For Pakistan: With love From troubled Russia
Russia is in trouble on the battlefield in Ukraine, but that did not prevent Russian strong-man President Vladimir Putin from reaching out to Pakistan's Prime Minister at the recent Shanghai Cooperation (SCO) summit. There, the Pakistan delegation was in for a pleasant surprise when Putin conveyed his commitment to increasing cooperation with Pakistan in multiple areas.
The starter were his welcoming words for PM Shehbaz Sharif during their important bilateral meeting. According to the Kremlin website, past the formal exchanges which included his recollection of his meetings with Sharif’s brother, the former PM Nawaz, Putin spoke of Pakistan as a significant country on the international stage.
“I would like to note that we see Pakistan as a priority partner in Southeast Asia and Asia as a whole” thus removing Pakistan from the South Asia slotting. He emphasized the need to “restore and increase” bilateral trade, reminding the Pakistani PM of the autumn intergovernmental meeting to be held in Karachi.
The Sharif-Putin one-on-one meeting lasted for over an hour.
Significantly, the Putin-Shehbaz interactions at the SCO summit conveyed several important messages to Pakistan. Six are noteworthy.
Will the Shehbaz government demonstrate the political will and diplomatic agility to take forward this strategically important relationship while continuing business as normal with its western partners, especially the US?
One, that Putin wishes to continue the engagement that was initiated several years ago between the political heads of the two countries. Former Prime Minister Imran Khan’s February visit had primarily focused on increasing cooperation in the energy field. Putin seeking continuity had conveyed the same policy message he had conveyed to Khan. Irrespective of who is in government, Putin has viewed Pakistan as an important partner.
Two, Putin wants to fast-track the relationship. Following the bilateral meeting, he reached out to Sharif several times. Every time, the Russian President emphasized that the north-south pipeline project should be expedited and Russia-Pakistan trade should be increased.
Three, Putin pushed for the relationship to move on multiple tracks. He emphasized upon the energy sector, railways, infrastructure and construction. After all, Russia’s predecessor state, the Soviet Union had been the first country after Pakistan’s creation to invest in the oil and gas sector and in the heavy steel mill project. Putin emphasized the need to revive that comprehensive relationship.
Sharif reciprocated by saying: “I know the potential your great country has, from which Pakistan must benefit in our own interest.”
Four, going beyond South Asia and not slotting Pakistan as a country relevant primarily in the terrorism context, Putin acknowledged Pakistan’s geopolitical importance, referring to it as “Russia’s priority partner in South-East Asia and Asia as a whole.” He also referred to Pakistan's ability to influence developments in Afghanistan as he underscored the importance of Afghanistan as part of the critical energy corridor in the region.
Five, Russia is keen to sell cheap oil and gas to Pakistan, a subject raised early April by the PTI energy minister days before the Imran Khan government was removed from office. Pakistan and Russia will work out the mechanisms through which the sale will take place. US and EU sanctions apply on the insurance and shipping sector and prevent them from doing business with Russian government institutions. There are private dealers through whom the transaction can take place, an option the Khan government was already exploring.
Six, the Russian President repeatedly asked Shehbaz Sharif to expedite the Pakistan Gas Stream project which was initiated in 2015. In May 2021 under the Imran Khan government, the actual pipeline construction project was revived and signed. In Samarkand, Putin reminded Sharif that for importing Russian gas to Pakistan “some infrastructure is already in place in Russia, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.” Meanwhile, for the construction of the 1,100 km pipeline from Karachi to Kasur to carry LNG, Russian companies are involved. The seven-year delay has jacked up the project cost from $1.5 bn to about $3.5 bn. In this jointly financed project, Moscow will finance 26% of the pipeline construction and Islamabad will finance around 74%.
Clearly moving on a fast track on multiple sectors with Russia is important for Pakistan. However, above all, the Pakistan Gas Stream project for Pakistan who is facing a huge gas shortage, is of critical importance. As a follow-up to the Putin-Sharif meeting, Pakistan's delegation will be visiting Moscow next month to expedite the implementation of the project. Discussions on Pakistan's import of rebated Russian crude oil and gas will also take place.
The acid test of commitment to improving Pakistan-Russia relations will be how fast the two countries are able to move on the Pakistan Gas Stream project. Interestingly, during the September 18 London meetings with his party leaders, PM Shehbaz conveyed his resolve to soon buy Russian crude oil. Earlier, after the Sharif-Putin Samarkand meeting, Pakistan's finance minister also publicly announced the same.
Nevertheless, critical questions beg answers.
Is Pakistan committed to taking forward the relationship in the critical energy sector with the same keenness as the Imran Khan government ?
Will the Shehbaz government demonstrate the political will and diplomatic agility to take forward this strategically important relationship with a country in trouble with the West, while continuing business as normal with its western partners, especially the US?
Clearly, if Pakistan can continue to develop its military ties with Russia while remaining engaged with the US military and intel, why has there been foot-dragging by this energy-starved government on the energy sector?
The ball is in Pakistan's court.
- Nasim Zehra is an author, analyst and national security expert.