In the late 1970s, the Pakistani and Russian militaries faced off against each other in the mountains of Afghanistan, albeit indirectly. The conflict between the two started in 1979 when the Soviet army marched into Kabul in support of the Afghan Communist Party. Pakistan and America responded swiftly, funding and equipping the mujahideen as well as providing safe haven for them to regroup in Pakistan’s mountainous North West Frontier Province. The war rumbled on through the 1980s and, throughout this period, Islamabad’s support for the Afghan insurgency was unwavering. After sustained losses, the Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan and in little more than a year, the USSR itself would collapse.
Three decades later, Pakistan and Russia have met again on the battlefield — but this time on the same side as part of joint military exercises. Not only do these exercises mark a significant shift from the mutual hostility of the 1980s, but they also stand to create a number of opportunities for Pakistan and the wider erstwhile Soviet world. The latest installment of exercises including both Russia and Pakistan comes with the multilateral Kavkaz 2020 military drills.
The exercises will take place close to Russia’s southern city of Astrakhan. The list of participating countries is impressive, ranging from Pakistan and Belarus to Azerbaijan and China. The drills include war games and joint training, as well as the opportunity for participants to show off their latest military technology and hardware. This is not the first time Pakistan has participated in the drills with Russia and Central Asian countries. For example, last year Islamabad sent a contingent to the Tsentr 2019 exercise along with Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and India.
However, this year is different.
India has recently announced it will not be participating in the exercise. New Delhi was due to send around 200 soldiers, including infantry, naval, and air force personnel, only to announce on Saturday that it was withdrawing from the event. The stated reason was difficulties due to COVID-19, even though officials speaking anonymously pointed to India’s recent tensions with China as a factor behind the decision. Furthermore, the prospect of training alongside the Pakistani army almost certainty tilted the balance against participation. While we are likely to see Indian officials emphasizing their close military and strategic relationship with Russia in the coming days, there is no doubt Moscow will be somewhat frustrated at India’s sudden decision to pull out of the event.
For the Russian military, the sheer number and range of participants alone marks a triumph of sorts and sends a defiant message to the West and particularly the United States. India’s absence threatens this messaging to a degree. This sudden reversal, alongside Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s close relationship with U.S. President Donald Trump, provides Pakistan an opportunity to cement its friendship with President Vladimir Putin and Moscow.
However, aside from improving relations with Russia, the Kavkaz military drills are an important opportunity for Pakistan to solidify and develop its relationship with the former Soviet world. Russia’s ally in the Caucasus, Armenia, will be attending the event. Pakistan refuses to acknowledge the existence of Armenia in support of Islamabad’s iron-clad ally Azerbaijan. Both Armenia and Azerbaijan are currently engaged in a long-standing territorial dispute over the region of Nagorno-Karabakh. While it is unlikely Pakistan will want to upset Baku, the drills provide an opportunity for Pakistani and Armenian troops to participate in the drills together, which could be an important step toward improving relations. Despite the prospect of Pakistan formally recognizing Armenia being a long way off, the mere presence of the two armies together is symbolic.
Belarus will also send a contingent to the event — another country in the former Soviet Union Pakistan has maintained a surprisingly warm relationship with. President Alexander Lukashenko — who is under significant pressure from the West over his controversial re-election — is keen to further ties with as many allies as possible, including Pakistan. Recently, he sent Independence Day greetings to Islamabad, stating “Pakistan had succeeded in building an independent state” and emphasizing the “great prospects” between the two unlikely allies. Given this background, it is unsurprising Pakistan has refrained from criticizing Lukashenko. The presence of both militaries in southern Russia could act as a catalyst for stronger defense ties between Islamabad and Minsk.
Pakistan can also use the opportunity to reset relations closer to home. The scenic Wakan corridor separates Pakistan and Tajikistan and at their closest point, the two countries are a mere 10 miles apart. Despite historical and cultural ties between the two Asian nations (both were part of the Arab Umayyad and Persian Empires) and their joint participation in several infrastructure and energy projects (the Central Asia-South Asia Electricity Transmission and Trade Program), Tajikistan plays host to India’s only air force base outside of its borders. The Farkhor Air Base lies around 81 miles southeast of Dushanbe and perilously close to Pakistan’s northern border with Afghanistan. Indian fighter jets taking off from the base can reach Pakistani airspace in little more than a few minutes.
Naturally, this has put a significant strain on relations with Islamabad. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there are no major military ties or significant arms deals between Pakistan and Tajikistan, and if the former plays its cards right, it could use the drills as an opportunity to pull Tajikistan away from India’s military grip.
Military drills are often seen as a show of common strength between allies and a warning to others. However, for Pakistan it would be wise not to see these drills as a show of strength, but rather as an important opportunity to further its relationship with the former Soviet World. India’s recent decision to stay away from Kavkaz 2020 along with the sheer number of former Soviet states participating in them suggests a golden opportunity Pakistan cannot afford to ignore.
Shahid Hussain will commence his Ph.D. at the University College London in September, where he will focus on diplomacy and the relationship between Russia and Britain in the 17th century.