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Pakistan and Russia seek enhanced cooperation March 24, 2012

Posted by southasiamasala in : Afghanistan, DeSilva-Ranasinghe, Serge, Future Directions International, India, Pakistan , trackback

Serge Desilva Ranasinghe

This post first appeared on Future Directions International on 21 March 2012.

Background

As part of its changing foreign policy focus, Pakistan’s rapprochement with Russia is one of its most significant attempts to shape the post-2014 geo-political order in Afghanistan. Islamabad is looking to alternative strategic partners to counterbalance India’s rising influence in Afghanistan, Central Asia and the Middle East and its own strained ties with the US. In this context, the recent visit to Moscow of Pakistani Foreign Minister Ms Hina Rabbani Khar on 7-9 February is symbolic of the rapidly transforming relationship between Islamabad and Moscow.

Comment

Such bilateral interaction is a significant departure from the acrimonious 1980s and 1990s, when Pakistan heavily supported the Afghan Mujahadeen against invading Russian forces in Afghanistan and accused Russia of covertly supporting Baluchi separatists. Similarly, Russia had also accused Pakistan of providing support to Islamist insurgents active in Chechnya and Tajikistan.

In Moscow, the Pakistani Foreign Minister relayed her country’s growing interest in developing stronger ties with Russia through trade and investment, especially in the areas of joint co-operation in Pakistan’s energy sector. The visit is indicative of the vastly improved bilateral relations between the two countries over the last decade. For example, according to the website of the Consulate-General of Russia in Karachi, two-way trade between Russia and Pakistan increased from a minute US$92 million in 2003, to US$441 million in 2006 and US$630 million in 2008.

There have also been ongoing meetings facilitated by inter-parliamentary Joint Working Groups on Counterterrorism and Other New Challenges, International Stability and Strategic Stability. Similarly, Russia has formed a Pakistan friendship group within the Duma, something that Pakistan also intends to establish. Russia has also supported Pakistan’s bid to attain full membership in the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation. According to Reuters, there have even been discussions aimed at launching joint military exercises, defence exchanges and procurement of military equipment, but the scale and scope of this interaction is anticipated to be insubstantial.

Indeed, since former Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf visited Moscow in February 2003, a landmark event in itself, bilateral ties have been on an upward trajectory. There have been frequent visits by senior Russian and Pakistani foreign ministry officials and parliamentarians. In 2007, Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov visited Pakistan in what was deemed an historic visit. Later, in May 2011, Pakistani President, Asif Ali Zardari, reciprocated by visiting Russia. In fact, it is notable that, over the last three years, President Zardari met with former Russian President Dmitri Medvedev on six occasions. In early March this year, Pakistani Prime Minister, Yusuf Raza Gilani, met with President Vladimir Putin in St Petersburg and extended an invitation for Putin to visit Pakistan, which was accepted. President Putin has indicated the visit will take place in September this year, which will make him the first Russian head of state to visit Pakistan.

Russia’s changing stance can be partly attributed to the impending changes in US foreign policy, especially with regard to the latter’s imminent withdrawal from Afghanistan and its realignment towards the Asia-Pacific. By capitalising on Pakistan’s frayed relations with the US, Russia is seeking partnerships to buttress the security of its vast southern borders and to reassert its influence in the Central Asian region.

Being a predominantly Muslim region at the cross-roads between the Middle East, Central Asia and South Asia, Russia may also be seeking to leverage Pakistan’s influence in the Muslim world – something China has thus far done successfully. As stated by the Consulate-General of Russia in Karachi: ‘Russia attaches great importance to its relations with Pakistan, particularly taking into account the latter’s influence in South and South-Western Asia, which directly border southern frontiers of the CIS, and in the war against international terrorism.’

Yet, while Pakistan and Russia look to enhance ties, it is likely that the potential for deep strategic ties is limited, especially given the fact that Russia places higher priority in balancing its significant relations with India, as part of its strategy to counterbalance US power in the region. In the meantime, until President Putin’s visit in September, bilateral relations are likely to expand significantly.


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