Beneath the radar, a Russia-Pakistan entente takes shape

March 8, 2012

Russian PM Putin shakes hands with Pakistan's PM Gillani during their meeting in St.Petersburg

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.

And while Islamabad and Moscow are planning a first visit this year, India and Moscow have long held summits each year alternating in the two capitals. Indeed the Hindu quoted Putin as saying last month that Russia was engaging India “full thrust” when a questioner said Russia must engage powers such as India, China and Iran to advance its interests.

But the stepped up Russia-Pakistan diplomacy suggests a thawing of ties at the very least. And at another level, by raising the quality and quantity of these exchanges, is Russia signalling it will pursue a multi-vectored policy in a fast changing South Asia ? Tanvir Ahmad Khan, a former Pakistani foreign secretary who was also once the country’s ambassador to Moscow, says the two countries are on the verge of ending a “long history of estrangement” and that two factors have led to this landmark development. One is that there is now a national consensus in Pakistan to engage Russia earnestly. And two, “Vladimir Putin’s Russia has read the regional and global scene afresh and recognised Pakistan role as a factor of peace and stability.”

Both Pakistan and India, the two big actors in South Asia,  look a lot different today. Pakistan’s ties with the United States have soured so much that it can longer be considered be an ally, ready to do its bidding as in the proxy war against the Red Army in Afghanistan. And India’s ties with the United States, on the other hand, have been transformed, with Washington virtually legitimising it as the world’s sixth nuclear weapon state, something that even Russia never went as far to support during all the years as close allies.

And if India and the United States are holding ever so advanced  joint military exercises (there is one going on now in the Rajasthan desert which has a border with Pakistan) and considering multi-billion dollar defence deals as part of a new booming strategic relationship, Russia and Pakistan are also looking at launching  military exchanges. Last year the commander of the Russian ground forces , Col-Gen Alexander Postinov, was in Pakistan and according to Pakistani newspapers discussed with Army Chief Genera Ashfaq Parvez Kayani the possibility of expanding defence ties by holding joint military exercises, exchanging trainees and trainers and selling and buying weapons, although it seems these were to be confined to counter-terrorism equipment.

It’s not clear whether the two sides have followed up on those decisions but  the 50 JF-17 Thunder fghter planes that China is supplying to Pakistan use a Russian engine, and it’s likely that Russia gave the green signal for China to go ahead. New Delhi was probably not impressed, but it has kept its silence.

On a broader front, during Pakistan Foreign Minister Khar’s visit last month, Russia indicated its willingness to get involved in the 1,640 km TAPI project bringing piped gas from Turkmenistan through Afghanistan  and into energy-starved Pakistan and India, a project that has been hanging fire for years. Russian investors were  also interested in the Thar coal project which involves developing  a large energy complex in Sindh province to produce 6,000 MW of coal-based power and introduce to the country the concept of gasification and production of liquid fuel from coal.

Former ambassador Khan says there is now a basic strategic understanding between the two countries on where to take ties. “If the relationship was clouded by perpetual mistrust, there is now a chance for this dark cloud to lift.”

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