Pak-Russia defense relations

The emerging defence co-operation between Pakistan and Russia, the erstwhile Cold War antagonists may seem rather odd in the backdrop of Russia’s 70 year-long close strategic partnership with India, a longstanding adversary of Pakistan. But this is a reality that defies conventional wisdom and it is being eyed with interest and speculation as well as apprehension by the regional and global powers.

This new arrangement is essentially a paradigm shift in the global policy framework. Old allies such as US and Pakistan are drifting away amid changing geo-political world situation. Russia’s cozying up to Pakistan is indeed a sign of Pakistan’s rising importance in the emerging international arena. The lifting of the arms embargo against Pakistan in 2015 clearly signifies that Russia is getting comfortable with the idea of co-operation with Pakistan. It can further be explained by understanding the burgeoning relationship between the two states.

To help fathom this new convergence of the two states, some points cannot be overlooked. Firstly, the Crimean annexation and trouble in East Ukraine put Russia under several stringent economic sanctions by the European Union and the United States. This resulted in Russia turning to China as well as other countries to stabilise its economy. Additionally, it is possible that the Chinese interest in Pakistan’s strategic location in terms of the Pak-China Economic Corridor, highly crucial for China’s trade and security, may also have tickled Russia’s fancy of reaching the warm waters of Indian Ocean. Secondly, India’s growing close association with the US is also a factor compelling the Russian Federation to look for alternative allies in South Asia. Thirdly, since Russia’s major arms importers such as India, Vietnam and Venezuela have also been doing more than window-shopping for arms elsewhere, it needs new buyers for its defence equipment. It is imperative for Russia to sign arms deals with other countries to boost its economy. After all, its arms exports amounted close to a staggering $15 Billion in the year 2015. Since Pakistan is the world’s 7th biggest arms importer, it could be a promising buyer of Russian arms. Fourthly, a close scrutiny of the containment of the Soviet Union by the US and its allies provides a deep insight into how in the future, a similar approach could be applied by the Western countries to contain Russia once again. Keeping the recent history in mind, Russia should follow China’s example whose assessment of a possible containment policy might have also led to its seeking a route to the Arabian Sea through CPEC.

It is also pertinent to mention that the global power center is now shifting to Asia and Russia realises this strategic change. Both Pakistan and China are Nuclear powers and retain huge armies. Therefore, it is in Russia’s interest to forge new alliances in the region.

The official narrative of Russia’s defence, however, remains somewhat ambivalent. It is possible that Russia does not want to estrange India at the moment despite the latter’s budding relationship with the US. However, a quick glance at the Russian foreign policy of 2008, under President Medvedev, shows that Pakistan was listed as a leading regional state with which Russia sought to further develop relations in bilateral and multilateral formats.

The recent turn of events, wherein Russia lifted its arms embargo on Pakistan to sell four Mi-35 attack helicopters to Pakistan and talks of selling SU-35 and Su-37 fighter jets; Russia’s joint military exercise with Pakistan inside Pakistan’s Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa region; and its silence in joining India in blaming Pakistan for terrorism during the BRICS Summit in India indicates a policy change in the Kremlin. It is important to analyze that days before the joint military exercise titled Druzhba-2016 (Friendship-2016) took place, the Uri attack was conducted by militants in the Indian Occupied Kashmir for which India as usual was quick to accuse Pakistan. Despite India’s pressure to postpone these joint exercises with Pakistan, Russia did not budge and expedited the process. A few months later, at the BRICS Summit, Russia did not support the Indian claim of Pakistan perpetrating terrorism into India.

In the realm of defence cooperation, both the countries can prove to be reliable allies. Russia’s technological expertise, it’s advanced weapons systems and experience in terms of conventional war can prove to be highly beneficial for Pakistan. Its use of ‘hybrid war’ where it uses not only its military but also local population, media and propaganda to push its case was very effective in Crimea. In fact, Pakistan can use this experience within its own territory to combat militancy on its western border. Likewise, Russia deems Pakistan’s experience in fighting militancy, insurgency and terrorism to be very important and the recent joint military exercise validates it. Moreover, Pakistani scientists, engineers and technicians can be trained in Russia and prove to be mutually beneficial.

It can thus be concluded that Russia and Pakistan are seeing an unprecedented era of convergence between them. Though still in a nascent stage, it signals a promising prospect for both states. Pakistan needs allies that are both technologically advanced as well as reliable not only to enhance but also better the standards of its defence production. The use of Russian RD-93 engine in Pakistan’s JF-17 Thunder is an example of such co-operation. Through this diversification of arms producers, Pakistan will be in a better position to defend itself against a foreign or internal threat. Of course this will have positive ramifications for Russia; Pakistan’s improving economy could afford a market for its innovative weapons and defence systems. Lastly, it goes without saying, that a Russia-Pakistan-China alliance would be formidable enough to cater to any threat posed by the US and its allies.

Muhammad Sarmad Zia is a Research Assistant at Centre for International Strategic Studies

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