By Brig Kuldip Singh (Retd)
Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, after visiting India, proceeded to Pakistan where he met(April 07) Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi. This was the first visit by a Russian foreign minister since 2012. According to Qureshi, both sides discussed (i) the situation in Afghanistan; (ii) enhancing cooperation within the framework of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization; and (iii) deepening friendship and expanding relations in diverse areas including trade, economy, counter-terrorism and defence. Lavrov stated that Russia was (i) committed to promote bilateral cooperation with Pakistan; (ii) discuss a new protocol to expedite the construction of the Karachi-Lahore Gas Pipeline; and (iii) ready to augment Pakistan’s counter-terrorism potential through provision of military equipment. Lavrov added that both countries had agreed to further facilitate the parties to reach an agreement to put an end to the ongoing civil war in Afghanistan.
Lavrov’s visit gave rise to two divergent opinions – one premised visit meant nothing; the other, that Russia was moving closer to Pakistan and perhaps away from India.
Historically, Pakistan and formerly USSR have shared lukewarm defence ties except for a brief period between 1965 and 1971 Indo-Pak conflicts, when following sanctions by the USA, Pakistan turned to USSR, who supplied military equipment worth US$310 mn. This fledgeling relationship was cut short bySoviet support to India in the 1971 Indo-Pak war and Soviet intervention in Afghanistan (1979). After Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan (1989), the USA curtailed aid to Pakistan under the Symington and Pressler Amendments (Oct1990). However, Pakistani attempts to procure engines for their Type-21 frigates (1997) and T-80UD main battle tanks (2004) from Russia were stonewalled in view of Indian sensitivities. The defence relationship gained traction after former President Musharraf’s visit to Moscow in Feb 2003 and Russian PM’s visit to Pakistan in 2007. As per SIPRI, between 1947 to 1991, erstwhile USSR exported military equipment worth just $383 million from to Pakistan; from 1991, Russia directly gave military equipment worth $429 million, with $314 million coming in the decade spanning 2002 to2012, primarily comprising Mi-17 helicopters.
Yet, contrary to common belief, Pakistan Armed Forces hold a good share of Soviet/Russian-origin equipment. The Pakistani Army’s armoured formations field the Ukrainian-80 UD tanks while its Army Aviation holds about 50 Mi-17 helicopters. The Pakistani Air Force (PAF) has four Ukrainian-supplied IL-78Aerial Refuelling aircraft equipped with Russian-designed UPAZ refuelling pods, as well as the Czech-origin Vera-E emitter locater (passive radar) systems. Russian-manufactured RD-93 engines are now powering the Pakistan-China joint venture JV-17 fighter aircraft. Besides, much of the Chinese equipment with Pakistani Armed Forces is primarily reverse-engineered versions of old Soviet/Russian equipment. Russia has also helped establish a helicopter overhauling facility in Pakistan.
Pakistan however, is no longer keen on Russian weapons – many Chinese ones, fusing Russian and Western technologies, are as good. Besides, China and the US financed their weapon exports to Pakistan through monetary aid or transfer of ‘excess defence articles. Russia is unlikely to replicate that model and Pakistan’s economic condition may not allow it to pay for Russian weapons.
Russia’s Interest in Pakistan
Deployment of US troops in Afghanistan from 2002 had benefited Russia strategically:
US military power got tied up in Afghanistan (and Iraq from 2003), leaving it with no strategic reserves. Russia exploited this to expand into its “near abroad”. Russian military ventures into Georgia(2008) and Ukraine’s Crimea (2014) are examples– the US couldn’t intervene on the side of Georgia/Ukraine.
The US/NATO crackdown on opium in Afghanistan had constrained the flow of drugs into Russia through the Central Asian Republics (CARs). Russia, in addition to a demographic decline, is beset by a large drug addiction problem.
In Af-Pak, the US was targeting terrorists of all stripes, including those from the restive Muslim republics of Russia (Chechnya, Dagestan) and China (Uighurs/ETIM from Xinjiang).
Targeting of militants and opium also improved the stability of CARs, whose security Russia looks after (including under SCO’s RegionalAnti-Terrorist Structure).
But in Feb 2014, former US President Obama directed a full withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan by end-2014. This held grave security implications for Russia. It apprehended (i) a power vacuum in Afghanistan; (ii) ramping up of operations in Central Asia and Russia by terrorists from its restive Muslim republics, and (iii) an increased influx of drugs into Russia. But lacking the capability or desire to intervene militarily in Afghanistan, it decided to secure its interests through the Pakistani security establishment – it had leverage over major players in Afghanistan, who in turn had capacity and capability to calibrate flow of militancy and drugs into CARs and Russia.
China too had benefited from the above targeting. In addition its economic stakes in CARs (energy pipelines; infrastructure). So, both Russia and China commenced attempts from Sept 2014 to build a joint China-Russia-Afghanistan-Pakistan front through high-level visits.
Pakistan-Russia began work on building a bilateral defence relationship. In Nov2014, Russian Defence Minister Sergey Shoigu visited Islamabad and signed an Agreement on Bilateral Defence Cooperation; this was the first visit to Pakistan of a Soviet/Russian Defence Minister in 45 years (last in 1969). It also moved Pakistan from List-C to List-B countries for defence exports. In2015, the Russian Dy NSA Yevgeny Lukyanov initiated an MoU on cooperation between Russia’s National Security Council and Pakistan’s National SecurityDivision; and at the Financial Action Task Force meet (June 2015; Brisbane) Russia opposed India’s move seeking censure of Pakistan for its inaction against the LeT-JuD combine.
However, the US halted the full withdrawal of its troops and this paused the developing Pakistan-Russia relationship. The recent US-Taliban talks have resuscitated Russian apprehensions – and it’s back talking to Pakistan. But that is not the whole story – the USA is a factor as well.
The US’s confrontations with Russia and China, its sidelining of Pakistan, India’s increasing military hardware reliance on the US and Israel, its entente with the US and rejuvenation of the QUAD, have not only impinged on traditional Indo-Russia ties, but also led to a convergence of a strategic objective of China-Russia-Pakistan – push back against the US and India.
The strategic convergence is reinforced by economic imperatives. Russia’senergy export-dependent economy is now more dependent on China. It is also partnering with China’s Belt & Road Initiative in order to take advantage of markets beyond economically stagnating Europe. On its part, China is looking at exploiting some of Afghanistan’s resources (in 2010, the US National Geologic Survey found that Afghanistan has nearly US$ 1 trillion in untapped mineral deposits).
The Taliban is set to return to power in Afghanistan, either through power-sharing or independently. A joint Russia-China-Pakistan political and economic engagement with Afghanistan, with China cementing Pakistan-Russia ties and providing the economic clout, can address the strategic interests of all three. If this convergence reaches fruition, it will have implications for India. Pakistan will work to checkmate Indian influence in Afghanistan, and reduced military involvement on the Af-Pak border will allow it to reorient its army against India. Such a reorientation would suit China’s strategic objective of ensuring that India’s military focus remains divided across two fronts. Add to this the January 2021 Russia-Iran cybersecurity cooperation agreement and the recent US$400 bn China-Iran strategic cooperation agreement – which may reduce Indian influence in Iran – and the wider implications become clear.
(The author is an Indian Army Veteran. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online.)