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October 8, 2012

Pakistan-Russia relations warm up

By Abdus Sattar Ghazali

In an unprecedented exchange between Russia and Pakistan, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov visited Islamabad last week while Pakistan Army Chief General Ashfaq Pervez Kiani flew to Russia for consolidating progress in defense cooperation. Lavrov’s unscheduled visit was to reassure Pakistani leader-ship that President Putin remained committed to resetting ties despite cancellation of his visit.

The simultaneous visits took place against the backdrop of last week’s cancellation of President Putin’s trip to Pakistan to attend the Quadrilateral Summit (Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan and Afghanistan), which was planned in Islamabad from 2-3 October 2012.

The cancellation, apparently, shocked the government which had significantly invested in rebuilding relationship with Russia after decades of mistrust and acrimony.

Mr Lavrov was invited by Foreign Minister Khar earlier this year, but dates for his trip had to be pulled up after Mr Putin opted against traveling to Islamabad.

“They (Russians) must have realized that President Putin’s decision would not go well in Islamabad, which has acquired a new found strategic significance in their calculus for the region,” the daily Dawn quoted an official as saying. The official added that the mere fact that Mr Lavrov was visiting Pakistan showed the significance Moscow attached to its ties with Pakistan.

Russia and Pakistan have convergence of views on Afghanistan, regional stability and counter-narcotics efforts, the daily Dawn said adding: “Russia additionally sees Pakistan as a country playing an important role in countering terrorism and achievement of its vision of regional connectivity. Accordingly, Russia moved to bolster its economic and security cooperation with the one time South Asian foe, while Pakistan, because of troubled relationship with the US, embraced the rapprochement for diversifying the sources of its military supplies.”

Commenting on Lavrov’s visit, the daily Nation said: “The dismay that the unexpected cancellation of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit has caused among Pakistan’s political circles and even the general public has been somewhat allayed by the three visits that went ahead as scheduled. First, it was a high-powered delegation that came to Islamabad and signed memorandums of understanding about three important sectors of our economy: expansion and modernization of Pakistan Steel Mills, cooperation in the Railways and in energy.”

According to Pakistan Observer, speculation abounds regarding Putin’s visit. Section of Pakistan media came out with the story that Russia wanted that its state-controlled Gazprom be given the contract for building Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline without going through the procedure of bidding.

Russia’s deputy minister for energy and representatives of leading energy giant Gazprom had attended the Pak-Russia Inter-Governmental Commission on 10th September. In the meeting, Gazprom representatives had given a presentation on the pipeline and reiterated the interest during a meeting with President Zardari.

Apart from that, Russia is also interested in the Central Asia-South Asia electricity transmission from Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan to Afghanistan and Pakistan (CASA-1000), and the construction of rail tracks and motor roads from Tajikistan to Pakistan to create new trade routes in the region.

Under the MoUs, Russia will provide assistance of $300 to $500 million for the modernization and expansion of Pakistan Steel Mills. It will also help in constructing New Jamshoro Power Plant of 500MW capacity. Russia is interested in Tarbela-4, Keyal Khwar and CASA-1000 projects as well. However, there was no progress on the Iran-Pakistan pipeline project during the talks held with a visiting Russian delegation. No firm commitments were given to the Russian delegation that wanted to get the project without bidding. Diplomatic observers believe that Putin was not pleased with Pakistan’s less-than-keen response to Russian interest in the IP project.

General Kayani’s visit

Chief of Army Staff (COAS) General Ashfaq Kayani arrived in Moscow on October 4 and visited the tomb of an unknown soldier at the Kremlin to lay a floral wreath. Next day he called on Russian Federation Armed Forces Chief of General Staff (CGS) General Makarov.

According to a statement released by Pakistan military, General Ashfaq Kayani called on Russian Federation Armed Forces Chief of General Staff (CGS) General Makarov in the Defense Ministry and the two military leaders expressed consensus to enhance the cooperation between the armies of the two countries.

