Review of Russia – Pakistan Defence Cooperation: Reflection of Emerging Geo-Political Realities
Col Shubhankar Basu, SM, VSM, Senior Fellow, VIF

In the last week of 2018, the new papers in India and Pakistan were flooded with the possibility of signing of a mega deal in defence cooperation between Russia and Pakistan involving SU-35 fighter air crafts, air defence systems and T-90 Tanks. However, the news soon fizzled out with no further coverage.

Any such deal, obviously, will have serious implications, not only for the security environment of the region but also on Russia-India relations. The emerging relationship matrix of China, Pakistan and India, with the US and Russia in the last few years has put a puzzling scenario for the scholars of international relations. Pakistan losing out in the US-Pakistan alliance and its increased dependency on China is very evident and well documented. However, the indicators of Russia-Pakistan emerging relations need to be critically analysed.

How has the Russia-Pakistan relationship evolved since the latter was formed? What are the drivers behind the current rapprochement and how does it impact the most trusted bilateral relationship in the Indian subcontinent? These are some of the questions that this article will attempt to answer.

Russia-Pakistan Diplomatic Relations

The history of Russia-Pakistan relationship can be traced back to 1948, when the Pakistani diplomats managed an invitation from Moscow for Prime Minister Liaqaut Ali Khan; however, the visit could not materialise. Later, in 1954, Prime Minister Liaqaut Ali’s decision to join Central Treaty Organisation (CENTO) and Southeast Asia Treaty Organisation (SEATO) put Pakistan formally on the side of the US in the emerging Cold War scenario. 1

1960 onwards, Russia-Pakistan relationship has been primarily influenced by Pakistan’s relations with the US, China and India.2 In 1980s, Pakistan emerged as the key ally of the US and contributed in Russia’s defeat in Afghanistan, wherein Pakistan territory was used for recruiting, training and launching of guerilla operations against the Russian Army. This had an adverse impact on the Russia-Pakistan relations.3 Post 1990, events like the terrorist attack on World Trade Tower, followed by Global War on Terror (GWOT), indicated Pakistan’s role in encouraging the radical terrorism and the emerging dynamics in Afghanistan changed the world view on Pakistan. The subsequent breakdown of strategic US-Pakistan friendship, saw the rapprochement of the Pakistan-Russia bilateral relationship.4

The bilateral relations showed upward path from the late-1990s onwards, when a few exchanges took place at ministerial level followed by a visit by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in 1999, in which agreements related to trade and infrastructure development were signed. This was a historical visit at after a gap of 25 years. Earlier, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto had visited USSR in 1970s; however, those visits did not have any significant outcome.5

Musharraf-Putin summit of 2003, during the former’s visit to Moscow, can be called the first step in the bilateral relation between the two countries. During the visit, Russian Foreign ministry spokesman had said ‘…Pakistan occupies an important place and has played an independent role in Russia’s foreign policy priorities determined by Pakistan’s weight in the region adjacent to the CIS southern borders, and in the Islamic world as a whole.” This statement shows the changing world view of Russia towards Pakistan and the same got further reinforced in the years ahead. The joint statement after the visit highlighted the importance of increasing mutual cooperation in the fields of bilateral trade, energy and metallurgy and infrastructure development. 6

The first high point of the bilateral relationship was the announcement of visit of President Putin to Pakistan in 2012; however, it was cancelled at the last minute amongst speculations of India having reservations on the visit. In 2012, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, became the first Chief of Pakistan Army to visit Moscow. Thereafter, high level bilateral interactions became a regular feature between the two countries. Russia continues to consider Pakistan a pivot in its strategy to control the Islamic radicalism in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) countries. Putin’s public endorsement of Pakistan’s candidacy for Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) is acknowledgment of the same. 7

Russia-Pakistan Defence Cooperation

The Russia-Pakistan defence cooperation is relatively recent, considering the Russia-Pakistan diplomatic relations. 2014 was the watershed year in the defence cooperation between the two nations. In that year, there was an announcement from Russia about lifting up of the embargo on selling of defence equipment to Pakistan. Same year, the first defence cooperation agreement was signed during visit of Russian defence minister to Islamabad.8 In 2015, during the visit of General Rahil Sharif to Russia, deal on sale of four MI-35 helicopters (which may go up to 20 later) was signed9. The Russian weapon technology has been part of Pakistan’s armoury, through Chinese made JF 17 aircraft, which uses Klimov RD 93-engines.10

Former Pakistani Defence Minister Khurram Dastagir in an interview to Sputnik, in Apr 2018, said that Islamabad is in direct talks with the Russian federation to purchase Su-35 Jets, air defence systems and T-90 Tanks. 11 However, so far, no official confirmation has come on the signing of any such deal from the Russian side. In the first meeting of joint military consultative committee (JMCC), held in Aug 2018, at Rawalpindi, an agreement was signed to allow the troops of Pakistani Army to train in military institutes of Russia.12 Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on issues pertaining to bilateral naval collaboration was signed during the visit of Pakistan's Vice Admiral Kaleem Shaukat to Russia in Aug 2018. The naval cooperation agreement focuses on training of naval personnel and the conduct of joint military exercises. 13

