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.
Less than a decade later, with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, Pakistan became a frontline state in the Cold War. Pakistan, in concert with the United States and other smaller powers, boosted the ragtag mujahideen into a formidable insurgent force, paving the way for the eviction of Soviet troops from Afghanistan and the eventual downfall of the Soviet Union itself. Pakistan was home to millions of Afghan refugees, and served as a military and political base for its insurgent groups. The Afghan intelligence agency KHAD, in concert with the KGB, conducted terrorist attacks in Pakistan. The Soviets also conducted air and artillery attacks on Pakistani territory.
Post-Cold War Continuity
The India-Russia alliance endured even with the end of the Cold War. In the 1990s, both countries supported the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan against the Pakistan-backed Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, and later, the Taliban. Moscow remained New Delhi’s top defense supplier until recently. And both countries have increased joint defense production ventures, such as the BrahMos cruise missile.
Since the late 1990s, Pakistan has sought to grow ties with Russia, but Moscow remained wedded to New Delhi and had deep concerns about Islamabad’s support for militant groups and past record of nuclear proliferation.
A November 2003 joint statement by India and Russia articulated “the need for Pakistan” to prevent militant infiltration into Indian-controlled Kashmir and “dismantle the terrorist infrastructure in Pakistan and Pakistan controlled territory.” A month later, Pakistan’s President Pervez Musharraf visited Russia at the invitation of Russian president Vladimir Putin. But the meetings did little to push the relationship forward. The presence of Chechen and Central Asian militants inside Pakistan and Afghanistan remained a concern for Moscow, and even more so after the 2004 terrorist attack on a school in Beslan.