Russia is solidifying its support for Pakistan at the Heart of Asia conference. Russian envoy Zamir Kabulov rejected India and Afghanistan’s criticisms of Pakistan. In what serves as a yet another indication that the ice between Moscow and Islamabad are melting, Kabulov praised Pakistani Foreign Affairs Advisor Sartaj Aziz’s speech at the HoA conference for being friendly and constructive.
Saying that it’s wrong to criticize Islamabad, the Russian envoy urged the parties to drop the blame game and start working together. Kabulov also downplayed Russia’s joint military drills with Pakistan in September and reminded listeners that Russia isn’t complaining about the growing friendship between the U.S. and India.
India and Russia have been particularly close for several decades, while Moscow remains New Delhi’s key weapons supplier. However, after India started cozying up to Washington, Russia has seemingly shifted towards Pakistan.
Moreover, some of Russia’s recent actions indicate that Moscow is favoring Pakistan over India, such as rejecting India’s calls to declare Pakistan a terrorist state and rejecting New Delhi’s bid to join the Nuclear Suppliers Group while supporting Islamabad’s membership in the group that regulates international nuclear commerce.
The Heart of Asia conference serves as a platform to reconstruct war-torn Afghanistan. Kabulov added that the conference shouldn’t be used as a platform for New Delhi and Islamabad to attack one another.
Three theories why Russia favors Pakistan over India
Despite the fact that Russia and Pakistan were Cold War-era rivals and even though Moscow remains a huge economic partner of Pakistan’s biggest enemy, India, Moscow and Islamabad are actively improving their relations. Russia has been warming up to Pakistan lately, and there are several theories why Russian President Vladimir Putin could be shifting his South Asian policies:
- Seeing that India is becoming increasingly interested in partnering with the U.S., Putin might want to scare off New Delhi by dealing with its biggest rival, Islamabad. The mere thought that Russia’s advanced military equipment could go to Pakistan instead of India is probably enough to discourage New Delhi from getting closer to Washington.
- Becoming friends with Islamabad is an excellent way to get closer to China, Russia’s potential great ally. The three nations forming the China-Russia-Pakistan superpower triangle would serve as an intimidating force to be reckoned with and a promising bloc to challenge U.S. hegemony.
- Russia is interested in stabilization in the region. By stretching out a hand to Islamabad, Moscow wants to halt Pakistan’s support for the Afghan Taliban and achieve stability in Afghanistan. The continuous civil war in Afghanistan threatens Central Asia, which is viewed as a potentially huge market to generate income for Russia.
There are several other theories, but it doesn’t change the fact that Pakistan is gaining a new friend in the face of Russia.
Islamabad, which faces increasing isolation in the region, largely relies on China’s economic, diplomatic and military support. Russia could potentially become that stable and powerful pillar of support for Pakistan to lean on as well. Strengthening ties with Moscow make Islamabad less vulnerable to pressure from the West and India.
Is Russia and Pakistan’s friendship a myth?
While many may say that Russia and Pakistan are manifesting rather weak signs of warming relations, it’s actually a big development in the relationship between two countries that couldn’t stand each other during the Cold War era.
What served as a major boost in Russia-Pakistan relations was Moscow holding its first-ever joint military drills with Islamabad in September. But those drills brought even more value in terms of understanding modern-era geostrategic relations when Moscow refused to cancel the military exercises with Islamabad in the wake of the September army base attack that India blamed on Pakistan.
Despite Russia being India’s top weapons supplier and a key economic partner, Putin still refused to cancel the drills with Pakistan. The move served as a major wake-up call for India.
When Moscow lifted its decades-old arms embargo against Islamabad in 2015, India didn’t give the move the importance it deserved. But with that move, Moscow probably marked the start of its reset relations with Islamabad.
Russia cautious about partnering with Pakistan
India remains dependent on Russia’s military equipment, but it’s actively seeking defense deals with Western nations, including the U.S. and France. Pakistan, which until now always boasted only one major ally – China – can only be pleased about its new relationship with Russia.
Russia, which still greatly benefits from its arms deals with India, cannot risk annoying New Delhi too much. India is the world’s biggest market for arms and military aircraft, which is probably why Moscow is partnering with Pakistan cautiously and silently.
While Pakistan was an ally of the U.S. during the Cold War, Russia can only be grateful to India for being one of the few Asian countries that sided with the Soviet Union. So this factor also explains Russia’s cautious modern-era policies in South Asia.
China-Russia-Pakistan trilateral talks
Earlier this year, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif – who’s seemingly the new best friend of U.S. President-elect Donald Trump – tried to get Putin to visit Islamabad. But the Kremlin rejected the invitations, saying that there were not enough issues on the agenda to justify the visit. No Russian president has ever visited Pakistan, so if Putin had decided to visit Islamabad, it would have served as a formal confirmation of Moscow’s partnership with Islamabad, a move that could damage Russia’s economic and military ties with India.
In November, Moscow announced it would hold trilateral talks with China and Pakistan to discuss the civil war in Afghanistan later this month. In what is seen as a major development, China, Russia and Pakistan relations are expected to give an explicit view on the current status of their relations.
How Trump’s Pakistan love-fest affects Russia?
It also remains a mystery what Trump has in mind for Pakistan. After the U.S. President-elect made that notorious phone call to the Pakistani PM supposedly praising him as a “terrific guy,” there’s no telling how warming relations between Islamabad and Washington could potentially affect Islamabad’s new friendship with Moscow.
If Trump actually delivers on the promises supposedly made during the phone call and indeed plays “any role” Islamabad wants him to play to resolve the nuclear-armed nation’s international issues, then Moscow could find itself in a rather complicated situation. Russia would then have to choose: continue moving closer to Pakistan despite its warming relations with the U.S., or drop its friendship plans with Islamabad and return to being India’s close ally.