Since after the collapse of Communism and the Soviet Union its conversion into a federation and emergence of independent republics, there is no doubt that the Russians have resurged under the dynamic leadership of President Putin into hitherto new imperial power second only to China and the United States. As a matter of fact, President Putin has transformed the country into an inspiring world leader in the comity of nations.
With the demise of the Soviet Union, a fragmented federation should have met an ignominious end. But it did not. It emerged more strong than it was, having wider influence than ever before. One of the major developments that shall remain hallmark of the Putin era is the drastic changes in its foreign policy, expansion of Russian trade and commercial interests challenging the United States. Moscow remains undisturbed as the world’s most formidable nuclear, scientific and industrial power denuding the United States role as a unipolar power.
The most significant development in foreign policy relates to growing ties of Moscow with Islamabad unlike the past when Pakistan did not respond to erstwhile Soviet Union’s overtures as early as 1948 to seek friendship with Pakistan. Indeed, that colossal diplomatic faux paw continues to hang around Pakistan’s neck as perhaps its most destructive foreign policy blunders ever.
The newly born, largest Muslim state was recognised in comity of nations as the kingpin in international politics with dominant role among the Islamic countries. And the Soviet leadership did utmost to build bridges with Pakistan obviously its objective was to have a foundation in Pakistan to spread its diplomatic tentacles in the Muslim world through Pakistan.
Unfortunately, Pakistan was still under the influence of the Anglo-American masters strongly represented by the former British trained ICS officers who had held on to our bureaucracy and dictated them Pakistan’s Foreign policy. Even our Foreign Minister Sir Zafarullah Khan was beholden to the British colonial masters. As a result, our bureaucrats manning the Pakistan Foreign Office, got scuttled by the Soviet invitation to Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan. Instead Pakistan Foreign office managed to procure an American invited to Washington. Indeed, there could not be a bigger blunder than bypassing the invitation of the Soviet Union. According to a senior diplomat of Pakistan foreign office—Sultan Mohammad Khan, the British trained Babus’ excuse for not establishing Pakistan embassy in Moscow was not having adequate staff who could understand and do business transaction in Russia, In the meanwhile Pakistan’s ambassador to Iran Raja Ghazanfar Ali Khan was made to look Moscow as our envoy.
Obviously, there was no turning back from this blunder and our relations with Moscow could not really get off the ground. On the other hand India took advantage of this Pakistani diplomatic blunder. It may be mentioned here that immediately after independence Indians could not lay the foundation of good relations with Moscow. They sent an important person such as Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s sister Mrs Vijay Laxmi Pandit as India’s ambassador to Moscow. I read in an account of the then Indian Charge d’ affaire at the India embassy in Moscow over the undiplomatic behaviour of the Soviet Foreign Office when it did not immediately condole the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi in 1948. After frowning of Indian eyebrows and displeasure, some junior foreign office officer was sent to sign the Condolence Register. Indeed, they treated Mahatma Gandhi as a British agent.
However, in subsequent years while Pakistan’s relations with Moscow remained insignificant, Soviet-India ties grew higher than Himalayas to the extent that it helped Delhi in a big way in its invasion of East Pakistan, provided Indian army jumbo size helicopters to transfer Indian troops and fighting equipment to the borders of East Pakistan to enable the Indians to secede it from Pakistan through an ignominious surrender by General ‘Tiger’ Niazi—an uncle of current Prime Minister Imran Khan along with 93,000 Pakistani defence related personnel. Indeed, had it not been for the Russian help and total surrender by Pakistani generals, Indians would not have succeeded in their scheme of things to break Pakistan.
Soviet-Pakistan relations turned into outright animosity when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in pursuit of fulfilling Czar Peter, the Great’s dream to have access to warm waters. As history proves, Afghanistan became yet another graveyard for the burial ground for the Soviets. It would not have been that easy for Afghanistan to succeed if the United States and its mercenary friends among Muslim countries including Islamabad had not poured in with cash in billions, men power, arms and equipment in aid of Mujahideen through ISI.
