One of the early calls that Vladimir Putin took following his expected victory in the Russian presidential election last weekend was from Pakistan Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani. He congratulated Putin on his success and invited him to visit Islamabad in September which the Russian leader accepted, according to newspaper reports citing an official statement.
It would be the first visit by a Russian head of state to Pakistan which stood on the other side of the Cold War, peaking in its emergence as the staging ground for the U.S. campaign to defeat the Soviet Union's occupation of Afghanistan. It's now again the frontline state in America's war against Islamist militants in Afghanistan, but it is a far more conflicted partner than those days of war against the godless communists. So fraught and uncertain is the nature of the relationship with the United States that Pakistan has sought to deepen ties with long-time ally China, but also Russia, the other great power in a dangerously unstable neighbourhood.
Last year Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari made the first official visit to Russia by a Pakistani head of state in 37 years after Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto's trip to Moscow. The visit capped a series of exchanges including on the sidelines of a four-way summit that Russia has promoted involving Pakistan, Afghanistan and Tajikistan, besides Moscow, to discuss regional security. Zardari and outgoing President Dmitri Medvedev have met six times in the past three years, according to a count by an Indian security affairs expert, and last month Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar was in Moscow negotiating an agreement to guide futue ties including Russian investment in the Pakistani economy.
There is always a risk of reading too much into bilateral exchanges that you would expect between two major countries, both nuclear powers with shared interests in the region. Visits alone don't transform ties, and especially ones with a troubled history behind them. And then there is India to be factored in, both for Russia and Pakistan. Moscow has long stood in India's corner from the days of the Cold War to its role as a top weapons supplier to the Indian military, still ahead of the Israelis fast clawing their way into one of the world's most lucrative arms markets.A nuclear-powered submarine has just sailed from Russia to be inducted into the Indian navy - a force-multiplier in the military with the sub's ability to stay beneath waters long and deep and far from home.