President Vladimir Putin’s last minute cancellation of his, or for that matter any Russian Head of State’s first-ever, visit to Pakistan, has not only left a bad taste in the mouth, but also raised doubts about Pak-Russo relations. It also postponed the Quadrilateral Summit, involving Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan and Afghanistan, planned for October 2-3, 2012. The instrument of cancellation was a letter from Mr Putin to his Pakistani counterpart, without assigning any reasons. The Russian chancellery, at Islamabad, too failed to provide any cogent reason for the unceremonious termination of the visit.
In the near past, Pakistan has been trying to reset its relations with Russia, in accordance with its newfound “Look-East” policy, and diversifying its affiliation beyond the US; both China and Russia figure prominently in this foreign policy re-designation. China is already Pakistan’s all-weather time-tested friend, but relationship with Russia has been complicated. For instance, erstwhile USSR was ignored much to its chagrin, when Pakistan opted to join the US camp in the cold war era and signed anti-Communism defence pacts - Seato and Cento. Matters came to a head when Pakistan opposed the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, supporting the Afghan mujahedeen in their guerrilla movement, which ultimately led to USSR’s retreat from Afghanistan and later its disintegration. Russia, which emerged as the successor of the Soviet Union, also inherited the animosity towards Pakistan.
Although it has managed to establish bonds with the other Central Asian States, which regained independence after USSR’s demise, Russia has been a tough kettle of fish. Recent overtures by Pakistan have managed to heal some of the wounds. However, the cancellation has come as a major setback in the formalisation of the reset in Islamabad’s foreign policy imperatives.
Putin’s letter does not shed much light on the rationale behind the cancellation, but his emphasis on advancing “mutually beneficial trade and economic projects” does provide some clues. Analysts opine that he was not pleased with Pakistan’s lukewarm response to Russian interest in the Iran-Pakistan (IP) gas pipeline project. The project did not receive endorsement from the US and India, which was initially a part of the project, backed out, reportedly, under Washington’s duress. Russia’s Deputy Minister of Energy and representatives of leading energy giant, Gazprom, the state-controlled gas monopoly, attended the Pak-Russia Inter-Governmental Commission on September 10.
At the meeting, Gazprom representatives gave a presentation on the pipeline and reiterated their interest during a meeting with President Asif Zardari. Unfortunately, no firm commitments were given to the Russian delegation, which wanted to secure the project without bidding. A fly on the wall during the discussions, revealed that Pakistanis had contended that exemption from bidding would violate the rules of the Public Procurement Regulatory Authority. The Russians, reportedly, were not convinced. In addition, Gazprom is interested in the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) gas pipeline project. This particular project does have US backing, but cannot hope for fruition till the security situation prevalent in Afghanistan improves. One of Russia’s economic and strategic goals is the implant of its energy footprint in the region. Putin’s government has been keen to invest $500 million in CASA-1,000 (Central Asia-South Asia) electricity transmission project. These were some of the economic constraints, which may have contributed to the cancellation.
Some conspiracy theorists have put forward the rationale that since Mr Putin is visiting Tajikistan in the week he was due in Pakistan, this is an indicator that the cancellation of the visit to Islamabad had to do more with something bilateral. Others insist that the US may have pressurised Russia directly or through India to call it off. Such a justification is difficult to comprehend; since in 1997, it was US Assistant Secretary of State Robin Raphael, who had visited Pakistan and urged Islamabad to improve ties with Moscow.
President Vladimir Putin’s letter to President Asif Zardari ends on a sanguine note, as he has invited him to visit Moscow instead. It is hoped that the fissure is not deep and can be bridged.
The writer is a political and defence analyst. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org