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Russia and Pakistan New Equation

Dr Rajorshi Roy is Associate Fellow at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile [+].
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  • June 04, 2013

    The conclusion of the 8th meeting of Russia-Pakistan Consultative Group on Strategic Stability, held in Islamabad in April 20131, marks the culmination of a series of high profile engagements between the two countries. In the last one and a half years alone, the two sides have witnessed a flurry of high profile bilateral visits that has included Russia’s Chief of Ground Forces, Chief of Air Force, Special Envoy to Afghanistan and the Foreign Minister visiting Islamabad. Similarly, from the Pakistani side, Air Force Chief Tahir Rafique Butt, Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar and Chief of Army Gen. Kayani have all visited Moscow.

    For Russia, which has a ‘privileged’ and ‘special’ relationship with India, the increased engagement does raise a few questions. First, what are the driving factors behind Russia current engagement strategy with Pakistan? Second, what are the prospects of this new growing equation? And third, should India be concerned?

    The recent traction between Russia and Pakistan seems to be essentially based on ‘economics of trade and energy’2 and the need for stability in South and Central Asia, especially in Afghanistan. However, a closer analysis shows an interesting interplay of several geopolitical factors.

    Developments in Afghanistan are a key objective of Russia’s increased engagement with Pakistan. There exists tremendous uncertainty in the event of a post-2014 withdrawal of US and NATO troops. The fact that there will be a new government in Kabul coupled with Hamid Karzai’s political overtures to Taliban has raised the spectre of uncertainty ahead. Emergence of a power vacuum and a protracted civil war is a distinct possibility. There also exists serious apprehensions about the capabilities of Afghan armed forces in tackling crime while opium production and drug trafficking continues to go on unabated.3 Russia has been concerned of any turmoil spreading to its ‘near abroad’. More importantly, terrorism emanating from Pakistan and Afghanistan has the potential of inspiring radical Islamists and flaming violence in Russia’s own restive northern Caucasian territories. There is a growing realization that Pakistan holds one of the key levers of bringing stability to the region and it will thus be unwise to ignore it.4 With a new government in power in Islamabad, it becomes imperative to open new lines of communication. Therefore, Russia’s cautious yet steady engagement with Pakistan can be seen in the context of finding a common ground on issues which have ramifications for the whole Eurasian region.

    So concerned is Russia about the evolving Afghan situation that President Putin has declared it to be a ‘matter of direct concern for our national security’.5 Russia’s Afghan policy had drawn President Karzai to visit Moscow in 2011, which was seen as a watershed event. The two countries have a technical-military agreement and Russia has continued to train and provide weapons to Afghan civilian, military and police specialists, apart from upgrading Soviet era infrastructure.6 It has also rendered an alternative supply route (Northern Distribution Network) to NATO forces while President Putin has time and again called for greater coordination between CSTO and NATO. He also signed on the law which will extend Russia’s military base in Tajikistan. This will see Russia’s 201st division continue with its deployment on the Tajik border with Afghanistan. Tajikistan shares an approximately 1,300 kilometre long border with the war ravaged country.

    Russia’s growing Pakistan engagement can also be seen within the broader context of Putin’s Eurasian Union project, Russia’s multi-vectored foreign policy and its desire to play a more prominent role in Eurasia. Closer relationship to Pakistan has taken place in the backdrop of deteriorating Pakistan-American ties. Russia is apprehensive about the US initiative of the ‘New Silk Route’ and the possible long term deployment of Western troops in the region. This can be interpreted as an attempt to limit Russia’s ‘privileged’ position in it’s ‘near abroad’. Pakistan’s geo-strategic position at the juncture of South, Central and West Asia and its potential in undermining any American design aimed at reducing Russia’s influence may have facilitated this change of policy.

    Moreover, at a time when China too has stepped up its engagement with both Afghanistan and Central Asian countries, a Russian initiated SCO mechanism, by involving all the key regional actors, in playing a constructive role in the Afghan crisis can help reinstate Russia’s importance to the organisation. This can be one of the reasons why Russia supported Pakistan’s candidature for the SCO.

