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  • Writer's pictureSaleem Qamar Butt

Budding Pak-Russia Strategic Relationship

The fast evolving strategic environment in Central Asia and South Asia (CASA) and Asia –Pacific regions has helped Pakistan and Russia to dump their cold war past at the back and engage in discussions in March 2019 for strengthening their strategic relationship, including potential Russian participation in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, as well as increase trade and cooperation as part of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. This positive development is reflective of both countries’ desire to develop a stronger relationship as both share concerns regarding the threat of the Islamic State, potential spread of extremism and drugs from Afghanistan towards North as well as other mutual interests, including energy and defence sectors. A month earlier, Russia announced in February 2019 that it was planning to invest $14 billion in Pakistan's energy infrastructure. At the same time, both countries are currently exploring a security partnership.

Three decades provide a lot of time to reflect and rethink; Pakistan and Russia were the bitterest of enemies during the Cold War, but a convergence of strategic interests has brought Islamabad and the Kremlin closer than ever before. In the recent past, Pakistan's foreign minister, national security adviser and army chief have journeyed to Moscow to explore a security partnership focused on combating the threat of transnational Jihadism emanating from Afghanistan. And in a bid to formalize these engagements, Islamabad even expressed interest in forging a strategic partnership with Moscow in May, 2018. The budding Russian-Pakistani relationship has been years in the making. Following the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, Pakistan's then-President visited Moscow in 2003 while Russia's then-Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov returned the favor four years later. The relationship, however, truly started to gain traction in 2014 — the year the United States incidentally completed the NATO draw down in Afghanistan. During that year, Russia lifted an arms embargo against Pakistan, paving the way for the two countries to sign a defense agreement that included a $153 million deal to sell Mi-35M attack helicopters, as well as an agreement to directly buy the Klimov RD-93 engines from Russia for use in its domestically manufactured JF-17 fighter jet. Moscow also inked a deal with Islamabad to construct the $2 billion North-South pipeline linking Karachi and Lahore at a time when U.S. sanctions against Russia over its actions in Ukraine forced the Kremlin to explore other energy export markets. Russia and its new South Asian partner have since inked other energy deals, as Gazprom and Pakistan's Oil and Gas Development Company signed a joint venture deal in July 2017 to aid in exploration and development. In 2016, Russia and Pakistan conducted Druzhba, the pair's first joint military drills, in spite of anger from India, which registered its unease at the war games in the wake of an attack on the Uri army base in Indian Occupied Kashmir that it erroneously blamed on Pakistani militants. At the end of that year, Moscow and Beijing also hosted a trilateral summit on Afghanistan with Islamabad, the first of four international conferences involving Russia.

For Islamabad, the need to ensure a friendly regime in Kabul and secure its disputed western border with Afghanistan is part of its grand strategy to ensure internal unity in the face of external aggression. Pakistan need look no further than 1971 to observe the consequences of its failure to maintain this grand strategy. At the same time, the United States has set its sights on a much bigger challenge: addressing China, which happens to be Pakistan's strongest ally. And because Beijing's rise equally worries India, the United States and India have begun cultivating a defence related strategic partnership. This burgeoning Indo-American cooperation is naturally a cause for concern for Russia, which has shared deep historical links with India since the Cold War; besides, being equally worrisome for Pakistan. Russia and China are competing as well as cooperating partners due to stated tectonic shifts in geo-economic and geopolitical imperatives; thus, a tripartite China-Russia-Pakistan strategic partnership emerges as a natural consequence to American-Indian encirclement in CASA and Asia-Pacific regions. Russia is seriously offering Nuclear Energy plants to regional competitors Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan in Central Asia besides enhancing security cooperation with all CARs (especially Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan with or without CSTO format) due to convergence of interest on common threats that also helps Russia to reassert in former sphere of influence; Energy starved and inflation hit Pakistan may also get a similar offer, which may pave the way for long term economic partnership between the two countries. It is time for geo-economics to be in the lead for our foreign policy that has inherent potential for geo-security cooperation because of common stakes.

13th April, 2019

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