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

Russia’s relations with Pakistan since the latter’s independence have been influenced by Moscow-New Delhi ties and then by the Soviet-led war in Afghanistan.

Pakistan played an important role in supporting the Afghan jihadist groups in the fight against Moscow. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990, Moscow-Islamabad relations remained stable and mutually cautious until 2010. But from then on, relations began to change, leading to the lifting of a Russian arms embargo on Pakistan in 2014, and their first joint military exercise was held in 2016.

Russia’s importance to Pakistan

The Pakistanis have long since been diversifying their foreign policy. They seem to have reduced the full focus of foreign policy on the United States and China and have begun their plans to connect with other countries. In addition, the Pakistanis are interested in exploiting Russia’s capabilities in their strategic and extensive cooperation with China.

On the other hand, in recent years, the United States has preferred India to Pakistan. This along with tensions between Islamabad and Washington has led to widespread dissatisfaction in Pakistan. 

Therefore, Pakistan is trying to use Russia to balance its foreign policies regarding India and the United States. Pakistan is also trying to use its relations with Russia to gain advantages over the United States by considering the regional and international confrontations and rivalries.

Economic potential

The volume of Russian-Pakistani trade has not grown significantly; in 2018 it was US$800 million. However, the two countries have plans to expand economic ties.

Pakistan has seriously taken into consideration Russia’s economic potential through port development and pipeline investment and energy transfer. Moscow also looks seriously at  participating in gas pipelines and other projects related to energy and power-plant construction and electricity consumption.

According to Islamabad, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) could be linked with the Eurasian Economic Union. It will also increase the capacity of the Port of Gwadar to access the warm waters of the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea, expanding relations between Russia and Pakistan.

So far, the two countries have been simplifying procedures and encouraging trade by establishing an intergovernmental commission on trade and economic cooperation. But unlike the trade relations between Russia and India, which amount to $10 billion a year, the volume of trade is inconsistent with its real potential. In fact, the current volume of trade between the two countries compared with the overall volume of Russia’s foreign trade is very small.

Dealing with terrorism

The Russians are worried about the influence of extremist Salafist and ISIS-affiliated groups in Central Asia. A significant number of ISIS forces moved to Syria from Russia’s Muslim republics. Given the fragile security and political stability of Afghanistan and that country’s socio-cultural and economic problems, some of them have since moved from Syria into areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan. Thus cooperation between Russia and Pakistan could be in line with the security interests of both sides. 

It also seems that the important issue in the Russian-Pakistani interaction is more and more related to the developments in Afghanistan and the actions of extremist Salafist groups and ISIS. 

Pakistan is trying to take advantage of Moscow’s concerns about the serious threat posed in Afghanistan by al-Qaeda, ISIS, the Taliban and other organizations, to strengthen diplomatic relations with Russia and bring Moscow in line with Islamabad’s views on Afghanistan.

Pakistan also supports Russia’s intent to cooperate with the Taliban and establish unofficial relations with the group. In another dimension, Pakistan as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s most important strategic partner among non-NATO members has played an important role in meeting the logistical needs of NATO forces in the past. Therefore, the nature of Moscow’s cooperation with Pakistan regarding NATO’s movements can be considered.

Defense and military cooperation

The Soviet Union and then the Russian Federation long maintained a strict policy of not selling weapons to Pakistan. The Pakistani military then became dependent on Western and Chinese military weapons, but in 2014, Pakistan and Russia finally reached an agreement on cooperation in the field of defense and the purchase of military equipment.

The continued cooperation between the US and India in a series of important agreements in the field of defense have resulted in Moscow and Islamabad going forward with more defense cooperation and weapons trade. Islamabad also wants to develop its defense and strategic military ties with Russia, in addition to buying arms.

Future of relations

Since 2014, the Russians have taken a stronger approach to international interactions and diversification of relations with different countries, including Pakistan.

In addition, the Russians are pursuing the development of relations with Pakistan to limit the US influence in Asia. But it should be noted that one of the most important goals of Russia’s foreign policy is to expand its international influence and improve its economic growth. It is also very important for President Vladimir Putin to develop and stabilize his country’s economy.

What is clear is that Moscow-Islamabad relations will move toward greater convergence in the future in the form of bilateral and multilateral cooperation, such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.

However, the cooperation and relations between Russia and Pakistan cannot create the conditions and basis for a strategic, lasting and interdependent alliance in the fields of security, politics and strategy, because, for Russia, India is still an important country in South Asia. Therefore, Moscow is trying to deal carefully with Islamabad, so as not to strain its ties with India.

India will not tolerate any form of Russia-China-Pakistan axis. Therefore, Moscow is concerned that expansion of its relations with Islamabad will force India to move closer to the United States. Also, India’s market is larger than Pakistan’s. The arms trade between India and Russia still has great potential, while the deals signed between Moscow and Islamabad so far have not been very important.

In general, the relations between the two countries will see a growing trend in the fields of energy and transit of goods and energy, consultations and closer political, defense and security interactions. Therefore, Pakistan’s hopes for a strategic partnership with Russia are high, and closer relations will be accessible through calculated and step-by-step measures.

Farzad Ramezani Bonesh is a researcher and analyst of international affairs. He graduated in political science from the University of Tehran. Farzad Ramezani Bonesh is a writer, senior researcher and analyst on regional issues, especially in the Persian Gulf ,MENA and South Asia. He has previously served as chief editor of research desk at several Iranian research centers. He has written hundreds of research articles, short analysis and journalism in Persian and English. He has had many interviews...