    Russia’s decision to participate in the creation of energy and transport corridors in the Eurasian region has far reaching geopolitical implications. The Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline, Iran-Pakistan pipeline and Central Asia-South Asia (CASA-1000) electricity project can fundamentally alter the energy requirements of the energy deficient states. It also blends in with the concept of an energy club of the SCO; first championed by President Putin.

    The rail-road transport corridor from Tajikistan to Pakistan, cutting across the Wakhan sector, will ensure Russia and Central Asian countries getting an access to the Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean through the Gwadar port, with Pakistan getting access to Russian and Central Asian markets.7 If this corridor is linked up with the Karakoram highway, China too becomes a part of this sector.8 Chinese companies already have a major footprint in this corridor by virtue of their operational control over the Gwadar port. The bigger picture can involve limiting the growing American presence and influence in Eurasia.

    This brings into question the implications of this engagement for India. Russia and India share a time tested relationship that is unlikely to be affected by these overtures. Moreover, India’s perceived foreign policy drift towards the West and its recent preference for western weapons over Russian ones does not give it much leeway to influence Russia’s policy towards Pakistan, more so when India itself is subtly trying to improve ties with its neighbour. However, there is a realization that the current Russia-Pakistan engagement has got to do more with Afghanistan than be at the cost of Russia’s strategic partnership with India.9 The size of India’s weapons market, capability to pay in hard currency and Russia’s own special and privileged position with India is something which Pakistan can never match. Pakistan may also be using the ‘Russia card’ as a bargaining chip to show the US that it has other options. Military exports to Pakistan from Russia, if and when they happen, will not change the power equation in the subcontinent.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.

    • 1. Embassy of the Russian Federation in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, “Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation Mr. Sergey A. Ryabkov took part in the eight meeting of Pakistan-Russia consultative group on strategic stability in Islamabad”, April 25, 2013, Accessed on May 21, 2013
    • 2. Russia has shown an interest in providing technological and financial assistance to Pakistan in sectors like energy, railways and metallurgy in “Pakistan-Russia trade touches $542 million mark in 2012: Strekalov”, Business Recorder, April 26, 2013, Accessed on May 21, 2013
    • 3. The head of the Russian Federal Drug Control Service, Viktor Ivanov has said that over one million people across the globe have died of Afghan heroin since the start of NATO’s Operation Enduring Freedom, while drug production in the country has grown 40 times since then in “Heroin production skyrockets in Afghanistan since start of NATO operation – the head of the Russian Federal Drug Control Service”, Itar-Tass, April 3, 2013, Accessed on May 21, 2013
    • 4. Russia has also organized the Pakistan-Afghanistan-Russia-Tajikistan quadrilateral meetings on Afghanistan.
    • 5. President of Russia, “Security Council meeting”, May 8, 2013, Accessed on May 21, 2013
    • 6. Russia will deliver 12 Mil Mi-17V5 military transport helicopters to the Afghanistan Armed Forces by the end of 2013 in “Russia to Deliver 12 More Mi-17 Helicopters to Afghanistan”, Rianovosti, May 16, 2013, Accessed on May 21, 2013
    • 7. Radyuhin, V, “Changing face of Russia-Pakistan ties”, The Hindu, September 9, 2010, Accessed on May 21, 2013
    • 8. Ibid
    • 9. In the past, Russian weapons like the T-80 battle tanks have been supplied to Pakistan through third party countries like Ukraine. It is highly unlikely that China would have supplied Pakistan with the JF-17 fighter planes comprising of Russian made RD-93 engines without Russia’s tacit approval. It was widely reported that Russia and Pakistan did discuss the possibility of weapons sales and joint military exercises during Commander in Chief of Ground Forces Alexander Postnikov’s visit to Islamabad. Despite these developments, there were no official protests from the Indian Ministry of External Affairs.