Pakistan-Russia Relations: Breaking Up With History

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January 2, 2020 Shamsa Nawaz

Saddled with the mistrust of the Cold War era, the new alliance swaps between India and the US and Pakistan and Russia, have led the geo-political terrain of South Asia to be once again multi-dimensionally open for these major rivals to contest. This paradigm shift can be best understood in the backdrop of the theory of integration. 

This theory has seen three phases up until now. The sub-theory of transactionalism and neo-functionalism dominated the decades of 1950s and 1960s. The second phase of the late 1960s and early 1970s experienced the characterisation of intense revisionism. It was largely short lived (1) and experienced progress in theory only. Yet, in its second phase, the integration theory suffered during the late 1970s, as relations were particularly framed within a more uni-polar world order (2). What possible shape the new emerging international governance system would take in the premise of the theories of disintegration and diversity can thus be best measured in the South Asian model. Driven by the US’s “Asia Pivot”, Putin’s “Reach East” and India’s “Look East” policies, the region’s geo-politics have become even further complicated by the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The flagship project of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, the membership of both India and Pakistan into the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, the Russo-Taliban rapprochement, the Iran-Taliban détente and US-India harmonization are all contributing to the current political tremors being felt throughout South Asia. 

Pakistan is at the centre-stage of such shifting paradigms, with President Trump’s disrespectful remarks standing as a case in point. On January 1, 2018, he tweeted that Pakistan “ has given the US nothing but lies and deceit” and that “The United States has foolishly given Pakistan more than 33 billion dollars in aid over the last 15 years,” (3) It represents in one of the many ways Pakistan was disdainfully pushed away from being one of the US’s most important allies in its War on Terror (WoT). Yet, it could not endear the US to swim out of its love-hate relationship. Each spell of intimacy between the US and Pakistan has been followed by the emergence of a new security environment in the region with ambiguity and fiasco. Regrettably, the relationship between the two has always left behind a bad taste of animosity and doubt between both countries. 

Since the recent past, Pakistan started revamping its relations with Russia in 2012. They have both taken a pro-active approach to take the relationship forward and look towards realizing their untapped potential in greater economic and military cooperation.The foreign minister of Russia, Mr. Seregei Lavrov visited Pakistan, followed by the visit of their Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu in 2014. These visits were mutually recognized and Russia’s embargo on Pakistan was lifted. It agreed to supply four Mi-35 helicopters besides pledging to build a $1.7 billion gas pipeline from Karachi to Lahore (4). Hence, despite India’s concerns, Pakistan- Russia ties were resumed with cordiality after a lapse of several years when Pakistan played a major role against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. On the other hand, with its evolving role in the region, and renewed sanctions on Russia after the invasion of Ukraine, Russia has become even more pro-active in engaging with Pakistan. In fact, Ukraine alone has been a decisive factor in pushing Russia to explore new defense and energy markets.

Russia is particularly interested in Afghanistan due to its impact on security in the broader Central Asian context and thus is also concerned about the threat of terrorism and drugs flowing into its borders via the region. Moscow also noted the threat to regional stability arising from the presence of Islamic State in Afghanistan as the reason for its renewed interest there. Improvement in Pak-Russia relations is an apt appreciation of Pakistan’s ability to foster peace and cooperation to counter terrorism affectively. They both have a shared belief that ISIS-Khorasan (ISIS-K) is the leading threat to Afghanistan’s security. While U.S. policymakers contend that ISIS-K is a declining threat, Moscow and Islamabad have repeatedly stated that the terrorist network is gaining new recruits due to the displacement of ISIS fighters from Iraq and Syria. Building relations with Pakistan therefore has become increasingly relevant due to its strategic location and influence.(5)

Furthermore, bilateral trade between Pakistan and Russia in 2018 was estimated to touch $800 million, around $600 million more since the previous year. This however is in stark contrast to Russo-India trade relations which amount to $10 billion in 2017.  The Intergovernmental Commission (IGC) on trade, economic, scientific and technical cooperation was also set up in 2000. 

Though, Pakistan is being appreciated as a mature and responsible state, the durability of the Russia-Pakistan alignment can be explained by both countries’ common desire to reduce U.S. influence in South Asia, their shared strategies, ( since Pakistan had been an active participant in all Soviet sponsored peace negotiations) to resolve the war in Afghanistan and their adherence to similar prescriptive principles. Russia has primarily engaged in direct military cooperation with Pakistan and has to an extent defended Pakistan’s conduct in multilateral organizations as well. Russia-Pakistan cooperation in Afghanistan presents a prototype for collaboration between the two former Cold War nemeses in other international crises. At the same time, Moscow has balanced its relationship with Pakistan and India quite carefully.

Historically, South Asia has undergone profound alterations. Nonetheless, it is an exercise in multilateralism for all concerned parties as each capital is constantly testing each other’s red lines in ever-changing circumstances. With Afghanistan and Pakistan as the staging grounds, politics in South and Central Asia appears to be coming full circle with the making and breaking of alliances involving major regional and international actors. Whether the US’s bellicose rhetoric towards Pakistan can be moderated to mitigate the risks associated with the Russia-Pakistan alignment, or to instead facilitate the alignment’s consolidation by underestimating their partnership’s strength is yet to be seen. 

*Shamsa Nawaz is working as a Senior Research Associate/ Editor at Strategic Vision Institute, Islamabad.

Notes:

  1.  Douglas Kudzo-Kota Zormelo, “Integration Theories and Economic Development: A Case Study of the Political and Social Dynamics of ECOWAS”, PhD Thesis Presented at the University of London, 1994. The  London School of Economics and Political Science. http://etheses.lse.ac.uk accessed on?
  2. Ibid.
  3.  Kathy Gannon, “Trump Slams Pakistan for ‘Lies and Deceit ‘ in New Year’s Day Tweet,”, TPM, https://talkingpointsmemo.com/news/trump-slams-pakistan-lies-deceit, January 2, 2018. 
  4.  “Russia agrees to sell four MI 35 attack helicopters to  Pakistan, ”The Economic Times, https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/defence/russia-agrees-to-sell-four-mi-35-attack-helicopters-to-pakistan/articleshow/48557136.cms?from=mdr
  5.  Jeff Seldin, “”Islamic State Staggers in Afghanistan, but survives,”VoA, November 21, 2019. https://www.voanews.com/south-central-asia/islamic-state-staggers-afghanistan-survives

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