As its relations with one-time ally Washington deteriorate and the US-India defence partnership flourishes, Islamabad turns to a former foe to forge security ties
Three decades provide a lot of time for a rethink. Pakistan and Russia were the bitterest of enemies during the Cold War, but a convergence of strategic interests has brought Islamabad and the Kremlin closer than ever before. In recent months, Pakistan’s foreign minister, national security adviser and army chief have journeyed to Moscow to explore a security partnership focused on combating the threat of transnational jihadism emanating from Afghanistan. And in a bid to formalise these engagements, Islamabad even expressed interest in forging a strategic partnership with Moscow on May 1.
The developments are taking place at a time when Pakistan’s relationship with the United States – a Cold War ally, no less – is steadily deteriorating due to Islamabad’s continuing support for militant proxies battling NATO-backed forces in Afghanistan. And as Washington puts greater pressure on Islamabad due to its links to militant networks, Pakistan will intensify its own efforts to strengthen its regional partnership with countries like Russia – making it even less likely that it will abandon its militant proxy strategy in Afghanistan.
The historical antagonism between Pakistan and Russia is tied to the role of great power politics and the fate of Afghanistan. In 1979, the Soviet Union invaded the landlocked country to shore up the tottering Marxist regime in Kabul. That incursion, however, created an opportunity for the United States to open another proxy front against Moscow as part of its wider anti-communist struggle across Asia. Because of its 2,410-km (1,510-mile) border with Afghanistan, Pakistan became a frontline state toward the end of the Cold War; the CIA oversaw a massive covert operation campaign in tandem with Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) to support the anti-Soviet movement sweeping across the Afghan countryside. From Pakistan’s perspective, however, the Soviet-Afghan War simply represented Moscow’s latest attempt to reach warm waters through Afghanistan to the Arabian Sea. A century earlier, the British Empire – then ruling over modern-day Pakistan, the critical northwestern approach to the Indian jewel in the British crown – had sought to fend off czarist Russia’s southward advance across the Central Asian steppe by transforming Afghanistan into a buffer state.
Today, times have changed. Now the United States is the great power at war in Afghanistan – where it is suffering from the effects of the very jihadist proxy strategy it helped Islamabad perfect. For Islamabad, the need to ensure a friendly regime in Kabul and secure its disputed western border with Afghanistan is part of its grand strategy to ensure internal unity in the face of external aggression. Pakistan need look no further than 1971 to observe the consequences of its failure to maintain this grand strategy. In that year, India’s military intervened on behalf of the Bengali independence movement, leading to eastern Pakistan attaining statehood as Bangladesh. Pakistan has accordingly supported the Taliban as part of its strategy, resulting in a sharply deteriorating relationship with the United States, which is struggling to advance negotiations with the militant group to finally end 40 years of conflict in the country. Washington has severely restricted the amount of aid it doles out to the South Asian country, extending a suspension of $1.9 billion in aid in January.
At the same time, the United States has set its sights on a much bigger challenge: addressing China, which happens to be Pakistan’s strongest ally. And because Beijing’s rise equally worries New Delhi, the United States and India have begun cultivating a defence-oriented partnership. This burgeoning Indo-American cooperation is naturally a cause for concern for Russia, which has shared deep historical links with India since the Cold War.
Thus, as intensifying US pressure compels Pakistan to reach out to Russia, the Kremlin is providing a receptive audience. For Islamabad, the outreach is part of a well-honed strategy. As a middle-ranking power with limited global and economic clout, Pakistan has an interest in developing a closer relationship with a great power like Russia, whose seat on the UN Security Council and ability to offer arms, investment and energy could help the former diversify its energy supplies while bolstering its clout in multilateral organisations such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and the Nuclear Suppliers Group (the latter of which Islamabad is trying to join with Moscow’s backing).
And in forging links with Islamabad, Moscow not only seeks to counterbalance the Indo-American partnership but also recognises the pivotal role Pakistan will play in the future of Afghanistan due to its support for the Taliban. Because the organisation will likely feature in any power-sharing agreement that ends active hostilities, Moscow wishes to cultivate links with the group – an area in which Islamabad can be of assistance. Already, some have accused Moscow of supporting the Taliban by shipping fuel tankers across Uzbekistan’s Hairatan border crossing for the group to resell, thereby earning the militants $2.5 million per month. Pakistan also shares Russia’s deep concern about transnational militant groups such as the Islamic State. (Although the Taliban is an Islamist organisation, its ideological horizons are largely limited to Afghanistan.) In recent years, the Islamic State has staged attacks in Pakistan, and it also threatens to spill over into Central Asia, a strategically important buffer area for Russia on its southern flank. Accordingly, Moscow and Islamabad have been pursuing counterterrorism cooperation as part of Russia’s broader efforts on the front with Central Asian states and China.
The budding Russian-Pakistani relationship has been years in the making. Following the US invasion of Afghanistan, Pakistan’s then-President Pervez Musharraf visited Moscow in 2003 while Russia’s then-Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov returned the favour four years later. The relationship, however, truly started to gain traction in 2014 – the year the United States incidentally completed the NATO drawdown in Afghanistan. During that year, Russia lifted an arms embargo against Pakistan, paving the way for the two countries to sign a defence agreement that included a $153 million deal to sell Mi-35M attack helicopters, as well as an agreement to directly buy the Klimov RD-93 engine from Russia for use in its domestically manufactured JF-17 fighter jet.
Moscow also inked a deal with Islamabad to construct the $2 billion North-South pipeline linking Karachi and Lahore at a time when US sanctions against Russia over its actions in Ukraine forced the Kremlin to explore other energy export markets. Russia and its new South Asian partner have since inked other energy deals, as Gazprom and Pakistan’s Oil and Gas Development Company signed a joint venture deal in July 2017 to aid in exploration and development.
In 2016, Russia and Pakistan conducted Druzhba, the pair’s first joint military drills, in spite of anger from India, which registered its unease at the war games in the wake of an attack on the Uri army base in Indian-controlled Kashmir that it blamed on Pakistani militants. At the end of that year, Moscow and Beijing also hosted a trilateral summit on Afghanistan with Islamabad, the first of four international conferences involving Russia.
But the Kremlin’s overtures to Islamabad are not harbingers of any fundamental breach in its links with New Delhi. India is too big a country and too important an arms customer for Russia to ignore – a reality that will also limit the scope of Russia’s arms sales to Pakistan, as New Delhi has no desire to see its archenemy incorporate the same weapons systems it relies upon, such as the T-90 tank. Still, India’s protestations are unlikely to preclude Moscow from finding at least some opportunity to sell weapons to Islamabad. Tellingly, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Igor Morgulov elected to highlight such sales to Pakistan in January during the Raisina Dialogue event – India’s most important foreign policy conference – in New Delhi. The message was not lost on New Delhi.
As US President Donald Trump takes an ever-harder line against Islamabad and the threat from groups like the Islamic State grows, Pakistan is cementing its ties with its powerful neighbour to the north. For Moscow, good ties with Islamabad present an opportunity to counter New Delhi’s new understanding with Washington. And with the former foes both getting something out of the relationship, it is a newfound partnership that might be more than just temporary.