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.
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.
Discontent with Traditional Allies Sparks Shift
The year 2011 was terrible for U.S.-Pakistan relations. It began with the killing of two Pakistanis by a CIA security officer on a Lahore street. Months later, U.S. special operations forces launched a covert raid deep into Pakistan territory to kill Osama bin Laden. In the following months, U.S. officials embittered by the presence of bin Laden in Pakistan, engaged in a media war against Islamabad, leaking damaging claims to The Atlantic, New York Times and other publications about Pakistan’s human rights record, support for militants and nuclear weapons program. The year ended with a U.S. attack on a Pakistani base that killed two dozen Pakistani soldiers, forcing Islamabad to shut down the Pakistan-based NATO supply route into Afghanistan.
It took eight months for the U.S. to issue an apology and the supply route to reopen. Relations between Islamabad and Washington have since steadily improved. But the events of 2011 sparked a long conversation in Pakistan on the need to move beyond the United States to diversify its relations with global powers.
In Pakistani newspaper columns, on talk shows and in official meetings, the consensus was clear: the end of American hegemony was near and Pakistan should adjust to and exploit a G-Zero world. In fact, in Pakistan’s public discourse, the aforementioned anecdote about Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan’s supposed choice to visit Washington over Moscow and thus paved the way for a long and tumultuous partnership with the United States was oft-mentioned and criticized.
In the Islamabad-Washington impasse, Moscow saw an opportunity it could exploit. And Pakistan’s power elite was keen on engaging Russia. In January 2012, a conference of Pakistani envoys recommended broadening ties with Moscow “to reduce reliance on the U.S.” A month later, Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar, a staunch realist, visited Moscow, beginning a dialogue on the future of Afghanistan, aircraft sales, energy trade and a capital injection into the now-fledgling Pakistan Steel Mills. Chief of Army Staff Ashfaq Parvez Kayani visited Moscow that September to move the dialogue forward on defense acquisitions. Putin was scheduled to visit Pakistan soon after, but the visit was canceled for unknown reasons.
Let’s Do Business
Despite the cancelation of the Putin visit, Moscow’s interest in engaging Islamabad has only grown.
Russia sees Pakistan as critical to the stability of its backyard. As the U.S. presence in Afghanistan dwindles, Pakistan’s role in a negotiated settlement with the Taliban becomes even more vital. In contrast to the 1990s, Russia is more keen to work with Pakistan in stabilizing Afghanistan, especially given China’s endorsement of the peace negotiations.
Also, factors that previously held Moscow back from engaging Islamabad have been weakened. Pakistan has largely cleansed its tribal areas of foreign militants, including those from the Caucasus and Central Asia. Over the course of a decade, Islamabad has made great strides in improving its nuclear safety and export control systems. And Moscow’s long-time partner, New Delhi, has rapidly increased defense acquisitions from Washington, making the United States, not Russia, its largest arms supplier over the past four years
International sanctions following the Ukraine invasion have brought renewed urgency in Russia to exploit new defense and energy trade markets. Russia has moved forward with defense sales to Pakistan despite Indian objections.
In June 2014, the Russian deputy prime minister was informed by Indian officials that sale of combat aircraft to Pakistan would be crossing a red line. Nonetheless, last November, Islamabad and Moscow signed a defense cooperation agreement, which included a commitment to sell Mi-35 combat helicopters. The sale of an initial four Mi-35 helicopters was finalized this August and could be expanded to 20 in the coming years.
Earlier this year, Pakistan closed a deal with Russia to import Klimov RD-93 engines for the JF-17 aircraft it jointly manufactures with China. Previously, Pakistan would import them from Russia via China. Direct imports will lower the cost of production and perhaps aid Pakistan’s export prospects.
Surprisingly, Moscow and Islamabad are also in the initial phases of talks on the sale of the Sukhoi Su-35 fighter jet, a long-range combat aircraft that would enhance Pakistan’s ability to conduct maritime patrols and penetrate deeper into enemy territory. The export of the Su-35 will provide a real test of the extent to which Russia is willing to depart from its historic alliance with India. Pakistan is also exploring the purchase of a range of other Russian defense hardware, including the Yak-130 combat trainer aircraft.
Pakistan and Russia are also intent on enhancing economic ties. They are close to finalizing a $2-2.5 billion pipeline deal that would transmit natural gas from the port city of Karachi to Lahore, Pakistan’s second largest city. Russia may also join Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan in the CASA-1000 energy project, providing Afghanistan and Pakistan with electricity.
For several years, Moscow has been rumored to be interested in either providing the Pakistan Steel Mills with a cash infusion or purchasing a stake in the state-owned enterprise. Pakistan aims to privatize the company by the end of this year, and we may see Russian companies get into the mix.
Islamabad and Moscow are also looking to expand bilateral trade. Pakistan has expressed interest in establishing a free trade agreement with the Russian-dominated Eurasian Economic Union. And a Pakistani trade authority delegation recently visited Moscow in a bid to negotiate lower non-tariff trade barriers for Pakistani goods.
Toward a Strategic Partnership?
All is not well between India and Russia. Recent defense sales by Moscow to Islamabad signal the former’s discontent with New Delhi. Russia may have also colluded with China to obstruct India’s path to permanent membership in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC).
But India and Russia are unlikely to make a complete break with the past. India will remain a major defense partner of Russia. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi will visit Moscow this December. The two countries may push forward deals to purchase or co-produce the fifth generation Sukhoi T-50 fighter and they will continue cooperation over the development of strategic weapons. New Delhi might also purchase T-90MS tanks from Moscow.
While defense cooperation between Moscow and New Delhi will continue, they appear to be less bound by a common regional strategy. Meanwhile, China is making a formidable entry into Central and South Asia, mainly in terms of trade corridors, but also in respect to forging peace in Afghanistan. Its development of the Gwadar port in Pakistan, along with the sale of eight submarines to Islamabad, may pave the way for a more assertive Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean strategy.
Is there a space for Russia in all this? Commentators in India and Pakistan have referred to a possible China-Pakistan-Russia strategic alliance, including in the maritime theater. But this may be more of a reflection of Pakistani aspirations and as well as Indian insecurity and lack of analytic restraint.
What we are more likely to see is India and Russia continuing to act more autonomously of one another. But India will have to learn to adjust to Russia’s new-found fondness for Pakistan. If it has difficulty in doing so, there is risk that 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.
Pakistan’s successful wooing of Russia is one example of its ability to deftly navigate the complexity of a G-Zero world, in which there are multiple centers of gravity and no sole country or alliance is able to “drive an international agenda.” With strong or growing ties with all permanent UNSC members as well as regional powers like Iran, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey, Pakistan is becoming what geostrategist Ian Bremmer calls a “pivot state.” For a country that faced potential global isolation in 2011, Pakistan’s growing list of friends is a testament to its diplomatic prowess and a civil-military consensus to push these relationships forward.
Arif Rafiq (@arifcrafiq) is president of Vizier Consulting, LLC, which provides strategic guidance on Middle East and South Asian political and security issues.