Strategists of the 21st century have been looking at Russia as a supreme balancing power in the Eurasian supercontinent due to its history of leadership and geographical landmass. Russia has been dreaming of Eurasian Integration, which is why they have played such a pivotal role in undermining the US influence in Europe, Middle East and South Asia. It has been investing tremendously in the rising influence of China in the Indo-pacific region, and has been seeking multiple alliances in the area, further isolating the US. Now Pakistan too is taking advantage of this developing situation.
Despite the frayed relationship between Pakistan and Russia in the past, the 21st century has opened new gateways to bilateral cooperation. Fortunately, both countries have mutual interests, which have evolved due to the following factors.
The first is the rising threat of ISIS in Afghanistan. ISIS has a growing influence in the country and Russia believes that US forces will fail to decimate them, which is an alarming threat to the security of Central Asian Republics that share a mutual defence agreement with Russia, through the CSTO (Collective Security Treaty Organization). There is also the risk of Chechen and Uzbek militants entering the fray, while Pakistan’s long border with Afghanistan also makes it vulnerable to such threats. This is why both nations support a peace agreement between the Afghan government and Afghan Taliban, who might help curb ISIS’s rising influence.
The second is Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Iranian Nuclear Deal, which has provided Russia with another option to isolate the US in Afghanistan. The US accused Iran of training, funding, and providing weapons to the Taliban against the Afghan government, and since their withdrawal from their agreement, Russia has also increased their support for Iran and the Taliban, as deterrence to the aforementioned threat of ISIS.
The third is China’s investment in South Asia under BRI. Through CPEC, Pakistan is expected to be a leading power in South Asia in the future, as China wants to connect Asia with Russia, Middle East, Africa and even Europe. Through this connection, Russia and China can foster the Eurasian integration they have longed for, further undercutting US interests in these regions, and Pakistan gets to be the centre of this new world trade route.
The fourth is the evolving relationship between India and the US, along with a thaw in relations between the US and Pakistan. The US has been accusing Pakistan of being a sponsor of terrorism, despite the great sacrifices made by the latter in its fight against this great scourge. Recently, the US Congress even passed the National Defence Authorization Act for 2019, in which it reduced security assistance to Pakistan from $750 million to $150 million annually. Moreover, they also announced a stop to US military training programs for Pakistan, while, on the other side, India has been made an official part of QUAD, known as Asia’s democratic security diamond, including US, Japan and Australia. This Alliance is threatening Chinese investment in the Indo-Pacific region, which is why Russia wants to counter QUAD by seeking alliances with Pakistan, China, and Afghanistan.
These are some of the factors that have compelled the Russian leadership to think beyond the historical conflicts with Pakistan, and initiate a game-changing alliance with Islamabad. However, this begs the question: how can Pakistan benefit from this changing dynamic?
Based on these converging interests, Pakistan and Russia’s relationship has been evolving daily. With regards to military cooperation, both countries signed a defence cooperation agreement in 2014, in which Russia lifted its long running arms embargo on Pakistan. They also agreed to sell Mi-35 helicopters to Islamabad, while there is also a deal in place to acquire a total of 20 Mi-35Ms over the next few years, with Pakistan receiving the first four in August 2017 at a cost of $153 million. Both nations are also negotiating a deal on Su-35 and Su-37 fighter jets. Moreover, in 2017, a long-running joint military exercise was conducted, named “DRUZBA (Friendship) 2017”, while Russia has also offered to train Pakistan’s military officers as well.
Another significant aspect for Pakistan in this evolving relationship is of becoming the new energy corridor from central Asia and Russia, to South Asia and China. In this way, Russian companies will explore the possibilities of oil and gas pipelines from CARS through Afghanistan to the rest of the South Asian region. In this regard, Russia and Pakistan have already negotiated a potential energy deal worth more than $10 billion, and negotiations are already underway over Russia supplying LNG to Pakistan. Both countries have also signed an agreement of $2 billion for the North-South pipeline, which is expected to have a capacity of 12.4 billion cubic meters per year and will connect Karachi to Lahore. The drastically changing environment in an international milieu will only add to the economic relations between the two countries, with CPEC another potential venture they can collaborate on.
This growing relationship between Russia, Pakistan, and China is changing the trends of power in Asia, threatening US interests. This will only cause relations between Pakistan and the US to deteriorate further, yet the former should embrace a multilateral foreign policy and extend its friendship to all states, instead of putting all their eggs in one, American, basket. This strategy will benefit Pakistan for the larger interests of political stability, economic prosperity, and connectivity among the various regions of the Asian Continent, as well as the rest of the world.