MOSCOW - While much has been made of a “reset” in the relationship between the United States and Russia, Pakistan is also trying to find a new starting point in its relationship with Russia, which has yet to recover from Pakistan’s cold-war alliance with the United States.
This would-be reset has had both setbacks and steps forward in recent days, but Russia’s historical alliance with India, Pakistan’s main geopolitical enemy, threatens to overshadow attempts by the two countries to work together in the Central Asian region.
It should first be noted that no Russian leader has visited Pakistan in the past 44 years. The government in Islamabad thought that chill was going to end late last month when President Vladimir Putin was expected to arrive for a summit with Pakistan, Afghanistan and Tajikistan. But at the last minute the summit was cancelled after Putin informed Islamabad that he would not be able to make the meeting.
Putin’s office said that it was due to scheduling conflicts, but the refusal stung, and provoked an outcry in the Pakistani media.
Later that same week, the head of Pakistan’s armed forces, Ashfk Pervez Kayani, arrived in Moscow on a four-day visit. This might have been a sign that Russia is finally willing to work with Pakistan, clearly an important player in Central Asia, a region that includes several formerly Soviet countries which Russia considers part of its sphere of influence.
Pakistan has been trying to establish a military technology partnership with Russia for years, and hopes that Kayani’s trip will bring them closer to an agreement.
Weapons and strategic alliances
The experts say there are two main clouds hanging over Russia-Pakistan relations. One of them is the lack of agreement on whether Gazprom, the Russian state-owned gas giant, will participate in the construction of a major pipeline from Iran to India via Pakistan. Gazprom was apparently unhappy that the Pakistanis insisted companies be chosen through a bidding process.
The biggest challenge for the two countries’ reset, however, is Russia’s relationship with India. That alliance dates from the cold war, and Delhi’s stance has always been that its allies should not sell a single bullet to Pakistan.
Now, experts say, Russia is reevaluating that approach. “India will continue to be Moscow’s most important partner in the military technology arena, both in volume and in potential," explained Ruslan Pukhov, the director of the Center of Strategic Analysis in Moscow. "But Russia was really unhappy about Delhi’s attempt to diversify its sources for new weapons, which India is increasingly buying from Western countries."
Pukhov says that Moscow is communicating to Delhi that Russia too can diversify its military technology connections, by a warmer relationship with Pakistan.
The situation in Afghanistan is one of the reasons Russia is more interested in working with Pakistan. “Pakistan influences the situation in Afghanistan to an enormous degree. Moscow is already racking its brains trying to figure out how to provide for its own security and the security of borders in the south of the former Soviet zone after NATO and the U.S. leave Afghanistan," Pukhov said. "If Russia continues to turn away from Pakistan because of its relationship with India, it will be working against its own security interests.”
Nonetheless, Russia’s relationship with India, although it would not prevent all military trade with Pakistan, will certainly limit the scope of weapons sales.