The postponement of President Valdimir Putin’s eagerly awaited visit to Pakistan has caused much disappointment to observers, who were attaching great hopes of reaching prominent benchmarks in the rough and bumpy history of Pak-Russian relations.
The sense of anticipation attached with the first-ever visit by a Russian President carried implications that were being considered a harbinger of change in the rather fossilised indifference of Russia towards Pakistan within a context, whereby the tone and tenor of its policy in South Asia is heavily loaded in favour of India.
The slight of visit’s abrupt postponement got further compounded when only days after the Russian Deputy Prime Minister, Dmitry Olegovich Rogozin, speaking to journalists in New Delhi, ruled out any military sales to Pakistan. “We don’t do military business with your [India’s] enemies. We don’t transfer any arms to them,” he said in an apparent attempt to pamper and appease his hosts.
With his reassuring bonhomie, Rogozin might have successfully wooed his hosts and allayed concerns of the prying journalist, but the trademark blustery and gruff Russian rhetoric couldn’t belie a substantive change that marks Russia’s strategic calculus in South Asia.
International relations are based on cold evaluation of national interest and things are not as rosy as they used to be in the realm of Indo-US relations. In contrast, Pakistan’s relevance is increasing for Russian policy planners, as the US prepares to leave Afghanistan in 2014. It is manifest that India’s request for Putin to cancel his Islamabad visit so as not to steal the thunder of Putin-Manmohan scheduled meeting in November, may have weighed heavily with the Russians. Yet, the feelings that a reset in Pak-Russian relations is inevitable came out loud and clear. The amends to address Pakistan’s sensitivities were manifest when the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, who was to visit India on October 04, came to Pakistan to stand in for Putin and the Russian Defence Minister, Anatoly Serdyukov, postponed his visit to India to conduct talks in Moscow with the Army Chief, Ashfaq Parvez Kayani. Those conversant with the dynamics of Russian diplomacy will know that these are no small diplomatic gestures.
Russian anxieties are mounting as their soft underbelly constituting the former Soviet Central Asian Republics shows marked disposition for a disturbed situation with the anticipated instability and violence in Afghanistan in the wake of USA withdrawal in 2014. Moscow is worried that the way things are moving, the turbulent conditions of the 1990s may yet again reappear, whereby infiltration by Taliban affiliated militants in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan threatened stability on Russia’s southern flank. The opening up and expansion of narcotics smuggling routes from Central Asia to the Russian hinterland is another factor to contend with.
In the context of the prevalent scenario, the Russians apprehend that the simmering Islamic insurrection in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan may take into its fold not just Turkmenistan, but may generate instability in Kazakhstan as well. There are also apprehensions that even as the withdrawal of bulk of forces takes place, yet the US will maintain large enough footprints in the area to shut out Russia from the Central Asian Region.
It is a combination of these factors duly accentuated by Pakistan’s influence in the region that is prompting Russia to consider the country a key player in any solution that emerges in Afghanistan. “Our own experience in the past and the track record of others in recent years has taught us that the problem of Afghanistan cannot be resolved without the constructive involvement of Pakistan and Iran,” said Mr Zamir Kabulov, Russia’s Special Envoy for Afghanistan, recently.
The Russian regional and Pakistan specific policies are indicative of this line of thinking. In 2010, President Putin publically supported Pakistan’s bid to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) that includes Russia, China, four Central Asian Republics as permanent members and Pakistan and Iran as observers. Opening up the landlocked Central Asian Region by laying oil pipelines and constructing trade routes to Pakistan is also being pursued. This includes the Central Asia-South Asia electricity transmission infrastructure from Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan to Afghanistan and Pakistan (CASA-1000) and construction of rail and road tracks from Tajikistan to Pakistan to create corridors of communications. Russia has shown its eagerness to facilitate the 1640 km TAPI project, bringing gas from Turkmenistan through Afghanistan to Pakistan and then onwards to India. It is also keen to obtain the contract of laying down the Iran-Pakistan (IP) gas pipeline for its energy giant Gazprom.
To lay down solid foundations forming the basis of strong two-way relations, Russia has taken substantive initial steps to forge economic ties with Pakistan. A high-powered delegation visited Pakistan in the beginning of this month and signed memorandums of understanding in three vital sectors of our economy; the expansion and modernisation of Pakistan Steel Mills, refurbishing Railways and enhancing the capacity of the energy generation sector.
The military-to-military relations are also beginning to show signs of tentative progress, even as the non-supply of military hardware remains a caveat in lending impetus to the development of bilateral relations. Yet, the signs of melting ice abound. The Russian Military Chief, Colonel General Alexander Postnikov, visited Pakistan in May last year and the two sides broached the subjects of holding joint military exercises, exchanging trainees and selling and buying weapons. General Kayani’s recent visit to Moscow was conducted in a high-profile manner and proved to be a singular success. The provision of Russian hardware was also discussed during the visit. It may be pertinent to point out that Pakistan has already acquired Russian military technology through third parties, which could not have been possible without a Russian nod. This includes engines to power the Chinese built JF-17 Thunder multi-role combat aircraft and the 12 air refuelling pods fitted to the four Russian built Il-78 multi-role transport aircraft acquired from Ukraine. The induction of newly built MI-17 helicopters is also being considered by Pakistan. These are significant straws in the wind that are a harbinger of meaningful military cooperation with Russia, against the backdrop provided by India’s greater reliance on US and Western origin military hardware in a bid to wean its military hardware away from an overwhelming Russian dependence.
With India enthusiastically embracing US strategic interests in the Central Asian Region, a window of opportunity has opened up for giving a fillip to Pak-Russian relations that till now have been chafing under the burden of the long gone Cold War.
In the prevailing geopolitical environments, the once unassailable strength of the Indo-Russian relations is beginning to show chinks in its armour. The situation is fortuitous for promoting Pak-Russia relations and the opportunity needs to be seized by both the nations.
The writer is a freelance columnist.