In view of Pakistan’s cooling relationship with the US notwithstanding apparently sincere efforts from Islamabad to redefine the relationship since the beginning of the Biden administration, it is in search of new engagements, especially with Russia. The drift of Pakistan towards Russia would have great bearing on the regional geo-politics and geo-economics. It is now about a decade that China gained a much bigger strategic foothold in Pakistan with the help of CPEC and its dollar diplomacy as the US administration, particularly during Trump years, indicated a remarkable downscaling in strategic engagement and economic assistance in the name of “war against terror”. But now Pakistan has shown increased willingness and Russia has obliged to enhance engagement. Both the countries having their own reasons for new bonhomie.
Bilateral engagements between Pakistan and Russia have recently been witnessing a significant surge, despite Pakistan continuing to supply defense store to Ukraine through third country shipments. There are many areas in which both the countries have stepped forward to cooperate. Pakistan and Russia signed the North South Gas Pipeline project from Karachi to Gwadar in 2015, which could not take off due to US sanctions on Russian companies which were nominated to implement the project since 2016. In 2021, a breakthrough happened when terms of the project were altered which had been earlier agreed on build, own, operate and transfer (BOOT) basis in which Moscow was to provide 75% and Pakistan the remaining 25% funding. The new agreement stipulated Pakistani state-owned companies to hold 74% of shares with 74% of funding leaving the remaining 26% to Russia. Now the project is known as Pakistan stream, but it is still delayed due to litigation on proposed Gas Infrastructure Cess. Now two options are being explored-changing the starting point of the pipeline from Karachi to Gwadar or reaching a fresh agreement with Russia for full funding of the project. But energy cooperation between the two countries is on rise anyway. In early December 2022, after a short visit of Russia, Pakistan Petroleum Minister, Musadik Malik announced that Russia would provide Pakistan with crude oil and diesel at a discounted price. He also confirmed a Russian invitation to begin talks over the supply of liquefied natural gas (LNG) to Pakistan which could begin in 2025 or 2026. Pakistan needs energy from Russia to meet it energy supply needs, which is projected to rise by 8 to 10% to meet its growth target of 5-6%. However, Pakistan and Russia would not be able to do it any sooner as is clear from Pak fear of losing US patronage. Pakistan Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto, during his mid-December 2022 visit to US retreated by saying Pakistan was neither pursuing nor receiving any discounted energy from Russia. Nevertheless, given Pakistan’s dire economic situation and drying up of forex reserves, increasing energy ties with Russia could not be ruled out.
In February 2022, Denis Alipov, Russia’s envoy to New Delhi said that Moscow has kept its defense cooperation with Islamabad at minimum level, but wanted to expand bilateral relations. The statement was aimed at allaying the fears of India which has a long lasting and tested development partnership with Russia and of US, which may smell Russia’s active interest the Pak-Afghanistan theatre of geo-politics which might have serious repercussions for US strategic interests. The military partnership between Islamabad and Moscow is governed by their defense cooperation agreement of 2014. However, Russia has maintained a minimal defense relationship with the country, eg., supply of multi task helicopters to Pakistan or annual joint military exercises (Friendship 2016, Joint Russian-Pakistani Druzohba 2020, Friendship 2021, Multinational Naval Exercises Aman 2021). Pakistan has also granted Russia access to Gwadar Port. Russia is exploring newer areas of cooperation with Pakistan. Recently Russian State Energy Corporation ‘Rosatom’ authorities proposed to send a delegation to Islamabad to hold consultations with concerned Pak authorities on non-power application of nuclear technologies including water desalination. The uptick in Pakistan-Russia increasing engagement is not deniable. But cooperation in nuclear arena with Pakistan is replete with vulnerability.
What is the driving force behind this new bonhomie? For Pakistan after China, Russia is one of the choicest substitutes for its long-term ally US, which is fast turning a cold foot in engagement. Both Pakistan and the US are getting increasingly disillusioned with each other due to non-realisation of their agenda from engagement. Russia is prompt enough to take the mutual disillusionment as an opportunity to once again recoup its lost strategic influence in the geo-politics of the region including Afghanistan, Central Asia and West Asia. According to some observers, Russia’s posturing about close engagement with Pakistan may also be directed to signaling India, the largest importers of its defense equipment and fighter planes, to express its displeasure on India’s gradual preference for such imports from the US and the EU countries.
The US response remained cool despite former Prime Minister Imran Khan “pitching the need for a comprehensive relationship with the US, based on geo-economics including trade, investment and connectivity rather than remaining confined to security like yesteryears. Mediha Afzal, Fellow at Strobe Jalbott Center for Security, Strategy and Technology States in a Brooking Column – “The Biden administration has now settled on a bureaucratic division of labour in its policy toward Pakistan: a lack of engagement from White House; robust, well-defined engagement from the state department; and a continuation of long-standing military and defense ties.” The bilateral relationship is also notably no longer centered solely around America’s interest in Afghanistan, as it was prior to August 2021; there is an effort by both sides to broaden its base. As Taliban undertook a systematic military takeover of Afghanistan, while US withdrew, the relationship with Islamabad cooled. In view of Taliban victory and Pakistan’s close relationship with it, the US pushed relations to a relative low. “Unfortunately, the overall relationship is weak at best.” The geo-politics today is taking a new shape. Pakistan which once supported the Afghan Mjujahiden rebels in attempt to overthrow the Soviet backed Communist regime during 1970s and 1980s and even boycotted 1980 Moscow Olympics in 1980 with 80 other countries, is now seeking cooperation with Russia and the latter appears willing for the same. The wheels of history have taken a full circle.
As for the time being, it appears that neither Pakistan nor Afghanistan is as much a priority for the US as the Indo-Pacific, particularly South-China Sea, Taiwan and Island countries of South Pacific. Russia and China being equally isolated by the US have increased their ties and if the increased friendship between the two countries makes a space for Russia in Pakistan, Afghanistan and West Asia, the two countries may be able to tilt geo-political matrix in the region in their favour. Already the US and the West have ceded substantial strategic space in these regions – both in terms of strategic and economic engagement to China. Russia would like to tilt the balance in its favour in Afghanistan, West Asia and even Central Asia in collaboration with China. China is a rising global power and its recent intermediations in protracted disputes between some West Asian countries have enhanced its credibility and stature. Russia is well poised to ride on this new compulsive friendship with China.
The increasing bonhomie of Pakistan with Russia might again open opportunity to Russia for being a strategic player in the Indian Ocean and South Asian region, especially in Afghanistan and West Asia. Some observers see US as a waning power in global order while European countries are busy fighting Ukraine war along with US from behind. Meanwhile European countries are being threatened by rising cost of living and looming recession. Russia would not let this opportunity go. But Russia-Pakistan bonhomie has its own constraints. Russia would be constrained by its long and deep ties with India. It will have to walk a tight rope while cooperating with Pakistan even in the area of energy because of the former’s crippled economy. The biggest constraint, nevertheless, is that Pakistan has a long record of cosy relationship with the US and the West, both of which use the country as their strategic gaming platform. If cooperation of Russia with Pakistan in the nuclear arena becomes a reality, it would aggravate threats in the region, known as one of the most fragile nuclear flash points in the world.