General Agha Yahya Khan succeeded General Ayub Khan in March 1969. With the departure of Ayub Khan and the ensuing political uncertainty in the country and probably on the protestations of India, the Soviet supply of sensitive military hardware to Pakistan slowed down to a trickle. The most important foreign visit undertaken by General Yahya Khan was to Moscow in early 1970. The visit had two main objectives – to explore the avenue for mutually advantageous economic cooperation and trade and the Soviet agreement for the establishment of a Steel Mill in Pakistan. The Soviets had earlier made such offer but the Pakistani leadership had not taken their offer seriously. The Soviet leaders warmly welcomed General Yahya Khan receiving him at the Moscow airport by President Podgorny, Prime Minister Kosygin, Defence Minister Marshal Grechko and Deputy Foreign Minister Firyubin.
He was lodged in one of the Tsarist palaces and entertained to sumptuous banquets in a cordial and convivial atmosphere with Podgorny and Kosygin taking their turns to toast him with the Russian vodka. There was a formal dinner in honour of the Pakistani leader by Prime Minister Kosygin. The talks following the dinner were frank and wide ranging. The Soviet Prime Minister was not happy with the formal speech of General Yahya Khan who had deliberately avoided touching the Tashkent Pact. In Pakistan, Mr. Bhutto had subjected the Pact to severe criticism to the chagrin of Prime Minister Kosygin. The next day in the formal talks at the Kremlin, President Podgorny told Yahya Khan that Kosygin was stuck in the Tashkent Pact. Yahya Khan tried to satisfy the Soviet leader by terming the brouhaha against the Pact as the political sloganeering in the run up to the impending general elections.
The delegation was taken in a luxurious train to Saint Petersburg (then Leningrad). The journey in itself was not less than a feast with all those vodka glasses making a round in the small coterie surrounding General Yahya. As the two day visit to Saint Petersburg concluded, the President and his entourage boarded the special train for the last night stay in Moscow. Ambassador Jamshed Marker writes in his “Cover Point” that two senior officials of the Soviet Foreign Ministry and KGB approached him saying that their leadership was surprised why the Pakistani guests did not raise the question of the resumption of arm supplies during the talks and that they were intrigued whether this issue was no more important for Pakistan. If this issue had the same importance as before, then the President should raise it with the Soviet leaders who would accompany him in the morning to the airport. After this talk with the Soviet officials, Ambassador Jamshed Marker dashed to the Presidential saloon where General Yahya Khan – relaxed and upbeat about the success of his visit – was busy in having a drinking party and dinner.
After hearing Jamshed Marker and a similar message from the Soviet Ambassador to Pakistan, Mr. Degtyar, conveyed by the Foreign Secretary, S.M. Yousaf, General Yahya dismissed his drinking party and put heads together to examine the Soviet leadership’s message. The next morning the PIA special plane was delayed for two hours as General Yahya Khan was huddled with President Podgorny and Prime Minister Kosygin in the Limousine carrying three of them, talking about the resumption of arm supplies to Pakistan. After two hours, they emerged from the Limousine with all smiles that reflected a grand agreement on this question. On his return from Moscow, General Yahya had duly informed the Ministry of Defence about the Soviet agreement for resumption of arm supplies.
The matter was to be pursued by the officials. Ambassador Jamshed Marker was asked to formally approach the Soviet side to reactivate arm supplies to Pakistan. Ambassador Marker found the Soviet officials somewhat cold towards the issue. Finally, he took up the issue with Prime Minister Kosygin. He was shocked to hear the Soviet Prime Minister advising him to ‘concentrate on economic development and not accelerate the matter of arms supplies’. The Soviets response genuinely infuriated Islamabad. The Soviets nudged the Pakistani leaders to raise the issue and then they themselves backed out without giving any cogent reason. This riddle could not be solved even after long years.
During the Presidency of General Yahya, the second consequential turn in Pakistan and Soviet relations took place when we played the bridging role between the USA and the People’s Republic of China for rapprochement in 1970. First, we arranged the clandestine trip of Dr. Henri Kissinger to Peking (Beijing) and then President Richard Nixon’s visit to China. The matter was kept so secret that the messages between the USA President, Yahya Khan and Mao Zedong were always handwritten and carried by special messengers. The Chinese Premier Chou En Lai had famously described this modus operandi as ‘From a Head of State through a Head of State to a Head of State’. Our intermediary role in the visit and the resultant détente between the USA and China came as a big shock to the Soviet Union. The Soviet leaders were infuriated at the audacity and the disloyalty of Pakistan. Ambassador Jamshed Marker quotes a Russian Professor, Yuri Gankovsky, passing a remark on the event that ‘it had the same effects in Moscow as the U-2 spy plane’. The Soviets wasted no time in signing a Security and Friendship Treaty with India that apparently aimed at Pakistan and China.
