Pak-Russia ties are witnessing a fresh start with an exchange of high level visits from both the sides. Something considered improbable in the past, may soon become a reality as both the sides are vying for a new start in bilateral ties.
Although Russian President Putin has postponed his much-hyped visit to Pakistan, yet a visit by the Russian delegation, in early September, headed by the Russian Sports Minister, to Islamabad and potential visit by Pakistani Army Chief to Moscow presents positive prospects for furthering bilateral ties.
Putin’s visit was primarily intended for a quadrilateral Afghan summit in Islamabad that also had one on one meeting with the Pakistani President on agenda.
Officials on both the sides have given indications of signing of multiple MOU’s (Memorandums of Understanding) for development and investment in steel and energy sectors. President Zardari, while meeting with the Russian delegation expressed his desire for cooperation with Moscow in the aforementioned sectors.
Historically, Russia and Pakistan have never enjoyed prolonged periods of fruitful ties. Even after Pakistan’s inception, Liaqat Ali Khan, Pakistan’s first Prime Minister, preferred to visit USA, even though was invited first by the then Soviet Government. The relations saw only one major milestone during Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s Government, when on his visit, in 1974, the Soviet Government agreed to establish the Pakistan Steel Mill on its own expense, coupled with helping in Nuclear Energy sector.
It was during the Zia’s regime when Carter administration, of USA, Saudi Arabia and General Zia teamed up with the help of right-wing parties to train Mujahideen against the Soviets in Afghanistan.
Keeping in context Pakistan’s current political situation, these latest developments hold utmost importance for the country. Currently, the United States and its allies have increased pressure on Pakistan to force support for Washington’s policy of strengthening its influence in the region, despite its apparent contradiction with the national interests of Pakistan. Along with that USA is also losing its influence in the region because of the growing anti-US sentiment. That is why increased cooperation on bilateral basis and within the framework of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) will help address political and economic issues in Pakistan. This in turn will provide additional opportunities for Islamabad for a more independent foreign policy and lesser economic dependence on the United States and the international financial institutions, apparently controlled by the US.
Washington’s current policy and politics in Afghan war seems to be aimed at easing the impact of Islamabad in the country and the peace process, and increasing role of India in resolving the crisis. Unsurprisingly, officials in Kabul also show an unfriendly attitude towards Pakistan, which is reflected in the regular accusations leveled against Pakistan in support of Haqqani Network and other extremist organizations operating within Pakistan.
With current financial and strategic dependencies, Pakistan can only act as a mere spectator against US policies and demands. Only by increasing cooperation with China and Russia, the regional approach in addressing the Afghan issue and ensuring stability in the country will help Pakistan protect its national interests.
It is obvious that positive ties with Russia would not only give strategic strength to Pakistan but would also provide a good opportunity for overcoming the country’s energy woes coupled with enhancing regional trade and cooperation.
In context of military cooperation, Air Chief Marshall, Tahir Rafiq Butt, visited Moscow in August, and termed his visit as a significant development towards greater cooperation with Russia in the field of defence, particularly in air defence. Furthermore, the impending visit by Asfhaq Kayani, the Army Chief, also hints towards a major policy within the civil-military establishment of Pakistan. A foreign office spokesman in Islamabad, on condition of anonymity, said:
“We have turned a new page in our relationship with Russia. It is a major shift”
Pakistan is an active member of the world community in combating terrorism and cross-border crime. Taking into account this special significance and the negative publicity it gathers form the world media even after making all its efforts and sacrifices, it would be useful to expand cooperation with the SCO states, especially Russia and China. This cooperation can also be in areas such as prevention and mitigation of natural and technological disasters, emergency management, training and development of local experts – in which Russia has rich experience, scientific and technical resource coupled with human and financial resources.
Current upturn in ties can be used to develop long-term economic cooperation with Russia. Moscow has expressed interest in participating in the construction of TAPI (Trans Afghanistan Pipeline), CASA-1000 (Central Asia South Asia Regional Energy and Trade) energy project and the Pakistan Steel Mill. In this regard, Islamabad could prepare proposals for Moscow’s participation in the implementation of major infrastructure projects in the country, leading to a positive development in bilateral relations.
Pakistan enjoys a great strategic edge serving as a bridge and corridor to different regions. This also gives Russia an attractive spot to materialize on its strategic depth. Therefore, the ongoing developments between Moscow and Islamabad, high level visits, and Pakistan’s possible role in the SCO, signs for a greater South and East Asian alliance in form of SCO, and an axis of China-Russia-Pakistan-Iran partnership can bring positive omens not only to the region but also to the Asian continent as a whole.