The first joint training between the security forces of the two nations commenced to address the common concern of drug menace originating from Afghanistan. The first anti-narcotics exercise was held in Oct 2014 and second in Dec 2015.14 In September 2016, the first exclusive joint military exercise was held in the Pakistani province of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. In September-October 2017, the special forces of Russia and Pakistan conducted counter-terrorism exercise.15 In December 2018, Russian Naval ships visited Karachi followed by a joint training with Pakistan Navy in North Arabian Sea.16

Drivers behind the Rapprochement between Russia and Pakistan

Diplomatic relations and defence cooperation between the two countries have moved on fast track since 1990s, i.e. post USSR withdrawal from Afghanistan. The emerging role of Pakistan in Afghanistan also led to change in the Russian world view of Pakistan. The key drivers that are defining the emerging closeness between the two nations are the geo-politics in the region, the opportunity for trade and the defence cooperation.

Geo-politics in the Region. The location of Pakistan has always been the pivot in the great game between Russia and erstwhile British Empire. While there is no common border between the two countries but they share the geo-political space. The current political turmoil and precarious security situation in Afghanistan is cause of concern for Russia and hence, Pakistan’s crucial role in any peace process in Afghanistan makes it a natural ally of Russia. Russia along with China may back Pakistan’s role in the ongoing peace negotiations between the US and Taliban. Russia also believes in Pakistan’s capability to rein in Taliban and other Islamic terrorist and radical organisations. 17 Russia is also concerned about Islamic State of Khorasan Province (ISKP) and spread of Islamic radicalism in states like Chechnya. Hence, a positive engagement with Pakistan is beneficial for Russia not only for a favourable outcome in Afghanistan, but also for the internal security situation. Since the Ukraine crisis, Russia has been isolated in the international sphere and has been in search of new friends, the overtures to Pakistan could be part of this strategy.18

Geo-economics. Pakistan’s location at the juncture of South Asia, China and Central Asia is considered as bridge or the link that can connect the important players of Eurasia says Andrew Korybko, political analyst of Russian Institute of Strategic Studies (RISS) which is a leading think tank in Moscow19. The progress of China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) as part of Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is likely to provide the long awaited alternative to Arabian Sea.20 Russia’s need for warm water sea ports in Arabian Sea will be met via CPEC, that’s probably why Russia has shown keenness to join CEPC.21

Defence Cooperation. Defence exports is a major contributor in the economy of Russia, making it the second-largest exporter of defence equipment after the US. Pakistan has emerged as the new market for Russia. For Pakistan also, Russia is the best option for high-end weapon systems after it has fallen out of favour from the US.

Energy Security. The North-South gas pipeline project, costing more than $ 2 billion connecting Karachi to Lahore that is part of Government-to-Government project between Russia and Pakistan, is likely to reduce some of Pakistan’s energy problem. There are also reports that Russia may join Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan in the CASA-1000 energy project, which is to provide Pakistan with electricity.

Implications for India

The Russia-India relationship is independent of the emerging Russia-Pakistan relationship. The Russia-India relationship has evolved over decades and spreads across political, defence, economic, social and cultural spheres. The Economic Times reported that, on the question of Pakistan-Russia joint exercise, the Russian Ambassador Nikolay Kudashev, said that “…Russia’s ties with Pakistan and India cannot be equalised and its strategic relations with India are second to none”.22

The Pakistan and Russia defence relations are at nascent stage. Defence cooperation may have started since 2014, but so far only a few MI-35 attack helicopters have reached Pakistan. No other deal of significance has been signed since 2105. While Pakistan may be keen for T-90 tanks, Su-35 fighters and advance air defence systems, but the economic condition doesn’t allow such a wish list. On the other hand, Russia that believes in business, is unlikely to donate or offer the state-of-art weapon systems on charity. India will continue to remain the most valuable market for Russia. So it will respect the Indian sensitivity. The fact that so far President Putin has not visited Pakistan is testimony to that.

In May 2018, in an informal meet between Prime Minister Modi and President Putin at Sochi, in Russia, the two leaders upgraded the traditionally close relationship to a “special privileged strategic partnership.”23 No international relationship has remained insulated from the current uncertainty in the world affairs. The bilateral relations between India and Russia too have been affected because of common factors like, the US, Pakistan, Afghanistan and China. India has been able to preserve its national interest while balancing between the US and Russia. India demonstrated its independent foreign policy, by signing the S-400 Air Defence Missile deal with Russia, discounting the pressure of sanctions from the US. Signing of this deal also conveys Indian commitment to relationship with Russia.

Moscow’s growing strategic convergence with China and improving defence cooperation with Pakistan is outcome of current geo-political environment. Similarly, New Delhi’s growing defence and security cooperation with Washington has increased. Neither India nor Russia, view these developments as potential disruptors to their bilateral relations24.

