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Pakistan-Russia joint military exercise: New doors of opportunities

By Sabah Aslam

The diplomatic and bilateral relations between Pakistan and Russian Federation were first developed on May 1st, 1948. History witnesses that the relationship between Pakistan and Soviet Union and then with Russia is marked by many ups and downs. In past, there were numerous disturbing issues that even for sometime divided both the countries to manage to have the amiable relations based on mutual interests and benefits. But, a true diplomatic relationship is always preferred because of geographical proximity, historical linkages and common developmental interests in Asia. Pakistan- Russia recent initiative of Joint Military Exercises is a new brick in the wall to strengthen the relations a bit more.

From the early years (1948 – late 1950s) of Pakistan, the relations were affable and of responsive nature. Due to some conflicting issues the ties between both the countries took a u-turn and deteriorated. However, in 1965 President Mohammad Ayub Khan numerous efforts the relations got warmth again. Furthermore, in mid-1970s the Pakistan – Soviet ties improved a lot and hence Mr. Bhutto influenced the then Soviet regime to establish steel mills in Pakistan. For that reason, Soviet government invested billion dollars in the Steel mills project. Cultural, economic and trade ties were developed immensely between the two.

Pakistan was the first country to recognize Russia as a successor of the Soviet Union in wake of the disintegration of USSR into many parts. The economic as well as political ties were somewhat cold during 1990s because of the internal issues of both the countries. As Russia after disintegration was busy in reshaping and managing its economic and political issues and Pakistan was also suffering from many problems including economic, political and social.

In 1999, the then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif official visit to Moscow helped improve the diplomatic relations. The relations were further improved to high levels and gained popularity with President Pervez Musharraf visit to Moscow. Since then the two countries are enjoying far smooth relations than ever before.

Pakistan’s reliance on U.S. and Russia’s friendly ties with India is viewed as a one of the main hindrance in establishing defence ties between the both countries. Both the countries somehow ignored each other for time due to misperceptions. But the wise leadership of both the sides tried a lot to overcome the challenges and put forward the diplomatic designs to maintain interaction and cooperation at all levels.

In addition, the recent high level visits of Pakistan and Russia diplomatic officials and military personnel not only bolster the diplomatic relations but also the strategic ties between the two. The first ever joint military exercises between both the countries launched on 24 September 2016 in the Northern part of Pakistan for time duration of approx. two weeks. Approximately 200 military personnel of both sides will be participating and ultimately get benefit of this exercise.  Furthermore, these exercises will have a deeper impact on Pakistan – Russia relations. A joint military exercise is an omen of strong future military links between the two countries.  In addition, Russia has also shown interests in socio-economic development of Pakistan.

Pakistan’s cooperation with Russia brings huge benefits for it including infrastructure development, investments, and growth in trade sectors. Furthermore, Russia’s support for the reconstruction, modernization and expansion of Pakistan’s steel mills would also have positive implications for Pakistan and Russia.

In the contemporary international arena, regional alliance is important; and for a great power like Russia to have regional popularity and cordial relations with all the regional countries is in its vital interest. Russia is having good relations with all the South Asian countries like China, India and Pakistan.

Pakistan and Russia are eager to boost up the bilateral collaboration and hence have shown convergence on a number of issues especially pertaining to security and economic issues at regional and international level. Pakistan and Russia’s role in establishing peace in Afghanistan, economic cooperation, training programs (especially for military and security personnel), and infrastructure etc is vital for both the countries.

Russia’s Interests in Having Affable Relations with Pakistan

Following are Moscow’s key interests in establishing friendly ties with Islamabad:

  1. Russia’s flourishing military hardware companies needs new markets to maintain its economic status and for which Pakistan could be a potential buyer,
  2. Terrorism and extremism is perceived as a potential threat in contemporary world, and hence Russia is eager to work jointly to counter the threat,
  3. To curtail EU and U.S. role in the region, Russia want to strengthen its influence in the near-abroad,
  4. Moscow wants to pursue its multi-vectored foreign policy in the region,
  5. Russia wants to keep an eye on the U.S. especially when it comes to already established military bases and missile shield deployments in Asia-Pacific region, and
  6. Pakistan’s geographical position as an energy gateway also prompted Russia to have cordial relations with Pakistan.

Russia: New Door of Opportunities for Pakistan

Following are the factors that prompted Pakistan to further its relations with Russia:

  1. Islamabad’s keen desire to lessen its dependence on its western ally,
  2. Islamabad’s views that regional collaboration in order to solve regional problems would proof fruitful,
  3. Pakistan views U.S. as an unreliable friend with vague interests and therefore want to further its relation with its northern flank, and
  4. In order to maintain strategic balance in the region in relation to U.S.-India growing military relations, Islamabad needs to have healthy relations with Moscow.

Pakistan and Russia: Convergence of Interests

Following are the some point highlighting Pakistan-Russia convergence on some mutual issues/interests:

  1. Combating terrorism, extremism, and separatism,
  2. Energy crisis in Pakistan and a energy gateway for Russia,
  3. Gas pipelines including Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India gas pipeline (TAPI), and Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline (IPI),
  4. Thar Coal Project,
  5. Pakistan and Russia’s cooperation and collaboration in Afghanistan in wake of complete withdrawal of foreign forces,
  6. U.S. permanent military bases in the region, and
  7. Maintaining strategic balance in the region.

In order to further strengthen the ties, Pakistan-Russia still needs to fill-up the gaps and draw designs to institutionalize the ties more. For instance, the steps taken in 2002 in Musharraf’s era i.e. joint working group on counter-terrorism, strategic stability and inter-governmental joint commission should be relooked and enhanced.

Moreover, people to people contacts, defence ties, cultural and scientific links, and academicians/student exchange programs should be promoted between the two countries. Pakistan-Russia relations would further develop with the cooperation in energy sector, oil and gas, telecommunication, space technology, and steel production.

Sabah Aslam is running an independent research institute as Executive Director. Islamabad Institute of Conflict Resolution (IICR) focuses on the regional security issues and on peace initiatives.

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