani PM Nawaz Sharif at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit in June highlighted Russia’s role as a mediator in the Kashmir issue.

If Indo-Pak relations improve due to Russian efforts, Russia will not only secure access to new markets for military equipment but it will also benefit from great power status, owing to its influence in the Asia-Pacific region. Russia’s ‘balancing strategy’ has helped significantly improve its chances in becoming a key player in the regional power dynamics. Russia is perhaps on its way to be listed in the same league as its competitors US and China.

Its foreign strategy whether it is with regards to helping Russia simultaneously maintain ties with regional rivals India and Pakistan or successfully secure a non-committal role in the North Korean security crisis, undeniably demonstrates its diplomatic prowess.

On the North Korean crisis, Russia has surprisingly been able to follow a cooperative and balanced approach: criticizing North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile tests on a case-by-case basis whilst strictly refraining from any generalized condemnations. Moscow vetoed on the April 19 UN resolution condemning North Korea’s nuclear tests. Owing to its balanced stance perhaps Moscow could get some leverage over North Korea, if Chinese commitment to the DPK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) fades and US-North Korea tensions further surge.

Interestingly enough, Pyongyang’s state-controlled news agency, KCNA, put Russia at the top of the list of countries friendly toward the DPRK, replacing China and pushing it down to a close second. Pyongyang’s symbolic show of solidarity with Russia is accompanied by various economic deals that further cement the bilateral relationship.

Given the current crisis, Russia and China’s opposition to a unilateral US military strike against North Korea’s nuclear facilities is more pronounced than ever. There is growing concern between the two regarding the Trump administration’s belligerent policies and confrontational approach towards the DPRK. Officials from both countries are of the opinion that bilateral diplomacy may be able to convince Kim Jong-Un to transition to a more peaceful foreign policy passage.

Apart from non-compliance with UN sanctions, Russian and Chinese policymakers have made several military pledges and moves attempting to block potential US strikes against Pyongyang.

As the situation on the Korean peninsula gets more serious by the day, it will be interesting to see whether China and Russia are able to continue coordinating strategies in dealing with North Korea. This can be of special interest to Pakistan since failure to do so apart from threatening regional stability and peace may also hold serious repercussions for the Pakistan-China-Russia trilateral.