Prognosis

Pakistan is likely to remain relevant in the geo-strategic calculus of Russia considering the situation in Afghanistan and spread of radical Islamic fundamentalism. The defence cooperation between the two countries in terms of training of personnel and joint training between the army and navy may increase. However, high-value defence deals will depend on Pakistan’s capability to pay in hard cash, which seems bleak in the near future. While Russia would be keen to sell weapons to Pakistan for monetary gain, but it would not risk its relationship with India. Hence, the India-Russia relationship is unlikely to be affected with improving Pakistan-Russia defence cooperation.

References :
  1. Uma Purushothaman in The Russia –Pakistan-Rapprochement: Should India Worry, Issue Brief ORF No 117, Nov 2015.
  2. Rouben Azizian and Peter Vasilieff in Russia and Pakistan: The difficult Path to Rapprochement, in Asian Affairs, Vol. 30, No 1( Spring, 2003) pp 36-55.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid.
  5. B Raman in Nawaz Sharif’s visit to Moscow, in South Asian Analysis, paper 48, available at http://www.southasiaanalysis.org/paper48 accessed on 22 Jan 2019.
  6. Rouben Azizian and Peter Vasilieff in Russia and Pakistan: The difficult Path to Rapprochement, in Asian Affairs, Vol. 30, No 1( Spring, 2003) pp 36-55.
  7. Sadhvi Chauhan in Russia – Pakistan relations: beyond Putin’s cancelled trip to Islamabad, in Open democracy available at opendemocracy.net/sadhvi-chauhan/Russia-pakistan-beyong-putin’s-cancelled –trip-to-islamabad accessed on 23 Jan 2109.
  8. Sudha Ramachandran in New Era in Russia-Pakistan Relations? In The Diplomat available at https://thediplomat.com/2014/12/ new-era-in-Russia-Pakistan-relations/ accessed on 22 Jan 19.
  9. As Obama visits India-Pakistan looks to Russia for military and economic assistance available at https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/asia_pacific accessed on 21 Jan 2019.
    Also available at https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/international/world-news/pakistan-russia-sign-defence-cooperation-agreement/articleshow/45221893.cms accessed on 21 Jan 2019.
  10. Uma Purushothaman in The Russia –Pakistan-Rapprochement: Should India Worry, Issue Brief ORF No 117, Nov 2015.
  11. Pakistan in talks with Russia for procurement of sophisticated arms, says defence minister, in Tribune Express available at https://tribune.com.pk/stroy/1679752/9-pakistan-talks-russia-procurement-sophisticated-arms-says-defence-minister accessed on 21 Jan 2019.
  12. Pakistani troops to receive training at Russian military institutes in Economic Times, Aug 08, 2018 available at https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/defence/pakistani-troops-to-receive-training-at-russian-military-institutes/articleshow/65319354.cms accessed on 21 Jan 2019.
  13. Russia signs Naval cooperation deal with Pakistan, in First Post, Aug 03, 2018 available at https://www.firstpost.com/world/russia-warming-up-to-pakistan-is-the-elephant-in-the-room-in-moscow-new-delhi-ties-india-must-safeguard-long-standing-relations-4888711.html , accessed on 22 Jan 2019.
  14. Russia signs Naval cooperation deal with Pakistan, in First Post, Aug 03, 2018 available at https://www.firstpost.com/world/russia-warming-up-to-pakistan-is-the-elephant-in-the-room-in-moscow-new-delhi-ties-india-must-safeguard-long-standing-relations-4888711.html , accessed on 22 Jan 2019.
  15. Ibid.
  16. Pakistan and Russian Navy hold joint training in North Arabian Sea, in Express Tribune available at https://tribune.com.pk/story/1858222/1-pakistan-russian-navy-hold-joint-drills-arabian-sea/ accessed on 27 Jan 19.
  17. Uma Purushothaman in The Russia –Pakistan-Rapprochement: Should India Worry, Issue Brief ORF No 117, Nov 2015.
  18. Ibid.
  19. Andrew Korybko, in Pakistan is the Zipper of Pan-Eurasian integration, available at https://en.riss.ru /analysis/18882/ accessed on 22 Jan 2019.
  20. Ibid.
  21. Russia to become part of CPEC in Express Tribune, available at https://tribune.com.pk/story/1667265/1-russia-become-part-game-changer-cpec/ accessed on 21 Jan 19.
  22. Russia’s Ties with Pakistan cannot be Equalised, in The Economic Times July 12, 2018 available at https://tribune.com.pk/story/1667265/1-russia-become-part-game-changer-cpec/ accessed on 23 Jan 19.
  23. Future of India-Russia Relationship Post Sochi Summit, available at https://www.brookings.edu/blog/up-front/2018/07/02/future-of-the-india-russia-relationship-post-sochi-summit/ accessed on 21 Jan 2019
  24. Aleksei Zakharov in India-Russia Summit: Reading Between the Lines, available at https://idsa.in/ idsacomments/india-russia-summit-azakharov-181018 accessed on 23 Jan 2019.

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>


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