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Russia’s Looming Arms Sale to Pakistan Sets Up a Dangerous Game

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Russia’s Looming Arms Sale to Pakistan Sets Up a Dangerous Game

Will Russia sell the Pantsir missile system and T-90 tanks to Pakistan?

Russia’s Looming Arms Sale to Pakistan Sets Up a Dangerous Game
Credit: Vitaly V. Kuzmin

On the heels of the recent tensions between New Delhi and Islamabad, news broke out that Pakistan is set to purchase the Pantsir surface-to-air missile system and T-90 tanks from Russia. If true, this deal would be Russian industry’s biggest ever in its (to-date minuscule) arms trade with Pakistan and would have the potential to shift the balance of Moscow’s relations with the two South Asian neighbors and rivals.

One should be very careful with jumping to conclusions on such deals, however. First, the media narrative often presents such agreements as if they were destined to be finalized, ignoring the complex reality of negotiations. In the media, memoranda of understanding may be confused with final deals, and any stage of talks can be presented as if the ink was already drying down on the paper. In this case, the Times of Islamabad story actually mentioned that Islamabad “is now planning to send a delegation to Moscow to finalize the deal” — and an awful lot of deals have died on the way to finalization, often after years of protracted and delayed negotiations. As for the tanks, the news is that “Pakistan has drawn up a plan to also procure 360 T-90 tanks” from Russia; there is an even longer and torturous way from here to getting the tanks rolling on the plains of Punjab or Sindh by Pakistan’s border with India.

But there is a second reason to watch these developments with both an attentive eye and a cool head. Such a purchase would cause a small political earthquake, and its epicenter would be located in India. By allowing its companies to sell so much weaponry to Islamabad, Moscow would jeopardize its already decreasing arms trade with its traditional South Asian client: New Delhi.

The Soviet Union, and later the Russian Federation, kept a strict policy of not selling weapons to Pakistan, while remaining India’s close political partner and selling a lot of military hardware to New Delhi. This, however, changed beginning in 2014, when Moscow and Islamabad signed an agreement to cooperate in the area of defense. The deal paved the way for the first-ever purchase of Russian military equipment by Pakistan: in 2015, the parties agreed that Islamabad would buy Mi-35M attack helicopters. A lot of eyebrows were raised in New Delhi, and Russia’s clear position on the side of India was not so obvious anymore.

The further purchase of Russian Mi-171E helicopters attracted less attention but possibly had a significance of its own. The aircraft were supposed to be of the civilian variant and destined to be used by the government of the province of Balochistan, and yet were reportedly used for night vision missions during the anti-terrorist Zarb-e-Azb operation. All of this was sided with a visible rise in a number of bilateral visits (a trend that actually started in 2012-2013) and a commencement of a series of joint Russia-Pakistan military exercises.

And yet so far the numbers are not astonishing. Russia has actually sold four Mi-35Ms and a few Mi-171Es to Pakistan. This cooperation is important politically, but constitutes a drop in the roaring rivers of international arms trade. I would doubt if Moscow could suddenly jump from this level to providing hundreds of tanks to Pakistan without anybody blinking; every large military deal requires a lot of political backing and maneuvering. The deals do suggest certain policy changes, however, and a growth of multilateral attitudes on all sides.

On one side there are Russians, whose overall export options are in fact very limited (and were further reduced in wake of sanctions that followed Moscow’s brutal interference in Ukraine). Military technology is actually one of the very few areas where Russia has much to export on offer, and the countries of the Middle East and Asia remain primary buyers. On the other side there is Islamabad, for which a limited number of choices on the international scene is a permanent situation. Pakistan’s love-hate relationship with United States, in which both countries seem to be more forced than willing to cooperate, got even more cold and complicated ever since Osama bin Laden was found to be living in Abbottabad.

This and a host of other factors led to a gradual decrease of U.S. financial aid to Pakistan ever since. For Islamabad, in view of its increasingly troubled relations with Washington and its already-visible overdependence on Beijing, it would be natural to at attempt at least some, however limited, cooperation with Russia. Some have already speculated that South Asia is heading into a global alliance swap: India would become the United States’ primary partner (including in military affairs), while Pakistan would side with Russia.

But let’s face it: the selling of a handful of helicopters amounts neither to Russia’s scoring a meaningful victory in its attempts to prop up exports nor to Pakistan’s changing its main global partner. The real center of gravity in Moscow-Islamabad relations lies in New Delhi. It is the growing cooperation between India and the United States in the area of defense, I believe, that prompted the Russians to initiate this kind of cooperation with Pakistan. The signing of a few major Indo-American agreements of cooperation in defense (such as LEMOA) and a few big-tickets purchases of American hardware by India (such as the Apache and Chinook helicopters) caused anxiety and anger in Russia. This was coupled with a decrease in Moscow’s military exports to India and, with it, Russian companies losing some of the key bids to American, French, and Israeli competition (Rosoboronexport’s Komardin was heard fuming about this). It is in these circumstances, I think, that Russia decided to start cooperating with Pakistan in security-related issues.

And yet one additional obvious observation is that India is simply a bigger market than Pakistan. It does not make sense for Russia to swap this market for Pakistan; the trick would be then in either having both markets open to oneself or retaining a considerable chunk of the Indian market. New Delhi lately often chose more advanced military technology when it could, and hence Russian products are less in demand there than they used to be. Yet, many have competitive prices and some are technologically still very attractive, not only for poorer states. The Indo-Russian arms trade still has a lot of potential, and the recent deals and negotiations between Moscow and New Delhi attest to this (the recent agreement to sell the S-400 system to India is the best, if special, example of this).

In case a major arms deal is signed between Russia and Pakistan, New Delhi will have to either learn to live with it, or attempt punitive political action, which could result in a further, steep decline in the Indo-Russian arms trade. The deals signed between Moscow and Islamabad so far were not major, however. I am tempted to think that they were more about Russia’s relationship to India than to Pakistan — such sales to Pakistan are a political gesture and leverage in negotiations with India, so that New Delhi would feel it will not be treated as a special client. But this interpretation may have to be abandoned once a major Russia-Pakistan arms deal does come through.

It is an exercise in multilateralism for all concerned parties: each capital is constantly testing what are the redlines of others in the ever-changing circumstances. The theory of a swap in global alliances of India and Pakistan is mistaken simply because New Delhi has no international alliance to abandon in the first place. Having left the dichotomies of the Cold War well behind it, India is now not aligned to any single global power; it is on its own side (although it is happy to enhance its partnership with the United States on various levels). But as India’s cooperation with Russia has become pragmatic, far from exceptional, and not ideology-driven, New Delhi will also have to come to terms with the fact that Moscow is treating this relationship the same way.