The imminent reversal of Pakistan’s Russian romance

The imminent reversal of Pakistan’s Russian romance

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Pakistan has remained part of the United States-led western camp in the international political system since its independence. There was a brief hiatus in this political alignment during the premiership of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto in the 1970’s but by and large this alignment remained intact and both countries agreed on the nature of threat posed by the Soviet Union to regional political order.

After the end of the Cold War, as the US became the ultimate global hegemon, its reliance on regional security partners was reduced and thus the relationship with Pakistan entered a rather cold phase. The shift in the relationship however, didn’t trigger any specific change in the foreign policy outlook and although Pakistan established diplomatic ties with Russia, they remained for all practical purposes dysfunctional. A key reason for this stagnation in the bilateral relationship was Russian proximity with India as largest defense partner. India had traditionally remained close with the Soviet Union and the broader contours of this relationship didn’t alter. It was only in 1999 that a Pakistani leader finally visited Moscow after the last visit by PM Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto in 1974. Still this trip was not monumental in any sense and both sides failed to reach any significant breakthrough vis-à-vis the trajectory of their bilateral relationship.

With the start of the ‘war on terror’ in 2001, Pakistan’s relationship with the US again developed a strategic facet and under the government of General Musharraf, foreign policy orientation was clearly reminiscent of Cold War days. President Musharraf visited Russia in 2003 and the Pakistani side had high hopes. But this too failed to break the political lull in the relationship. There was no reciprocal visit from the Russian leadership and possibilities of Russian investments within Pakistan or Pakistan acquiring weapons from Russia remained slim.

The bilateral relationship started to gradually warm up after 2010 as both countries’ views on the regional security outlook increasingly aligned. Pakistani army chief’s visit to Moscow in 2012 was a notable development in this regard. In 2014, eventually Russia lifted an arms embargo on Pakistan followed by an agreement in 2015 on the sale of four Mi-35M attack helicopters. This helicopter acquisition highlighted the growing degree of engagement between the two sides and attempts to foster cooperation. Pakistan’s uneasy relationship with the US helped to establish goodwill with Russia. In particular, there was mutual agreement on a peaceful political settlement of the Afghan issue and enhancing regional connectivity.

The United States’ decision to suspend Pakistan’s military aid and growing divergences with regards to regional security matters compelled Pakistan to diversify its foreign relationship and to increase engagement with countries like Russia.

Umar Karim

Pakistan-Russia ties in the defence domain entered the next level as both militaries held the first meeting of the Pakistan-Russia Joint Military Consultative Committee (JMCC) in 2018. The formation of this joint security committee opened the way for Pakistani troops to receive training in Russian Defence Institutes and for joint military exercises by different military units of both sides.

These developments must not be taken in isolation but should be read in conjunction with the gradual deterioration of Pak-US ties. The United States’ decision to suspend Pakistan’s military aid and growing divergences with regards to regional security matters compelled Pakistan to diversify its foreign relationship and to increase engagement with countries like Russia. Simultaneously, the growing Indian tilt towards the US was also a factor in Russia opening up towards Pakistan.

As Pakistan’s relationship with the US got further strained owing to its rather humiliating departure from Afghanistan and a refusal from the US to engage with Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, Russia opened up its gates for Khan and invited him to a visit to Moscow.

It can be argued here that this visit was not a stand-alone event, but rather the culmination of attempts by Pakistani diplomats and security officials for over a decade to woo Russia.

However, the Russian invasion of Ukraine right on the eve of Khan’s visit didn’t bode well for Pakistan and put the country in the global limelight. It appears that after this visit and also due to the disastrous performance of the Russian military and equipment on the battlefield, Pakistan’s military revisited its earlier excitement about Pakistan’s Russian romance and clearly wants to send a fig leaf to the United States as illustrated clearly in the speech of Pakistan’s Army Chief where he condemned the Russian invasion of Ukraine. For PM Imran Khan, however, the invasion was taken as an opportunity to adopt an independent foreign policy unaffected by foreign actors.

As political developments signal the departure of Khan and the arrival of a new government, all this looks to be followed by a reversal of Pakistan’s Russian endeavour and a rapprochement with the US.

– Umar Karim is a doctoral researcher at the University of Birmingham. His research focuses on the evolution of Saudi Arabia’s strategic outlook, the Saudi-Iran tussle, conflict in Syria, and the geopolitics of Turkey, Iran and Pakistan.

Twitter: @UmarKarim89

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