Over India’s strong opposition, Russia delivered four Mi-35M assault helicopters to Pakistan this year. Moscow lifted its embargo on arms sales to Pakistan in 2014 and is currently engaged in a delicate diplomatic balancing act between the two rival south Asian countries.Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Vitaly V. Kuzmin.
Russia has supplied Mi-35M assault helicopters to Pakistan as part of the lifting of its embargo on arms sales to the country in 2014. Photo: Wikimedia Commons / Vitaly V Kuzmin

“There are no permanent friends or foes in international relations.”

If this diplomacy maxim is to be believed, current times offer a perfect opportunity to test it. US President Donald Trump has thrown internationalism to the wind and is sailing under the flag of populist nationalism, so a post-American world order seems to be in the offing. American partnerships and alliances around the world are changing and no more so than in Pakistan whose ties with Russia are experiencing a new cordiality.

High-level visits between both countries are making news. On  September 25, elite Russian and Pakistani military commandos began two-week-long joint counterterrorism exercises, dubbed “Friendship 2017.” After tracing the history of their bilateral ties, it’s evident that the reluctant romance of Islamabad and Moscow usually begins when Pakistan-US ties are frayed, and ends when those ties are mended. Though there are many elements in the bilateral equation, the US factor dominates. So, will the recent cordiality survive if Pakistan-US relations return to normal?

The answer relies on two factors: Pakistan’s art of diversifying its bilateral relations and Russia’s adroitness in balancing between India and Pakistan.

Pick a policy and wear it like armor

Pakistan’s foreign-policy dilemma has been its dependence on a major power while balancing its turbulent relations with arch-rival India. Instead of diversifying its relations with other major powers, Pakistan has always chosen to pick one and wear it like armor. There is nothing wrong with this realpolitik, except its inevitable consequence: earning masters rather than friends. The need for Pakistan to revisit its foreign policy has long been emphasized. However, in the face of friction between Islamabad and Washington, Pakistan’s reactionary approach guides it towards Russia.

Moscow forged friendly ties with Pakistan but its closeness with India mars the Pakistan-Russian link. From 1947 to 1950 and from 1965 to 1969 the Soviet Union and Pakistan cooperated in the fields of education, trade and commerce, and culture. The Soviet Union played a proactive role in ending Indo-Pakistan War of 1965 by facilitating the 1966 Tashkent Agreement. Pakistan Steel Mills became a hallmark of their friendship in the 1970s. However, its stance on the Indo-Pakistan War of 1971 and the vetoing of Pakistan’s resolutions on East Pakistan, now Bangladesh, damaged bilateral ties. The relationship further deteriorated after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979.

A strategic diplomatic four-way dance

The chill continued until Russia began to consider Pakistan strategically important. In 2005, Indo-US cooperation started to increase which paved the way for the 2008 Indo-US Civil Nuclear Agreement. The Kremlin had warned New Delhi about its growing cordiality with Washington, while the differences arose between Pakistan and the US over the so-called War on Terror.

In 2011, the Salala check-post attack by US-led Nato forces sunk bilateral relations to their lowest ebb. Russia condemned the attack and the same year President Vladimir Putin publicly supported Pakistan’s bid for membership of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. In August 2013, Russian Colonel-General Vladimir Chirkin visited Pakistan and discussed issues relating to defense and security operations.

Defence cooperation hit a milestone in 2014 when Russia lifted its embargo on arms sales to Pakistan, which made headlines in New Delhi. Despite India’s strong opposition, Russia delivered four Mi-35M assault helicopters to Pakistan this year. Negotiations for the delivery of S-35 warplanes and the “Friendship 2017” military exercises have enraged New Delhi. Yet Russia currently seems to be effectively balancing its relations between India and Pakistan. And Moscow has announced joint military drills with India from October 19 to 29.

Russia’s vision is clear — to assert itself on the global stage. So is fostering its relationship with Pakistan under the umbrella of defence, military, diplomacy and global terrorism. Pakistan fits Moscow’s strategic calculus, but where Russia stands in Pakistan’s strategic aims remains unclear.

A marriage of convenience limits options

Again, it is strategic and defence cooperation which remains at the core of the recent convergence of Pakistani and Russian interests. Islamabad’s resentment with Washington’s mantra to “do more” to fight terrorist groups in the country and its shortsighted Afghan policy are stimulating the marriage of convenience with Moscow. The reactionary approach has always been a delimiting factor in tapping the true potential of Pakistan-Russia relations.

State-to-state relations endure when there are common goals. Shared animosities, frictions and rivalries knit a bond which sustains as long as the contention sustains.

If Pakistan is to diversify its foreign policy and reduce its dependence on other great powers, it will let economics guide its bilateral relations. Russia has expressed the desire to sign a free-trade agreement with Pakistan, which will increase bilateral cooperation. Pakistan can provision Russia since European agriculture imports are banned in Russia. Energy is also of interest to Russian oil and gas companies.

Pakistan can also provide a convenient international route to Russian goods through China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. The major obstacle to the development of economic relations has been unsettled mutual financial obligations. To this end, an intergovernmental commission on trade, economic, scientific and technical cooperation between Russia and Pakistan can play a pivotal role.

Ume Farwa is a researcher at the Institute of Strategic Studies in Islamabad.

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