By Dr. Sudha Ramachandran
After decades of frosty ties, Russo-Pakistan relations are now on a roll. Close on the heels of the signing of a military co-operation framework agreement – the first of its kind between the two countries and widely described as a “milestone” in bilateral relations, Islamabad and Moscow have energized their relationship with Russia agreeing last week to invest $2 billion in construction of a 1,100-kilometer pipeline in Pakistan. The pipeline will transport liquefied natural gas (LNG) from the southern port city of Karachi to Lahore. In return, Pakistan will award the contract for building the pipeline to a Russian company. Russia has also offered to sell gas to Pakistan and the first gas exports could begin as early as 2016.
The pipeline deal is creating a buzz not just for the magnitude of the investment but for the significance it holds for their bilateral relations. If the military co-operation agreement signaled a thaw in ties, the energy deal confirms that Russo-Pakistan joint endeavors are not a one-off affair.
Moscow-Islamabad relations were rarely warm in the past. The two countries were on opposite sides during the Cold War. Pakistan was part of U.S.-led military alliances, received enormous amounts of military and other aid from Washington and even allowed its territory and air space to be used by the Americans for surveillance of the Soviet Union. Then in the 1980s relations plunged to a new low when Pakistan emerged a frontline actor in the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan; U.S. weapons and funds were channelled via Pakistan’s ISI to the Afghan mujahideen fighting the Soviets. While the end of the Cold War eased tension considerably, the continuing Russian-Indian embrace kept Pakistan out in the cold. That changed over the past decade especially with India moving closer to the Americans and diversifying its sourcing of defense hardware. In June last year, Russia lifted an arms embargo on Pakistan, paving the way for the defense cooperation agreement. The energy deal will broaden their cooperation.
Russia’s recent reaching out to Pakistan is widely interpreted as the outcome of its annoyance with India’s growing dalliance with Washington. That is the India-U.S. partnership drove Moscow into Pakistan’s arms. However, at best the India-U.S. engagement is likely to have removed any inhibitions that Russia may have had in doing business with India’s rivals.
Underlying Russia’s decision to engage Pakistan more robustly are hard commercial interests. Pakistan provides Russia’s defence industry with a large market. The natural gas deal will provide Russia with a new buyer, enabling it to diversify its export market, which has become necessary especially in the context of its conflict with the European Union, its main buyer, over the Ukraine issue.
The commercial underpinnings of the Russo-Pakistan relationship notwithstanding, their engagement will be closely watched in India. India will be monitoring what weapons Russia sells to Pakistan. So far much of the defense cooperation envisaged appears to be in the field of counter-terrorism and military exercises. Sale of helicopter gunships is in the pipeline but these are more useful in counter-insurgency than conventional warfare. Delhi will watch to see what weapons Russia provides with the gunships.
At the end of the day, India and Russia are deeply dependent on each other. Despite the diversification, over 70% of India’s defence needs are met by the Russians and India is a market Moscow cannot afford to annoy. Pakistan is at best still a temporary distraction in the India-Russia relationship.
Dr. Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in Bangalore, India who writes on South Asian political and security issues. She can be reached at email@example.com
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