11.01.2014 Author: Salman Rafi Sheikh

Emerging Dynamics of Russia-Pakistan Relations

F6DB5F2E-3502-4F99-BAFE-6859D2DD63C3_w640_r1_s_cx4_cy0_cw91The US’ decision to effect “pivot” to Asia has also stimulated some major powers of Asia to build their strangleholds across different countries. The underlying logic for this policy shift is the threat perception they have from this and many other strategic moves of the US. In a response to this “pivot”, China and Russia have both re-invigorated their own “pivots”, because ultimately the purpose of the US’ “pivot” is to check both of these countries against the larger backdrop of the “pacific century”, and to maintain its own hegemony in the region to secure its politico-economic objectives. However, the response from major power of the region is most probably going to limit the prospects of the American’ ingress, and pave the way for making the Indian Ocean, along with the Pacific, a hub of intense geo-political competition in the twenty-first century. Robert D. Kaplan rightly pointed out this era of competition when he wrote,“The Indian Ocean area will be the true nexus of world powers and conflict in the coming years. It is here that the fight for democracy, energy independence and religious freedom will be lost or won.” As such, no power in Asia can stay away from countering the US increasing ingress. Russian response, in this behalf, has become especially significant since it has largely remained in a sort of disconnection with this region.

In understanding Russian resurgence, we need to understand what Russia is trying to achieve in the evolving dynamics of South Asia, in particular, of Afghanistan. Russia’s ‘minimum aim’ (to safeguard its critical interest) is to re-develop its politico-economic clout in Central Asia, because dominance of any other power in that region, especially of the US, will create very serious threats for Russia’s security. Development of politico-economic influence in rest of Asia appears to be part of the ‘maximum aim’ of Russia to safeguard/promote its other vital and peripheral interests. It is perhaps for this reason that for Russia the outcome of Afghan conflict and the likely repercussions it on the entire region is a very critical matter. Central Asia is the area of vital interest to Russia, and Afghanistan is the gateway to it. A stable Afghanistan is thus a must to keep Central Asia stable. Russia wants to see a coherent and moderate Afghanistan, because a fully Talibanised or a disruptive Afghanistan can have a spill-over effect on the Central Asia states, where any “Arab-Spring” type political unrest can be a rather unpleasant event.

The very sight of Russians in the region infuriates the US, primarily because the Russian presence can , at least in the US calculations,  jeopardize the New Silk Road that the US has been planning, which is supposed to run through several Asia countries, including Pakistan. If the access is blocked or hindered, it would become extremely difficult for the US to materially sustain the tens of thousands of its troops which the US had planned to station in the Hindu Kush and Central Asia.

In re-establishing its influence, particularly against the backdrop of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014, Russia has started to re-shape its relations with Pakistan. As such, since the last year visit of Zamir Kabulov, a number of other Russian officials and experts have also visited Pakistan. And, the proposals they brought are of momentous significance to the long-term security and stability of Pakistan. Moscow is trying to reboot its relations with Pakistan on the basis of extended energy cooperation. This is a very well calculated decision by Moscow since energy security is a key issue in Pakistan’s political economy today, and is no less important than terrorism. It is obvious that energy security is integral to Pakistan’s capacity to maintain “strategic autonomy” as a South Asian power of standing and, therefore, by assisting that country in this sphere, Russian geopolitical interests would also be served.

The immediate context against which Pak-Russia relations are developing is the need for Russia in the post-2014 Afghan scenario where the Western powers are likely to withdraw the bulk of their troops but are nonetheless establishing an open-ended, sizeable military presence of tens of thousands of combat troops. Russia and Pakistan are joined in their opposition to the long-term occupation of Afghanistan by the West; Russia hopes to influence Afghanistan’s future through co-operation with Pakistan and, in turn, this cooperation can enhance the overall Russian capacity to play an effective role in the stabilization of Afghanistan and in providing security to Central Asia.

The Russian approach is essentially a necessary regional-policy adjustment or even a prerequisite to the impending admission of Pakistan and India into the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) as full members. It’s no wonder that at the Shanghai summit of the SCO Russia’s President Vladimir Putin said  for the first time that Russia’s energy leviathan Gazprom  is willing to take part in the construction of the Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline.

The Russian moves in Pakistan also effectively outflank the US policies to isolate Iran. If hostilities again erupt between the US and Iran, notwithstanding the current understanding reached between Iran and the US, Washington would face an almost near-total isolation in the region between the Persian Gulf and Malacca Strait.

As such, these developments have certainly triggered alarms in the Western circles, and presented a daunting challenge to the US regional strategies in Asia. Pakistan’s geography has been the lynchpin of the US regional strategies in Afghanistan and Central Asia, and without Pakistan’s cooperation no communication link with those regions cannot be attained, which in turn, jeopardizes the plans for the establishment of a permanent US and NATO military presence in the region. As such, all the facts related to growing estrangement between Pak-US relations, therefore, has to be read together to understand the new level of enthusiasm that Pakistan is suddenly finding for Russia.

The US diplomatic and politico-military  moves in Pakistan would lie principally in the direction of influencing the policies of Pakistan. The US is pursuing a mixed approach toward Pakistan, alternating soft signals with a flexing of muscle that is vaguely assuming threatening overtones already. This ‘carrot and stick’ policy was especially evident in two very recent episodes: the EU’ decision to grant GSP plus status to Pakistan, and the US threat to block inflow of foreign trade in case the government of Pakistan failed to facilitate NATO transportation via Pakistan. No wonder that, according to a survey conducted by Pew Global Attitudes Project, 74% of Pakistanis “hate” the US and hold President Barack Obama in exceptionally low esteem. As such, it is these very factors that have been pushing Pakistan to “regionalize” its foreign policy outlook and rebuild its relations with Russia.

However, there are still certain challenges against laying a strong foundation for this alliance in the future. At present, both states are following a slow and cautious path by addressing the issues like co-operation in energy sector and stable Afghanistan, and an orderly withdrawal of US and NATO forces from Afghanistan. As long as Pakistan’s export and imports remain almost completely dependent upon the West, prospects of stable and long-term relations with Russia would remain bleak, not so much because of problems between the two states but because of the kind of pressure from the West Pakistan will be subjected to.

However, ironically, it is again this very pressure from the West which is already creating and would further strengthen the tension between Pakistan and the West. For example, in the last year’s political and diplomatic stand-off between the US and Pakistan, Russia was seen in Pakistan as a potential counter-weight, capable of building its engagement with Pakistan probably in areas from which the US interests seem to be receding. Indeed, energy security is the Achilles heel of Pakistan’s political economy, and it debilitates Pakistan’s capacity to develop a strategic autonomy that can safeguard its vital interests and core concerns. Therefore, the helping hand from Russia would come really handy.

Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs. Exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.

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