The world is going through several geopolitical changes, such as the relative decline of the US’ global pre-eminence, the return of major powers’ competition, Russia-China entente and the emergence of the Quad axis (US, India, Japan and Australia). As a consequence, states at the bilateral level are also redefining their relationships. The emerging relationship between Pakistan and Russia is one such example where countries that were once at odds with each other are now moving towards rapprochement.
The recently concluded 5th joint military exercise Druzhba-V (Friendship – 5) between Russia and Pakistan in November 2020, has shown that the two countries are now improving their security ties. According to a press release by the Directorate of Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR), other than counter-terrorism operation, the exercise focused on practising drills and procedures for hostage rescue, cordon and search operations, heli-rappelling and sky diving. The first one of Druzhba exercises was conducted in 2016. Since then, this joint exercise has become a regular feature of Pakistan-Russia military cooperation.
In recent years, there has been increased cooperation between the two countries in the security domain. It started with the visit of President Musharraf to Moscow in 2003, where Pakistan and Russia agreed to enhance cooperation in numerous fields. Since then, there have been quite a few reciprocal visits by the officials of both countries, which further helped in advancing the cooperation. The foremost step in improving security cooperation was the Russian decision to lift the self-imposed arms embargo against Pakistan in 2014. After that Pakistan purchased four MI-35 attack helicopters from Russia for counter-terrorism operations and two non-combatant MI-171E helicopters have also been delivered to Pakistan. In 2015, Pakistan also signed a deal with Russia to import Klimov RD-93 engines for the JF-17 Thunder aircraft (the engines previously came through China). Though these military sales are still in nascent stages, there is a possibility of enhanced cooperation in future.
There are many other security-related areas where Islamabad and Moscow are cooperating, or there is a potential for cooperation. Counter-terrorism cooperation has been one such area where the militaries of the two sides are engaging regularly. Pakistan has been participating in international multilateral military exercises in Russia since 2019 with the latest participation in Kavkaz 2020 in September 2020. Furthermore, during September Chairman Joint Chief of Staff Committee General Nadeem Raza visited Moscow to attend the Defence and Security Cooperation conference under the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) forum. During his visit, General Raza also met with General Valery V. Gerasimov Chief of General Staff, Russian Federation, and discussed matters of bilateral military cooperation and regional security dynamics. It is important to note that Pakistan is also a member of SCO, which aims to fight terrorism, extremism and radicalism, and cooperation on these three scourges with Russia is also taking place under the SCO banner. In 2019, Pakistan participated in a week-long multinational military exercise along with military contingents from other SCO member states. These joint military exercises are a testament to increasing counter-terrorism cooperation between the two countries.
Bringing peace and stability in Afghanistan is another area of convergence between Russia and Pakistan. Russia’s chief concern for Afghanistan is the spill-over effect of instability and drug trafficking to the Central Asian countries that can also affect Russia. Pakistan also has similar concerns regarding Afghanistan, and many Pakistani officials have reiterated that stability in Pakistan is dependent on peace in Afghanistan. There have been a number of bilateral and multilateral talks involving Pakistan and Russia on this issue. Afghanistan is a serious area of concern for both countries, and cooperation between the two, with the shared objective of bringing peace and stability in Afghanistan, can be increased further.
Despite the improving strategic ties between India and the US, New Delhi will remain important for Russia. Therefore, Pakistan should not build any unrealistic expectations from this emerging relationship and follow a step-by-step approach with Russia.
Islamabad and Moscow are also conducting regular talks on nuclear arms control, non-proliferation and disarmament under the banner of Pakistan-Russia Consultative Group on Strategic Stability. The 13th meeting of this group was held in Islamabad in March 2019 in which issues, such as, “non-militarization of outer space, upholding bilateral and multilateral treaties, developments in the field of information and telecommunications in the context of international security were discussed.” Both states have similar views when it comes to matters like non-militarization of outer space, development of precision conventional weapons systems and deployment of Ballistic Missile Defence system.
Pakistan and Russia have also signed a Joint Statement on No First Placement of Weapons in Outer Space on May 22, 2019. The statement highlighted that “Pakistan and Russia share a common position on the prevention of arms race in outer space and work collectively at various international fora towards that goal.” Pakistan in 2020, as has been the case in the past also, voted for the Russian sponsored resolution in the United Nations (UN) First Committee related to development in the field of information and telecommunication. The resolution called upon all member states to promote the use of information and communications technologies for peaceful purposes only.
Besides, Pakistan and Russia have a short history of space cooperation for peaceful purposes. Russia helped Pakistan in the successful launching of Badr-2 and iCUBE-1 satellites into space. This cooperation can be further enhanced. Pakistan plans to send its first astronaut in space by 2022. Both countries can cooperate in deep space exploration, and Russia can help Pakistan by giving training to its astronauts.
Pakistan-Russia relations are moving in the right direction, but it will take some time and consistent effort from both sides to convert it into a strategic one. Historical legacy, India and the US factor are a few main barriers that can hinder this rapprochement. India enjoys strategic relations with Russia and is a major market for Russian military industry. Despite the improving strategic ties between India and the US, New Delhi will remain important for Russia. Therefore, Pakistan should not build any unrealistic expectations from this emerging relationship and follow a step-by-step approach with Russia. Further, the US, because of its uneasy relationship with Russia may pressurize Islamabad not to proceed in improving its ties with Moscow.
The world is moving towards multi partnership, i.e. one state can have the same kind of partnerships with a number of other states. Therefore, Pakistan, while keeping its national interest prime, should engage with all the major states – including the US and Russia both. But the thumb rule should be that its relations with one state should not come at the cost of the other.