General Kayani’s visit is poised to carry forward the strengthening of military-to-military relations initiated by Russian Military Chief Col-Gen Alexander Postnikov’s visit to Pakistan in May last year. He had proposed the possibility of expanding defense ties by holding joint military exercises, exchanging trainees and trainers and selling and buying weapons.

Likewise, Pakistan’s Air Chief Marshal Tahir Rafique Butt visited Moscow in August. His visit has been reported as a significant development towards greater cooperation with Russia in the field of defense, particularly in air defense.

Russia-Pakistan-America relations

According to Khalid Iqbal, retired Air Commodore and former assistant chief of air staff of the Pakistan Air Force, bumpy Pak-US relations have prompted an urge in Pakistan to balance out and diversify its interests. In an article of Russia-Pakistan-America relations, he argued: “Decades of reliance on America has resulted in multifaceted and lopsided dependencies. As of now, Pakistan can only act as a mere spectator against US policies and demands. Hence, when President Barack Obama, in New York, said that he had no time to meet President Asif Zardari, no one was surprised. Obama had acted in a similar way during the Nato conference in Chicago.”

On Russia-Pakistan relations, Air Commodore Iqbal was of the view that Pakistan is not looking for a cold war era style breakaway from the US; it only seeks a balancing out of its relations by constructively engaging with other major powers. He recalled that it was due to America’s urging that the process of Pak-Russia normalization started in the late 1990s. In this regard, visits by former President Pervez Musharraf in February 2003 and by President Zardari in May 2011 were landmark events. However, Russia is watching whether Pakistan is serious about bringing about a paradigm shift in its foreign policy.

Air Commodore Iqbal believes that though Russia and Pakistan have left behind the bitterness of the past but a total interchange in roles with India switching to the US camp and Pakistan to the Russia’s is not envisaged. “Russia and India have historic ties that are unlikely to rupture. Likewise, Pakistan cannot do without the US, because Russia is not in a position to offer it the requisite level of aid and defense support. Things are not set to change dramatically. But even a modest change would be immensely useful. Things in Afghanistan are changing where both Pakistan and Russia have a convergence of interests. The main purpose of Mr Putin’s visit was to attend the Quadrilateral Summit. However, he was to extensively engage with Pakistani leadership for what was described as “formalizing the silent reset” in Pak-Russia relations.”

Air Commodore Iqbal perceives serious reservations and anxiety in the Indian and American circles over the growing Pak-Russia relations. “New Delhi and Washington have been striving hard to impede the pace. Despite its strategic alliance with the US, India still enjoys a good political, military and diplomatic relationship with Russia. India certainly cannot digest that its old and time-tested partner also becomes a friend of Pakistan. The US too would oppose this development. In fact, America cannot afford that at this critical moment of the Afghan war, Russia gets closer to Pakistan and offset the pressures that America has directed on Pakistan.”

Pakistan’s dependence on American military hardware is phenomenal. Pakistani military has always been keen to diversify its supply sources, he said adding: An opening towards Russia would certainly serve the interests of military leadership.

The endgame in Afghanistan

According to Air Commodore Iqbal, the endgame in Afghanistan is one of the major factors behind the evolving Pak-Russia rapprochement. “Russia would not like US military bases in Afghanistan and so would Pakistan. India foresees a role in Afghanistan and US military bases would provide it a dedicated strength to continue as an American proxy. The Russian President’s Special Envoy for Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov, said: “Our own experience in the past and the track record of others in recent years has taught us that the problem of Afghanistan cannot be resolved without the constructive involvement of Pakistan and Iran.”

“In Pakistan, there is a nationwide consensus, cutting across the political divide, to develop a robust relationship with Russia. We look forward for an early rescheduling of President Putin’s visit. Both the governments should speed up the preparatory work to make the summit a resounding success,” he concluded.

Abdus Sattar Ghazali is the Chief Editor of the Journal of America.