State-to-state relationships are not grounded in emotions, but based on shared interests. No one is a friend or a foe forever; the convergence or divergence of mutual interests decides the nature of the relationship between two countries. Though relations between Russia and Pakistan remained turbulent over the years, they have been warming up over the last decade, with top political and diplomatic meetings. Moscow is reaffirming its role in its immediate domain and beyond, whereas Islamabad is seeking new avenues of opportunity, lessening its reliance on the United States in particular and the West in general.
Between 1947-50 and 1965-69, the two countries were engaged in trade as well as educational and cultural exchanges. The 1966 Tashkent Summit between Pakistan and India, which ended the 1965 India-Pakistan War, even materialized in part due to the labors of Soviet Prime Minister Alexei Kosygin. Pakistan Steel Mills remains a towering reminder of well-intentioned Pakistan-USSR bilateral relations during this period. Nonetheless, Soviet efforts at friendly ties were diluted by the Soviet Union itself. Moscow’s condemnation of Pakistan’s position in the 1971 war with India deteriorated bilateral relations, and many people in Pakistan assumed that the August 1971 Indo-Soviet Treaty of Friendship, Peace, and Cooperation encouraged India’s invasion of East Pakistan (today’s Bangladesh). Ensuing Soviet arms sales to India, amounting to billions of dollars on concessional terms, strengthened this argument. The USSR also kept vetoing each resolution regarding the East Pakistan situation that Pakistan brought to the United Nations.
Other incidents such as Soviet Union support for Afghanistan on the Pashtunistan issue and the U-2 episode shattered mutual trust. Relations experienced a nose dive and touched the lowest ebb during the 1980s Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, in which Pakistan sided with United States — the Soviets’ Cold War arch rival — to obstruct further Soviet expansion from knocking at Pakistani borders.
The chill continued even after the disintegration of USSR in 1991. It wasn’t until 2003, when President Pervez Musharraf visited Moscow, that Russia and Pakistan re-established political contact.
Presently, however, in the wake of contemporary regional and international challenges Pakistan and Russia are forging closer relations. In 2007, Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov paid a three-day visit to Pakistan and discussed the prospects of economic cooperation. A few years later, in 2011, then-Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin publicly endorsed Pakistan’s bid to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). That year the Kremlin also condemned the NATO strike on Salala check post in Pakistan, calling it an assault on the state’s sovereignty. Moscow also offered assistance in the expansion of Pakistan Steel Mills, technical support for the Guddu and Muzaffargarh power plants, and announced interest in Thar Coal Project.
Moreover, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani received Colonel General Vladimir Chirkin in 2013 in Pakistan, where the two discussed mutual defense and security cooperation. In October that same year, both countries pledged to jointly control the production and trafficking of drugs and narcotics. Defense collaboration between Russia and Pakistan got a new boost when Russia lifted its embargo on arms sales to Pakistan in 2014. It enraged India, which was opposing the sale of Mi-35 helicopters to Pakistan at the time. Later, in November, the defense ministers of both countries signed an agreement to expand defense and military ties. On December 23, 2014, Pakistan and Russia inked a much-needed energy deal, worth $1.7 billion, that will see a liquefied natural gas (LNG) pipeline linking Karachi to Lahore. Then in June 2015, former Pakistani Chief of Army Staff General Raheel Sharif paid a three-day visit to Moscow where he was warmly received by the Kremlin; both sides held crucial military talks against the backdrop of emerging regional re-alliances.
Russian Consul General Andrey Vladimirovich Demdov, while speaking at the 65th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the two countries on May 1, 2013, aptly stated: “The history of our bilateral relations saw both good and not so good. But irrespective of the state of the relations, both countries always felt the necessity to maintain good contacts.” This implicitly shows the maturity of Russian diplomacy and its cognizance of geopolitics and realpolitik.
The expansion of Russia-Pakistan ties will help in bringing stability and prosperity in the region. For Russia, Pakistan is significant in two dimensions. First, it serves as an outlet to the Central Asian Republics and the Kremlin would never desire instability there. Second, the strategic location of Pakistan means it can connect the Central Asian region with the Middle East and Indian Ocean — thus Russian goods can access the international market very conveniently through Pakistan. Moscow also wants to invest in Pakistan’s agriculture technology, including grip irrigation and desert farming.
Pakistan, for its part, can benefit from the Russian defense industry, as Russian military equipment is cheaper than America’s. In addition, Russia has banned agriculture imports, especially food, from Europe. Pakistan in this scenario can be a competitive source of agricultural and textile goods for Russia, which offers a $16 billion market in the agriculture sector alone. Energy is another potential sector where Pakistan can reap huge benefits by fashioning friendly relations with the Kremlin.
The approaches of both Islamabad and Moscow seem very pragmatic in the wake of contemporary challenges. Russia is flexing its muscles again, defying the unipolar world dominated by United States for the past few decades. Moscow wants to assert its influence in the region, anticipating the departure of U.S. and NATO forces from Afghanistan and the resulting developments. By conducting joint military exercises and signing a defense pact with Pakistan, the Russians may also be signaling India to be cautious in its intimacy with United States. Moscow has been nurturing relations with India for decades, and will not let go of such a significant partnership that easily, but the move toward Pakistan will give the Indians an indication that Russia has other options in the region, too.
On the flip side, Pakistan has to diversify its diplomatic and strategic portfolio. It is acting practically by moving toward Russia. Islamabad wants respectful treatment from United States on an equal basis — not just Washington’s usual demands for Pakistan to “do more.” Otherwise, Pakistan is demonstrating to the United States that it has other allies in the area and also ones that Washington may not like. Russia is Pakistan’s natural ally. The regional block of China, Russia, and Pakistan can be a win-win partnership for regional peace, stability, and robust trade. If this block is actualized, then there is a distant possibility of Russia and China playing a positive role in mediating between Pakistan and India and also between Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Saddam Hussein is pursuing an M.Phil. in Public Policy from the School of Public Policy, Pakistan Institute of Development Economics, Islamabad while working as a research intern at the Center of Research and Security Studies, Islamabad.