Pakistan: Russia's New Best Friend?

We may be entering a period in which India’s tighter embrace of the United States brings Russia closer to Pakistan, and Russia’s bolstering of ties with Pakistan brings India closer to the United States.

As the U.S.-India embrace tightens, former Cold War foes Pakistan and Russia are bolstering ties with one another. Pakistan was an early Cold War partner of the United States, ultimately helping to evict the Soviets from Afghanistan in 1989. While India proclaimed a policy of non-alignment, it was firmly allied with the Soviet Union, which served as its chief defense supplier for decades. Those strong ties continued following the end of the Cold War into recent years.

While India’s defense arsenal remains overwhelmingly Russian in origin, over the past four years, Washington has supplanted Moscow to become New Delhi’s top defense supplier. Moscow, realizing that its longtime partner is now seeing other people, has lifted an arms embargo on Islamabad, which is keen on modernizing its military and reducing its dependence on Washington.

Budding cooperation between Pakistan and Russia goes beyond military sales. The two countries will also boost economic and energy cooperation. And a strategic partnership may be down the road—potentially involving China.

On Opposite Sides of the Cold War

In Pakistan, the standard narrative of Islamabad-Moscow relations begins a purportedly fateful choice said to have been made in 1949. That year, Pakistan’s first prime minister, Liaquat Ali Khan, was invited by Moscow for a state visit, which he promptly accepted. However, upon receiving an invitation from Washington, Liaquat cancelled the Moscow visit, going to Washington instead, beginning what would become an on-again, off-again relationship between Pakistan and the United States.

A senior Pakistani diplomat who served twice in Moscow disputes that account as inaccurate. Nonetheless, from the 1950s to the end of the Cold War, Pakistan generally remained aligned with the United States. Pakistan joined the U.S.-led Central Treaty Organization and Southeast Asia Treaty Organization alliances. It hosted CIA spy flight missions from Peshawar (including the ill-fated flight of U-2 pilot Gary Powers). Pakistani President Ayub Khan saw his country as America’s “most allied ally in Asia.”

In 1965, with the breakout of war between India and Pakistan, the United States imposed arms embargoes on both countries. Pakistan, spurred by then-Foreign Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, sought to reduce its dependence on the United States and flirted with non-alignment. Islamabad accepted Soviet negotiation of a settlement to the 1965 war with India. In the coming years, the Soviets also constructed Pakistan’s largest iron and steel manufacturing complex, known as Pakistan Steel Mills. Bhutto’s bid to diversify ties yielded substantial gains on the China front—a legacy that lasts till today. But the Soviets were firmly devoted to India, especially on defense and security matters.

In August 1971, as civil war worsened between West and East Pakistan, which were separated by over a thousand miles of Indian territory, Moscow and New Delhi signed the Indo-Soviet Treaty of Friendship, which stated that an attack on one treaty member would be seen by the other as an attack on itself. Months later, India, which had been covertly supporting secessionists in East Pakistan, formally stepped in, defeating West Pakistan in war and helping create the new country of Bangladesh.

The Soviet Union and United States supported opposite sides during the 1971 war. Washington stepped up arms shipments to Islamabad and sent the USS Enterprise to the Bay of Bengal in a show of support to Pakistan. Meanwhile, the Soviets sent vessels to counter the American naval presence.