In 1989 Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan leaving the country predominantly in the hands of Taliban and support from ISI. Despite having planted its own brand of rulers the Americans could not succeed in bringing neither stability nor democracy. As a matter of fact, their support to a militarised Pakistan and not democracy made things all the more difficult. And only great persuasion by Pakistan’s democratic leader Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto to convince the Americans and the West brought about in their policy as advised by Lord Chris Patten that in order to have stability in Afghanistan, democracy in Pakistan shall have to be established first.
With the advent of democracy in 2008 Pakistan’s foreign policy took a turn for the good of the country. President Asif Zardari took the initiative of developing improved ties with the Russians. It was for the first time that there was co-operation between the two countries in defence training and equipment. One is happy to see induction of Russian helicopters in the fleet of Pakistan’s air defence.
It must be noted that Moscow has been keen for improving relations with Pakistan of course without compromising Moscow’s relations with India. It has formidable defence and trade ties with Delhi however Russia has supplied Mi-35M assault helicopters to Pakistan as part of the lifting of its embargo on arms sales to the country in 2014.
Credit of rapid change in foreign policy goes to former President Asif Ali Zardari who set new parameters of relations between Russia and Pakistan—a healthy departure from the relations that Pakistan has had since the latter’s independence that had been influenced by Moscow-Delhi ties and then by the long war between Afghanistan and Moscow. Positive moorings in Pakistan’s foreign policy have contributed a lot in supporting talks between the Afghan jihadist groups and Moscow. Pakistan has definitely played a significant role in bringing the two sides to Doha for settlement.
Ever since the advent of democratic government in 2008 Pakistan has been long diversifying its foreign policy. It seems to have reduced its total in the United States. It has been very wise in strengthening its relations with China now further being consolidated by the development of CPEC that would go a long way to connect China and Pakistan with other countries. It needs to be underscored that Pakistan is interested in exploiting Russia’s capabilities in their strategic and extensive cooperation with China. Zardari’s decision to sign an agreement with Iran for a gas pipeline against the wishes of the Americans was a bold step not yet emulated by Prime Minister Imran Khan.
Notwithstanding the fact that Pakistan is trying to use Russia to balance its foreign policies regarding India and the United States, Pakistan is also very keen to use its relations with Moscow to gain advantages over the United States by considering the regional and international confrontations and rivalries.
It is said that the Russians have apprehensions regarding the influence of extremist Salafist and ISIS-affiliated groups in Central Asia. A significant number of ISIS forces moved to Syria from Russia’s Muslim republics. Given the fragile security and political stability of Afghanistan and that country’s socio-cultural and economic problems, some of them have since moved from Syria into areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan. Thus cooperation between Russia and Pakistan could be in line with the security interests of both sides.
It also seems that the important issue in the Russian-Pakistani relations is more and more related to the developments in Afghanistan and the actions of extremist Salafist groups and ISIS. Pakistan is trying to take advantage of Moscow’s concerns about the serious threat posed in Afghanistan by al-Qaeda, ISIS, the Taliban and other organizations, to strengthen diplomatic relations with Russia and bring Moscow in line with Islamabad’s views on Afghanistan. Pakistan also supports Russian efforts to normalise relations with the Taliban and establish. In another dimension, Pakistan as North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s most important strategic partner among non-NATO members has played an important role in meeting the logistical needs of NATO forces in the past. Therefore, the nature of Moscow’s cooperation with Pakistan regarding NATO’s movements can be considered.
There was a time when the erstwhile Soviet Union and then the Russian Federation long maintained a strict policy of not selling arms to Pakistan. Obviously Pakistan had become dependent on Western and Chinese military weapons, but in 2014, Pakistan and Russia finally reached an agreement on cooperation in the field of defence and the purchase of military equipment. The continued cooperation between the US and India in a series of important agreements in the field of defence have resulted in Moscow and Islamabad going forward with more defence cooperation and weapons trade. Islamabad also wants to develop its defence and strategic military ties with Russia, in addition to buying arms. Since 2014, the Russians have taken a stronger approach to international interactions and diversification of relations with different countries, including Pakistan.
