On May 1, 2018, Pakistan celebrated the 70th Anniversary of Diplomatic Relations with Russia.
Several happenings in the past decade before and after that indicate that Russia is tilting closer to Pakistan and away from India despite being “India’s closest friend” for the past many decades.
Analysts find this trend somewhat perplexing though not inevitable. As Andrew Korybko from the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies (RISS) suggests in his paper, titled Pakistan is the “Zipper” of Pan-Eurasian Integration Pakistan is the “South Asian Gatekeeper” that connects Central and South Asia, which is what Moscow needs to further its geopolitical goals in the Eurasian Economic Union.
Korybko goes on to add that, “One of the major strategic risks to pan-Eurasian integration inherent to Russia and Pakistan’s budding relationship is that Moscow risks pushing New Delhi closer into the hands of Washington. This could realistically occur through the unintentional creation of a security dilemma (provoked by the US and its information proxies) and an exaggerated Indian threat assessment of Russia’s activities. If the Indian political establishment feels that Russia is ‘sliding away towards the China-Pakistan ‘axis’ (as it views it), then it’ll conversely speed up its strategic dealings with the US. This would consequently negate one of the main reasons behind the Russian-Pakistan strategic partnership, which as stated, is to place Moscow in a position to intermediate between New Delhi and Islamabad and keep regional relations stable enough to jump-start the envisioned multilateral economic partnership.”
Significantly the bilateral relations between the Islamic Republic of Pakistan and the Russian Federation have seen many ups and downs in different periods of history. The Soviet Union frequently voted against Pakistan on the Kashmir issue in all international forums, particularly in the United Nations.
In the late 1970s and 1980s, Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto authorized aggressive military operations to topple the fragile communist regime in Afghanistan in retaliation for Soviet Union’s unconditional support to India during the 1971 war. Pakistan supported the Mujahideen rebels attempting to overthrow the Soviet-backed communist regime with the help of the United States, United Kingdom, China and Saudi Arabia. The relations between Pakistan and the erstwhile Soviet Union were at the lowest ebb in the 1980s during the Afghan War, in which Pakistan played a key role supplying Stinger missiles to the Taliban. These Stinger Missiles, rockets, and a host of other equipment helped the Taliban shoot down Soviet helicopters, tanks and troops. Pakistan’s Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto authorized a covert operation under MI’s Major-General Naseerullah Babar. Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and CIA launched operation Operation Cyclone and assisted anti-Soviet forces.
Meanwhile, Pakistan was one of the 80 total countries that boycotted the 1980 Summer Olympics scheduled in Moscow to condemn the Soviet Union’s role in Afghanistan. All these factors contributed to Soviet Union’s isolation in world affairs, and withdrawal from Afghanistan. In hindsight, these are believed to be the contributing factors for the fall of the Soviet Union.
This notwithstanding Russia readily agreed to launch Pakistan’s second satellite, Badr-B meaning Full Moon-2 developed by the Pakistani space agency (SUPARCO) at the lowest possible charges from its Baikonur Cosmodrome in 1996. Significantly, though Russia congratulated India for conducting second nuclear tests in 1998 it remained silent and did not criticize Pakistan for performing its nuclear tests.
The relations between Pakistan and the Russian Federation received a boost in 2007 when Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov became the first Russian prime minister to visit Pakistan for a 3-day official visit in 38 years and had “in-depth discussions” with President Pervez Musharraf and Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz.
In 2014, Russian Defence Minister Sergey Shoigu became the first Soviet/Russian Defence Minister to visit Pakistan in 45 years and signed an Agreement on Bilateral Defence Cooperation moving Pakistan from List-C to List-B countries for defence exports. Accordingly, Russia opposed India’s move seeking FATF censure of Pakistan for its inaction against the LeT-JuD combine in 2015.
In July 2015 General Raheel Sharif became the first Pakistani Chief of Army staff to visit Russia. He was given a Guard of Honour and the National Anthem of Pakistan was played at the wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Three months later Pakistan and Russia signed a landmark defence deal which included the sale of four Mi-35 ‘Hind E’ attack helicopters to Pakistan.
Pakistan along with China, Egypt, Venezuela and Belarus was among the 6 countries which participated in the Russian Army War Games 2015 – an Air Defense Battle Competition.
Subsequently, the Russian Army took part in a first-ever joint exercise called “Friendship 2016” in Pakistan’s north-western Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province, ignoring India’s suggestion to call off the exercise as a gesture of “solidarity” following the Uri attack.
Russian and Pakistan have been taking alternate turns to host the annual joint military exercise called Druzhba (meaning friendship) since 2016. In 2017, Russia’s largest antisubmarine warship Severomorsk participated for the first time in the Aman naval exercise hosted by Pakistan Navy.
As of date Moscow has supplied four Mi-35 M attack helicopters, a few Mi-171Es and signed contracts to deliver anti-tank systems, air defence weapons and small arms to Pakistan. Pakistan is currently trying to convince Russia to sell its state-of-the-art aircraft to counter India’s purchase of the fifth-generation Dassault Rafale multirole fighter from France. Pakistan also wants to purchase T-90 tanks from Russia.
As a quid pro quo, Pakistan has granted Russia access to Gwadar Port in the Arabian Sea while Pakistan and Russia have also signed an agreement for the North-South gas pipeline from Lahore to Karachi. Russia on its part has promised a $14 billion investment in Pakistan’s energy sector, including $2.5 billion for the North-South pipeline project, setting up of coal power plants at Muzaffargarh and Jamshoro, and construction of a railway track from Quetta to Taftan.
Recently Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov arrived in Islamabad (April 6-7) to deliver an “important” message from President Vladimir Putin after spending two days (April 5-6) in New Delhi. It was the first such visit by a Russian foreign minister to Pakistan in almost a decade but seemingly upset Prime Minister Narendra Modi so much that he avoided meeting Lavrov.
The answer probably lies in Prime Minister Narendra Modi remark in 2014 that “if asked to say who India’s best friend is, [a child in India] will reply it is Russia because Russia has been with India in times of crisis.”
Let’s face it there seems to be a perceptible shift in Russia’s geostrategic calculus. Perhaps Moscow wants to convey to India not to expect its total fidelity if it continues to tilt towards the US.
As they say, probably there are no permanent friends or foes in diplomacy or international relations and every nation-state in the world follows this principle where its own interest is supreme.