In July 1949, Liaquat Ali Khan as president of Pakistan faced a complex imbroglio. India and Pakistan were in their inception. In a world composed of two opposing political blocs, the two nations had to choose sides quickly. They had the option of joining America with its sumptuous democratic one-liner of “a chicken in the pot and two cars in the garage,” or turn to the USSR.
US President Harry S. Truman, wary of a rising communist domino effect, made an overture to India’s Nehru in 1948 to visit America, the world of dreams. This move spurred Russia to send a counter invitation to Pakistan and its premier Liaquat Ali Khan. This invitation, in turn, prompted an invitation from the US to the Pakistani premier. Liaquat Ali Khan had some rather lissome options on his table. It was then that he decided that it would be America that he would visit, and it would be America that would help Pakistan out of the issues confronting it at its inception. This is something which surprisingly never happened.
In the interim, Pakistan and Russia enjoyed a topsy-turvy relationship. By the 1960’s, Ayub Khan had realized that it was Russia and not America that had the intention of serving as a panacea for all of Pakistan’s problems. The trust in America’s help had further deteriorated in both the 1965 and 1971 wars. India had been duly backed by Russia — both in the war and on the negotiating tables at Tashkent. The US, however, had shown Pakistan a cold shoulder. This was something that angered Ayub Khan and which motivated him to write his book “Friends, Not Masters.” The Dhaka Debacle and the 1971 Bangladesh war had shown Russia was indeed an Indian Ally. The US was also an ally, but with lots of strings attached.
Pakistan had come to understand through numerous dealings that Russia kept its word. The building of the Russian-backed Pipri Steel Mill was an instructive example. But Russia’s interest in Pakistan suffered a major blow when Pakistan played a key role in forcing Russia from Afghanistan. The Afghan debacle also played an important part in the fall of the Soviet Union. The fall meant that Russia was in no position to challenge, even distantly, the advantage that the U.S. had gained in the region.
Fast-forward to 2015. After nearly 20 years of progress under Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev, Russia is again at the forefront of nations. Over two decades, Pakistan has also become a nuclear-capable nation — an achievement that had previously eluded it. Russia has also become as aggressive as it’s always been. Under Putin, it has found a messiah who ensures that the massive nation doesn’t disintegrate like the Soviet Union. He has made sure that Russia is indeed a force to reckoned with.
In bilateral terms, developments in both nations over two decades presently signal that Russia needs Pakistan and Pakistan needs Russia. In its quest to find a messiah in America, Pakistan had the serendipity to discover Russia. Asia in the 21st century is quite different than it was in the past. Ideological differences and a shift in the locus of power has left the region open to exploitation and languor. Asia desperately needs a bloc of superpowers that will guarantee that its affairs run smoothly.
This is where the idea of geopolitical bloc between Pakistan, China and Russia gains traction. Pakistan and India have always been archenemies. The two countries represent each other’s nemesis. This is why Pakistan needs Russia. Pakistan, because of its distinct and everlasting enmity with India, cannot afford to be part of a regional bloc that has India sitting at the top of the hierarchy.
Pakistan, from this standpoint, is better off joining a bloc made up of China and Russia — nations that have the power to offset India. If Pakistan wants her voice to be heard, if Pakistan feels it can have an impact on the future events in Asia, then mending ties with Russia is perhaps the best way to go. A careful analysis of recent events leads to the conclusion that the old enmities stirred by Mao Zedong and Joseph Stalin a generation ago have all but disappeared and that diplomatic exchanges between the two countries are mounting.
This situation has created an unhindered path for Pakistan, a path that may lead to a successful bloc. What’s more, Asia boasts of only 5 nations that are members of the nuclear club: Russia, China, Israel, Pakistan, India and North Korea, with Iran aspiring to join the list. Pakistan is in a strong position in a world where nations are divided into those who have nuclear weapons and those that don’t.
Israel is an American ally, hence intervention against this bloc from their side is not anticipated. A coalition between China, Russia and Pakistan would greatly threaten their role and power in Asia. With three of the nuke powers in one bloc, it would be impossible for either India or Israel to pose a threat. In this complex situation, India has played its cards in a reactionary way as well. China’s interest in economic gains from Pakistan’s Gwadar port has left India in a state of shock and desperation. They have reacted by initiating funding to develop funding for the Chabahar port in Iran, near the port of Gwadar. India feels so threatened by growing China-Pakistan ties that its building an alliance with Israel and Iran. To counter this alliance, Pakistan and Russia need to revive their relations and turn over a new page of diplomacy, a page that would put both on a path to regional supremacy.
Beyond regional supremacy, there are other gains to be made by Pakistan and Russia. A recent visit to Russia by Chief of Army Staff Pakistan Raheel Shareef suggests that both countries are eager to build cooperative military relations where both can come to each other’s aid. There’s also speculation that a deal has been reached between the two nations regarding the exchange and purchase of high-tech weapons from Russia. This would create a welcome opportunity for Pakistan which has suffered from Washington’s steps to keep advaned US weapons out of Pakistani hands.
Putin’s decision to not visit Pakistan during Zardari’s presidency had more to do with Pakistan’s dubious foreign policy at the time than Russian intentions. Russia had sought good relations with Pakistan. But Zardari’s unwillingness to strongly support Russia resulted in the visit’s cancellation. Relations between Pakistan and Russia are a pastiche of sorts, a journey that has all kinds of flavors. It’s a relationship that’s seen enmity and is now experiencing friendship. Popular opinion in Pakistan now favors the pursuit of this exhilarating friendship with Russia. There is not much chance of failure as Henry Kissinger once evocatively said: “No foreign policy — no matter how ingenious — has any chance of success if it is born in the minds of few and carried in the hearts of none.”
Malik Ayub Sumbal is an award- winning journalist based in Islamabad he tweets at @ayubsumbal
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