Besides, the Russians are pursuing the development of relations with Pakistan to counter US influence in Asia. I must be noted that one of the most important goals of Moscow’s foreign policy is to expand its international influence and improve its economic growth. It is also very important for President Vladimir Putin to develop and stabilize his country’s economy. Indeed, it means that Moscow-Islamabad relations will move toward greater convergence in the future in the form of bilateral and multilateral cooperation, such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. However, the cooperation and relations between Russia and Pakistan cannot create the conditions and basis for a strategic, lasting and interdependent alliance in the fields of security, politics and strategy, because, for Russia, India is still an important country in South Asia. Therefore, Moscow is trying to deal carefully with Islamabad, so as not to strain its ties with India.
It is well known that India will not tolerate any form of Russia-China-Pakistan axis. Therefore, Moscow is careful that expansion of its relations with Islamabad will force India to move closer to the United States. Also, India’s market is larger than Pakistan’s. The arms trade between India and Russia still has great potential, while the deals signed between Moscow and Islamabad so far have not been very significant.
To quote the Pakistani Ambassador to Russia Shafqat Ali Khan: “It’s self-evident from our policies and our statements that for Pakistan, Russia remains a key priority in our foreign policy, and we take great pleasure and we are very glad that in the past two decades the two countries’ bilateral relations have made enormous progress.” He noted in an interview that the two countries had “all-encompassing dialogue” at various levels.
“The relationship is not unidirectional or uni-dimensional, it’s multi-dimensional, and that is what we want to achieve to strengthen this relationship… This relationship, of course, serves the national interests of both countries, Pakistan and the Russian Federation, but it also contributes to regional stability and it also contributes to global stability.” He asserted that Russia remained “a pillar of global stability” amid a quickly-changing global situation. About the future role of CPEC in bilateral relations, the ambassador said “we look at the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor as a part of the larger project of Eurasian connectivity, which is bringing all countries of Eurasia together through a network of trade pacts, trade arrangements, railway lines, road networks, flights, etc. We feel that the China Pakistan Economic Corridor, once it is completed, will [enable] the East-West connectivity between one end of Eurasia to the other…As soon as these East-West connections improve and the China Pakistan Economic Corridor is developed successfully, we will be able to trade with Central Asia and Russia through overland roots also.” This is a significant statement. Last year, Russian Trade Minister Denis Valentinovich told reporters in Islamabad that Russia will help boost Pakistan’s economy by cooperating in various fields including aircraft manufacturing and his country was looking forward to joint collaborations.
Pakistan has welcomed the offer, stating there is huge scope of cooperation between the two countries in the fields of trade, business to business relations and people to people contacts. He added that Pakistan desired to transform relations with Russia into a strategic partnership. During a delegation level meeting in the Foreign Ministry, both the countries agreed to increase the volume of bilateral trade from the present levels to its true potential through greater cooperation and enhanced business activities by the private sector of both the countries. The Russian side invited Pakistan to organise a road show in Moscow to provide an opportunity to the Russian private companies to explore new avenues in Pakistan. Pakistan on the other hand urged Russia to attend trade fairs in the country.
Alexey Dedov, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Russian Federation, asserts that Pakistan ranks high in the Russian foreign policy in South Asia. “It is evident when you look at the increased frequency of high-level official meetings as well as delegation exchanges between various ministries and agencies of Russia and Pakistan. Moscow and Islamabad actively interact in international organisations with our views on the core global issues coinciding or being very close.”
He added: “Russia attaches particular importance to cooperation with Pakistan in the framework of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. Russia is providing extensive support to Islamabad in turning its observer status to a full-fledged membership.”
Last but not the least, Russia is keen on participating in gas pipelines, electricity and other energy projects. In 2019, it had announced plans to invest $14 billion in Pakistan’s energy sector. Moreover, both countries are cooperating on peace in Afghanistan as Moscow actively engages with Islamabad. With Russia and Pakistan on one page, the combination shall be playing a more assertive role in geopolitics of the region. The narrow but important convergence of Afghanistan is making way for greater ties between the two countries. The development of constructive relations between Russia and Pakistan is an important factor in ensuring regional stability and international security. Pakistan must make up for its previous folly of ignoring Moscow after independence.