Russia's Pakistan Gamble
NEW DELHI: Why is Russia that for decades was hostile to Pakistan now willing to accommodate it? How far will Russia go in this endeavour? Why is Pakistan cosying up to Russia generations after they joined every US led effort to contain and bleed it?
Russia's changing relations with Pakistan came to international and especially Indian attention when Russian and Pakistani special forces held their first joint military exercise in Cherat, northern Pakistan. Though planned in advance and of relative small scale with 90 Russians these exercises followed the 18th September 2016, militant attacks on the URI Indian army base near the Line of Control, for which India had blamed Pakistan. Despite India’s request to Russia to call these off, Russia went ahead. Russia and Pakistan have had two naval drills earlier.
The Russians are finalising the sale of SU-35 fighter jets to Pakistan. They have delivered MI 35 Helicopters to Pakistan. They have commercial deals and interest in expanding their market, including pipelines in progress. Russia needs Pakistan to counter the growing threat and reality of the Taliban control over Afghanistan and the spillover effect of a possible civil war, radical Islam, revival of drug and other trafficking to Central Asia, the Caucasus, and to Russia.
There is speculation that given the strategic tie up between Russia and China, the Chinese would play a bridging role between the two formerly hostile countries. The Chinese built port of Gwadar in Pakistan would provide a safe warm water port for the Russians to facilitate the North- South corridor that they plan. The Russians could benefit from the planned China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).
For Pakistan, with the growing hostility from sections of US policy makers, Russia could be an ideal balancer and option, if the US plays hardball and puts pressure on them. Russian re-emergence as pro-active role in international politics, especially in West and Central Asia and cooling Russia from its relations with India could be assets for Pakistan. But how much of these speculations coincide with evidence?
So far there is little evidence of any dramatic shift in Russian relations with Pakistan. The Russian leadership from President Vladimir Putin down to his envoy for Afghanistan Zamir Kabulov have reiterated that Russia is not strengthening its ties with Pakistan at India's cost. India remains their priority, can be counted as one of their closest strategic and long term partner and will remain so. Russia says their relations with Pakistan are purely commercial, at the formative stages. While Pakistan and Russia had talks in 2013, President Putin has still not accepted Pakistan's invitations. Moreover, to quote Lewis Carol, 'one does not get less if the other get more'.
It is clear that the geo-strategic landscape is changing. There is an atmosphere of a new type of Cold War. US- Russia relations are at their worst since the Cuban missile crises. In the recent past they have confronted each other over the Georgia and Ukraine, when Russia intervened on behalf of secessionist movements (in Abkhazia and Crimea) reviving their territorial linkages with the Russian empire.
More severe is their direct confrontation in Syria where Russia has backed President Assad and the war against the Islamic State- Daesh, Al Nusra and anti Assad forces. The US and their allies, including Saudi Arabia put focus on regime change and over throwing Assad as integral to their fight against terror. This confrontation is on similar lines of past differences between Russia and the US where regimes were changed in Iraq, Libya and all kinds of military interventions and sanctions placed by the US and opposed by Russia though Russia avoided military action.
There is no indication that this confrontation between Russia and the US will stop, even though President elect Donald Trump has promised to reverse military intervention and engage with Russia.
Pakistan has always been a frontline state for US interests in the West and Central Asian region, since the 1950's when they became part of CENTO the Asia focussed military pact. It's role in Afghanistan mirrors its covert and overt actions that benefit the Pakistani military and the deep state to keep alive core interests (especially visavis Kashmir, India and as regional balancer).
Witness the creation of the Taliban, the Mujahid-Din, the cover for Osama bin Laden, to the May 2016 alleged hand in poisoning the local station chief of the CIA. As reward the US in addition to the military assistance has given them US$ 5 billion aid since 2005 under the Kerry Luger Bermen Act and holds regular military exercises, including for nine days -Sept 16 2016.
President Putin is a deft player on the chessboard of international politics. He is most unlikely to shift from his old and trusted strategic partner India and even Iran with whom Pakistan has contradictions. Russian foreign policy wants the construction of a multipolar world. For that they require cross country relations, necessary to avoid the blocs of a Cold War.
Russia is thus moving towards this, keeping channels of diplomacy open with Pakistan and others. Where they keep and maintain old relations, develop new ones and ensure that they are not isolated or trumped at their foreign policy interests. Conspiracy theorists of international relations can keep guessing.
(Professor Anuradha Chenoy teaches in the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University.Her books include The Maoist and Other Armed Conflicts, Militarism and Women in South Asia,The Making of New Russia)