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Russia’s South Asia challenge

The visit of Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to Islamabad in April was the first such top-level engagement in almost a decade.

The visit underscored the importance of the bilateral relations between Russia and Pakistan. The crucial talks that Lavrov had with the Pakistani leadership centered on diverse fields including economy, finance, trade and defence.

In their joint press conference, the Pakistani foreign minister and his Russian counterpart acknowledged the need for more engagement at various levels to unpack the potential of ties that have, for a large part, been cold. However, as the visit by the top Russian diplomat underlined, there is a shared desire to reverse the legacy of the past and carve out an independent niche that is in line with the reality of the present times.

In the last few years, Pakistan has shown greater willingness to invest its diplomatic influence in regional countries, in what appears to be a sensible policy informed by the contemporary realities. This approach has provided Islamabad with much-needed space to look at the region purely in light of the regional challenges.

Pakistan is justified in having legitimate stakes in Afghanistan, India, China, Iran and the Middle East. It is only natural for Islamabad to try to leverage its geostrategic location, coupled with its huge market potential, and work with the regional countries to protect its vital trade, security, economic and strategic interests.

The label of being in this or that camp made policymakers in Islamabad lose sight of the challenges and opportunities that our wider region presented. This single-track foreign policy approach put too much premium on geostrategic thinking to the near exclusion of geo-economic realities.

Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi hinted at this new reality when he said, “There is a new approach and mindset in Pakistan for a relationship with Russia. We feel that [we not only] have geographic proximity but [that] Russia is a factor of stability in the region and the world at large.”

The desire to mend ties with the Kremlin means that Pakistan wants to develop bilateral relations with every regional power on its own trajectory without letting one influence the other. The key challenge, however, is to put the policy intent into reality in the form of trade, defence and economic cooperation through mutually beneficial projects.

For Pakistan and Russia, the priority areas remain the building of the multi-billion dollar North-South gas pipeline from Karachi to Lahore, the provision of counterterrorism equipment as part of defence cooperation, peace and stability in Afghanistan and the increase in trade relations.

Despite the collapse of the USSR three decades ago, an event of epic proportions that transformed the global political, economic and strategic landscape with the US lording it over as the sole superpower of the world, Russia remains a key regional player with significant military, diplomatic and political influence. Under President Putin, Russia has carefully been projecting its clout and power in different regions.

Despite the fact that Indo-Russia relations have always been a significant factor for the Kremlin, the latest outreach to Pakistan represents a renewed search for allies and trade partners.

Russia understands that this is an Asian century marked by the resurgence of the Asian countries, and its pivot-to-Asia policy has been marked by three components – a civilizational alliance against Western ‘universal values’; a geo-political effort to present itself as an alternative to US-based alliances; and a geo-economic initiative to forge greater economic and trade partnerships with the Asian countries.

For a long time, the Kremlin (then Soviet Union) looked at South Asia from the prism of the cold war. The Indo-Soviet relationship, described as denoting “a legacy of trust, mutual interests, cooperation and enduring peace,” was officially inaugurated by PM Nehru’s visit to Moscow in June 1955 and a return visit to India by Nikita Khrushchev, the first-secretary of the Communist Party the same year.

Despite the fact that the USSR acted as a mediator between India and Pakistan to bring the 1965 war to a close and its peace efforts resulted in the signing of the Tashkent Declaration, the Soviet Union/Russia has extended consistent and unequivocal support to India on the issue of Jammu & Kashmir, describing it as India’s “internal matter”.

Under the Indo-Soviet Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Cooperation, the USSR provided crucial military, diplomatic and political support to New Delhi in the 1971 war with Pakistan that resulted in the creation of Bangladesh. The cold-war era saw the Indo-Soviet relationship going from strength to strength in the areas of trade and defence.

Russia, as a successor of the Soviet Union, continued with the mother-country’s policy of investing in bilateral relations with India. President Putin, who took over in 2000, put ties with New Delhi at the forefront of his foreign policy agenda. The signing of the Declaration on Strategic Partnership in 2000 led to the opening up of new avenues of cooperation in the areas of counterterrorism, nuclear energy, technology, and space.

Though Russia did make sporadic efforts to act as a mediator between the archrivals, it has largely been oriented towards New Delhi. While its standard position has been to invoke the Simla and Lahore peace agreements for the resolution of the Jammu & Kashmir issue, Kremlin extended crucial support to India after the latter revoked the special status of IIOJ&K by scrapping Articles 370 and 35-A.

The Special and Privileged Strategic Partnership that both countries signed in 2010 has further augmented defence and trade ties between them. Indo-Russian defence cooperation, once defined as supplier-client relationship, has evolved into shared research, development and the production of military hardware. The entire gamut of the bilateral relationship is covered under the Indo-Russian Intergovernmental Commission (IRIGC) with Military Technical Cooperation (MTC) being a pillar of this framework.

On the contrary, the relationship between Islamabad and Moscow has been marred by mutual suspicions, acrimony and distrust since Pakistan’s joining of the Western bloc through SEATO and CENTO in 1955. Relations further nosedived as Islamabad saw Kremlin support as being crucial in tilting the balance of power in favour of India during the 1971 war.

Bilateral ties underwent significant improvements during PM Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s tenure, as he made an effort to pursue an independent foreign policy after bifurcation of the country. The upsurge in relations with Moscow followed the weakening of ties with the US. To date, the Pakistan Steels Mills remains the legacy of Bhutto’s bonhomie with the USSR.

Pakistan’s role as a conduit and active facilitator of Afghan Jihad put paid to any notions of improvement in ties with the Soviet Union. The specter of the collapse of the USSR and the rise of the Taliban haunted Russia. However, it was only after 9/11 when Pakistan joined the ‘war on terror’ that the Russia-Pakistan relationship witnessed some improvement. The subsequent interactions have gradually built up on it.

The post-cold-war era has created a new set of political and strategic realities for Russia, as it reviews its South Asia policy. A lot has changed in the past decade. A new multipolarity seems to be shaping the international system.

India, once a firm ally, is in the tight embrace of the US. China has emerged as a potent challenger to the American hegemony. With the announcement of American withdrawal from Afghanistan, the war-torn country is up for potentially a more deadly bout of violence with significant security ramifications for Russia and Pakistan.

Above all, Pakistan’s geo-strategic position as a bridge between the Middle East and Central and South Asia stands reinforced, courtesy CPEC. Plus, Islamabad remains a key player in Afghanistan.

Russia’s endeavor for a new South Asia policy is incentivized by its aspiration to establish itself as a new stabilizing power and economic and trade partner.

The writer, a Chevening scholar, studied International Journalism at the University of Sussex.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @Amanat222