Pakistan and Russia may be sending out clear signs of a fledgling friendship, but an actual alliance between them may never happen. Islamabad and Moscow have signed a series of crucial defense deals since 2014, but any emerging alliance between them may be a big illusion.
On Monday, Russia and Pak signed a contract for the delivery of Russia’s Mi-171 civilian helicopter to the Pakistani province of Balochistan. However, the ever-growing military ties between the two countries are not the best indicator of their alliance.
It’s expected that Moscow will deliver the helicopter to Islamabad in the first half of this year. The Cold War-era foes melted the ice between them in 2014 after Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu’s visit to Islamabad. Since then, the two nuclear-powered nations have signed a number of deals, including lifting Russia’s embargo on weapons sales to Pakistan and an agreement on military cooperation.
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Pakistan and Russia are not as close as many think
But even after all that, Pakistani political experts can’t say that Pakistan and Russia have a solid and strong alliance. There are several factors that prevent the two nations from becoming truly close and united: weak economic ties, a lack of strategy for bilateral cooperation and Russia’s indecisive South Asia policy (India).
Although signing big defense deals (such as the one for four Mi-35M Hind-E combat helicopters) and holding their first-ever joint military drills (Friendship 2016 in September) are clear indications that Pakistan and Russia are interested in putting their grievances behind them and restarting their relations, it’s not enough to say that we’re witnessing a strong alliance between Islamabad and Moscow.
Pakistan and Russia may have already agreed to hold their second joint military drills in 2017, but the two nations are not doing enough in terms of boosting their economic ties. Islamabad and Moscow are not even close to being considered major trade partners for one another. In fact, bilateral trade volume between the two nations decreased 13% in 2015, reaching only $395 million (from $453 million in 2014). By contrast, bilateral trade between Russia and India, Pakistan’s number 1 enemy, was around $8 billion in 2015.
There are a number of ways Islamabad and Moscow could boost their bilateral trade. They could sign lucrative economic deals similar to the one they did in 2015 when they cooperated in the construction of the North-South gas pipeline. The agreement is expected to boost their bilateral trade, as Moscow invested $2 billion in the project.
Islamabad and Moscow could also boost bilateral trade by getting Russia involved in the highly lucrative China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project.
Here’s why a Russia-Pakistani alliance may never happen
However, there are a few factors that prevent Pakistan and Russian from truly improving their economic ties. Most notably, the uneasy economic situations in the two nations limit their opportunities for mutual investments. Furthermore, Islamabad and Moscow can’t just simply go ahead and jump into closer ties because other countries prevent the such an alliance from forming. While the United States, Islamabad’s strategic partner and Russia’s enemy, is trying to dissuade Pakistan from boosting ties with Russia, India, Moscow’s strategic partner and Pakistan’s enemy, is trying to create obstacles for a Russia-Pakistan alliance.
Islamabad and Moscow clearly lack the understanding and trust between them, as they continue to cooperate with each other’s enemies – India and the United States, respectively.
It would also help improve Russia-Pakistani relations if Russia would come clean about its South Asia policy. It’s unclear where Pakistan stands in Russia’s foreign policy and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s long-term geopolitical plans. With the ever-growing tensions between Pakistan and India, both Islamabad and New Delhi consider it offensive and unacceptable that Moscow is cooperating with its biggest enemy.
Is Pakistan just a toy for Russia?
For many political experts, it also seems that Russia could just be toying with Pakistan. Some believe Russia’s recent moves in South Asia may be motivated by external reasons such as: trying to dissuade India from partnering with the U.S.; its own interests in Central Asia and the Middle East; and trying to use Pakistan, China’s traditional ally, as a means to get closer to China.
So on the surface, it may seem as if Russia and Pakistan have a close and solid alliance between them. But their growing military cooperation creates false perceptions and isn’t enough to strengthen their economic and diplomatic ties. Russia and Pakistan may have just gotten on the road to boosting relations on the three fronts – military, economic and diplomatic – but their friendship remains pretty fragile and unpredictable.
Is a powerful Russia-Pakistan alliance possible or not?
If Russia and Pakistan are truly interested in creating a powerful alliance – and possibly getting China into it as a triangle – the two governments should focus on more important fields of partnership between them: boosting bilateral trade volume and laying out a clear strategy for a Russia-Pakistan alliance.
Military cooperation is never enough – though very helpful – to create a truly powerful alliance between two countries. Being united on all the three fronts is what would be the shortcut to building a strong strategic partnership between Islamabad and Moscow.
In order to build a powerful Russia-Pakistan alliance, it would also help for the two countries to get China’s help to facilitate closer ties. And what’s probably the biggest step forward towards a Russia-Pakistan alliance is for Moscow to finally choose: continue cooperating with India or abandon India in favor for Pakistan.