Although the two nations were generally on opposite sides of the Cold War, Pakistan and Russia are gradually building closer ties.
India was in fact a close ally of the Soviet Union, which was its main defense supplier, but now New Delhi is forging increasingly strong ties with the United States rather than Russia. This move encouraged Moscow to lift an arms embargo on Islamabad, but now it appears that cooperation between Russia and Pakistan will move beyond arms sales. writes Arif Rafiq for The National Interest.
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Historic alliances called into question
During the Cold War, Pakistan was a staunch ally of the U.S., and even helped to drive the Soviets out of Afghanistan. Later on, despite a brief flirtation with the Soviets, Pakistan remained allies with the U.S. while the Soviets devoted their efforts to India.
The India-Russia alliance continued after the fall of the Soviet Union, with both nations supporting the Afghan Northern Alliance against the Pakistan-backed Taliban. One reason for Russia’s support of India over Pakistan was its concerns about militants operating with Islamabad’s support, especially following a wave of militant attacks in Russia, including the 2004 Beslan school shooting.
Things started to change in 2011 as U.S.-Pakistan relations worsened. A sense of mutual resentment developed due to the continued presence of militants, including Osama bin Laden, in Pakistan, and U.S. military action on Pakistani soil which caused the deaths of innocent people.
Although relations have since improved, 2011 was the year that Pakistan started to seriously consider alternatives to an all-in relationship with the United States. Officials in Moscow saw an opportunity, and were met with a positive reaction by Pakistan.
Russia shows increased interest in cooperation with Pakistan
Moscow’s previous concerns over militants have been reduced, and Pakistan now looks like a key player in keeping regional peace. At the same time India has been drawn closer to the U.S., meaning that Russia has more incentive to explore new trade partnerships, especially in the light of Western sanctions imposed over Ukraine.
Russia’s traditional ally India has been upset by recent arms deals with Pakistan, including Mi-35 combat helicopters. Talks are also underway about the sale of the Sukhoi S-35 fighter jet, and sales to Pakistan could mark the end of Russia’s historic alliance with India.
Economic ties may also be strengthened, with talks about a $2-2.5 billion pipeline deal in their final stages. The pipeline would run from Karachi to Lahore.
Rumors have been swirling for some time that Moscow may invest in the national steel producer Pakistan Steel Mills. As it stands Islamabad plans to privatize the company by 2016, and Russian companies may invest.
Bilateral trade could also increase if a free trade agreement with the Eurasian Economic Union can be reached, a possibility that Pakistan has expressed an interest in. Additionally a Pakistani delegation recently went to Moscow in an attempt to press for lower non-tariff trade barriers for Pakistani goods.
Pakistan-Russia cooperation to continue alongside relationship with India
Evidently relations between India and Russia have regressed, with arms sales to Islamabad one sign of Moscow’s discontent. Analysts also believe that Russia and China may have colluded to block India’s permanent membership of the United Nations Security Council.
However bad the situation looks right now, it seems unlikely that India and Russia will completely break ties. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is scheduled to visit Moscow in December, and a deal to purchase or co-produce a 5th generation Sukhoi T-50 warplane may be on the table.
Although cooperation may continue on defense matters, Russia and India’s regional strategies appears to be increasingly divergent. China is also an increasingly important actor in Central and South Asia, with important economic and defense partnerships with Pakistan. The question for Russia is whether there is really room for them as an ally of Pakistan?
What next for regional geopolitics?
One possibility is a strategic alliance between Russia, China and Pakistan, but at the moment that seems unlikely. Rafiq believes that it is more like to see Russia and India acting independently of each other, while India struggles to get used to Moscow’s closer ties with Islamabad.
Although we cannot say what will happen in the next few years, Pakistan has done a good job strengthening ties with a number of countries. After staring international isolation in the face, Pakistan has good ties with the permanent members of the UN Security Council, in addition to Iran, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey.
As such, Pakistan is becoming a “pivot state” in the eyes of geostrategist Ian Bremmer. For now it seems that Islamabad has shown great skill in navigating the choppy waters of international relations.
With China investing heavily and the possibility of further cooperation with Russia, Pakistan is well placed to profit from an alternative axis of power in Asia.