WHILE seeing in retrospect, it is the American-Indian strategic partnership which has clearly dominated the South Asian region yet it may have set off the chain reaction of altered South Asian power dynamics of recent years-thereby having the potential to bring non- traditional partners together in a different paradigm, foreign relations do have a ripple effect. Against this backdrop in recent years, there have been remarkable developments between Moscow and Islamabad that have reshaped a new power — balance in South Asia. Today Pakistan and Russia remain poised to develop a strong partnership — based on commonality of interests and convergence of views on important global and regional issues.
At the end of Cold War, Moscow’s influence and interest significantly declined in South Asia. However, after almost two decades there is an obvious change in Russian policies both at domestic and international levels. Changing patterns in Russia’s Asian foreign policy will be directly affecting the regional security environment of South Asia. Cementing Indo-U.S. strategic partnership against China, historical India-Pakistan rivalry and conflicting interests of great powers collectively made South Asia one of the most vulnerable regions.
In view of Moscow’s capabilities, its reorientation to South Asia will have significant implications for regional security complex in general and Pakistan in particular. The relationship between Pakistan and Russia has been described by many as a tale of misunderstandings and lost opportunities. Pak-Russia relations have been just like a roller coaster ride with many ups and downs and most of the time they have perceived each other in a deleterious mindset. Pakistan’s foreign policy has been mainly focused on Western world while Russia has been strengthening its ties with India. In the past, the two countries missed opportunities to cooperate with each other due to minor difference.
The underlying interests of Russia and the US in South Asia, especially after the initiation of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), have made Pakistan an attractive partner for any power interested in the South Asian region. The policy-makers in Pakistan must realise its political, economic, strategic and geographic significance and make the best of this opportunity. More importantly, however, the significant shift in Russia’s policy in South Asia particularly with reference to the US presence in this part of the world, also builds a persuasive case for warming up of relations between Pakistan and Russia’
Russian strategists and decision makers conceptualize their country’s 21st-century geostrategic role as being the supreme balancing force in the Eurasian supercontinent, owing both to Russia’s opportune position on the landmass and its history of leadership. This role can’t be fulfilled if Russia has problems with any of its counterparts in Eurasia, hence the urgent need to rectify any existing issues and enter into rapprochement with those parties. It certainly helps if there’s an overlap of contemporary interest in doing so, such as there is with Pakistan nowadays concerning the War on Afghanistan and the CPEC, the latter of which is understood more broadly by Russia as advancing the trend of Eurasian integration and is therefore in alignment with the country’s grand strategy. On the eve of the recently held Shanghai Conference, PM Imran Khan said the CPEC would serve as a vital link for the two countries to the Middle East and Central Asian Republics and open fresh investment avenues, new markets and vistas. PM invited his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev to visit Islamabad.
CPEC has the very real potential of turning Pakistan into the zipper of pan-Eurasian integration because of the prospects that it holds for linking together China, the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union (EAU), Iran, and SAARC and furthermore it’s the flagship program of China’s One Belt One Road (OBOR) global vision of New Silk Road connectivity. OBOR has full strategic complementarity with the EAU and SCO, and it represents the practical hard infrastructural manifestation of Russia’s own Eurasian integration vision.
The Islamabad-Moscow security partnership has strengthened and expanded since late 2014, when the two former rivals signed their defense cooperation agreement. Russia sold four Mi-35M combat helicopters to Pakistan under the deal and both countries have since held two rounds of counterterrorism military drills on each other’s soil. Navies of the two countries also recently participated in joint anti-drug exercises in the Arabian Sea. The latest naval collaboration took place last week in St. Petersburg where a Pakistani warship participated in the major Russian Navy Day parade. Russian-Pakistani third joint military drills “Friendship 2018” ended on November 04.
Though viewed from the US-India perspective, this growing strategic connect between Moscow and Islamabad might not be a good departure since it might be an antithesis to US-India regional power trajectory. Yet by all means this revived partnership — in the changing geopolitical imperatives of South Asian strategic culture where both China and Russia hold significant leverage — seems a vital strategy for peace and geostrategic stability. The Moscow-based political analyst Andrew Korybko has said that strong diplomatic relations between Pakistan and Russia will help keep balance of power in South Asia, which has very much been disrupted after the United States boosted its defence ties with India.
— The writer, an independent ‘IR’ researcher-cum- analyst based in Pakistan, is member of European Consortium for Political Research Standing Group on IR, Critical Peace & Conflict Studies, also a member of European Society of International Law (ESIL).