The last straw on the camel’s back came when the Shah of Iran, during the celebrations to mark the centennial of the Iranian monarchy held at the ruins of Persepolis, lodged General Yahya Khan in a luxurious tent next to those of the Soviet leaders. The Shah of Iran had deliberately chosen two tents in close proximity for the Soviet and Pakistani leaders. In the flush of his megalomaniac importance, the Iranian Monarch intended to play an intermediary role to arrest the rapid deterioration of bilateral relations between Pakistan and the Soviet Union. What happened between General Yahya and his Soviet neighbours in this luxurious tent city was a rude shock to the Iranian Monarch and the Pakistanis as well. President Yahya Khan – drunk and flamboyant – did not take the bullies of the Soviet President Podgorny and Prime Minister Kosygin quietly and retaliated with equally harsh language with abuses and expletives freely tossed at each other.
The Soviets took their revenge by fully assisting India in the unfortunate war in East Pakistan that climaxed in the humiliation of our army and the dismemberment of Pakistan. The Soviet Union moved its war ships and nuclearized submarines in the Indian Ocean and close to the theatre of war to ward off any help to Pakistan from the USA or China. The Soviet Ambassador to the UN, Yaakov Malik, with a taunting smile on his face, went on vetoing every resolution seeking ceasefire and cessation of hostilities until the Indian objectives in the war were achieved. By the time the infamous ‘Poland Resolution’ came for consideration by the UN Security Council, India had already practically dismembered Pakistan and secured the agreement of the Pakistani Generals for surrender. Both the USA and China could not bring themselves up to rescue this country in the face of the Soviet determination.
In the remaining Pakistan, Z.A. Bhutto took over as the first ever civilian Martial Law Administrator and later as President after the surrender of Generals in Dhaka and the ensuing revolt in the rank and file of the army in the GHQ Rawalpindi. Late Bhutto was virtually collecting the broken pieces to rebuild the ship. He was always seen moving like a hurricane in the country to restore the shattered confidence of the nation and running around the world and exploring avenues to rebuild the army and take the truncated Pakistan out of economic morass. In the early 1972, he headed to Moscow to repair Pakistan’s relations with the Soviet Union, seeking their help in settling matters with India. After the role of the Soviet Union in the breakup of Pakistan, there was a gridlock on bilateral relations between the two countries. Bhutto wanted to bulldoze this gridlock with his oratory, charm and skillful diplomacy at the early stage of his power.
On landing in Moscow, Bhutto found the atmosphere frosty as contrasted with the warmth and ambience that characterized his visit to the Kremlin more than a decade ago. This time, he had to face the stony-faced Soviet leaders including Leonid Brezhnev and Kosygin. The question of the Steel Mill had been lingering for the last two years and the resumption of arms supply was overtaken by the subsequent cataclysmic events. Bhutto did not have many options or maneuvering space to bring the Soviet leaders round to accepting his terms. His position was weak and his maneuvering options limited. However, he managed to salvage the matter of the Steel Mill and persuaded his hosts to help him with technical assistance to complete the venture. He also secured the Soviet goodwill for, if not a meaningful friendship with, Pakistan. He also persuaded his hosts to use their influence with the Indian leadership to resolve the post war issues with Pakistan. The Joint Communiqué noted that a new Trade Agreement would be negotiated between the USSR and Pakistan in line with the desire of both the countries to develop mutually beneficial trade and economic cooperation.
Ambassador Jamshed Marker, in his Cover Point, terms the visit successful. According to him, though the Soviet Prime Minister, Kosygin remained skeptical, late Bhutto was able to strike a resonant chord with the Secretary General Leonid Brezhnev, and ‘made a real breakthrough in restoring our relations with the USSR and that was what really mattered’. According to some accounts, one of the offers late Bhutto made to the Soviet leader, Leonid Brezhnev, in his one-on-one meeting was the facility of the Gwadar Seaport keeping in view the Russian long pursuit of access to the warm waters of the Arabian Sea. As late as in 1969, the Soviets had offered to build a long road from the town of Chaman to Seaports of Jewani or Gwadar. They were rebuffed by Pakistan. This time, Bhutto’s offer did not elicit any enthusiasm from the Soviet leadership.