When President Putin postponed his visit to Pakistan in 2012, the most jubilant countries were India and the US but it was subsequently revealed that this postponement did not mean anything to lift the spirits of Cold War adversaries now turned into allies. The on-going visit to Russia by Gen Raheel Sharif, Pakistan’s most powerful stakeholder is a sufficient indication of realpolitik. Cold War adversaries are switching partners and the events are unfolding so swiftly that it has become difficult to keep track of who will be whose friend after Americans pack up from Kabul and leave. One thing is for sure; foes of yesterday will be compelled by the realities of realist politics of today to switch sides and embrace each other.
Russia of today is the successor of Soviet empire of yester-years, though reduced to much smaller in size. Russia, and then the USSR, which played for centuries the Great Game for gaining influence and foothold in Central Asia and get a direct access to Kabul finally lost the Game to the West in the battlefields of Afghanistan. Along with this defeat, it also lost its imperial glory by ceding a sizable portion of its territory to independent Central Asian States. It, however, seems that it never gave up its ambitions on Afghanistan; it has been watching with amused interest the plight of NATO forces in Afghanistan. It had read the writing on the wall and was confident that NATO would not meet a fate different from what it itself encountered after a decade-long war of 1980s.
Russia under Putin has revived its hope in Afghanistan and is moving to deepen its geo-economic ties with South Asia as a whole, with Pakistan serving as a gateway for energy trade to the entire subcontinent in advance of the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan in 2014. Badly bruised by harsh treatment meted out by the Americans, Pakistan feels compelled to look towards not only its old friend China but also its longtime adversary, Russia. If India after having been in the cold during Cold War can warm up to the US, why can’t Pakistan hope to be friends with Russia? This is what the realist politics is all about.
For Pakistan, Russia can not only help the civilian government in Islamabad to shore up its economic record, it can also offer an alternative source of military hardware to the country’s armed forces. Diversifying its sources of military supplies has taken on new-found importance for Islamabad given Washington’s increasing reluctance to supply the full spectrum of arms and China’s continued inability to meet all of Pakistan’s requirements. To understand the potentials of Pak-Russia friendship, we will have to make an assessment of the present state of US-Russia relations. This subject has dominated the foreign policy debates of both the major contenders of power in next presidential elections of the US which are just round the corner. The Obama administration is being harshly criticized by the opponents for its increased focus on its Pacific Century and allocation of future military and political resources to contain China. In their view, Russia under president Putin is a much greater threat to American ambitions than China.
According to Foreign Policy, Russia is the major counterweight to American power and influence. A huge country that straddles what the great geographer Halford Mackinder called the Eurasian “heartland” is sure to operate with substantial effect in the world. A country with thousands of nuclear weapons, still-substantial armed services, and a cornucopia of natural resources will have its innings in high politics. Republican presidential candidate, Romney’s assertions about Russia should be seen less as stale strategic thinking and more as a critique of Barack Obama’s looming “Pacific shift,” which implies that China has moved into position as our top geopolitical foe. Yet Beijing, in the throes of modernization and heavily weighed down by a massive population, increasingly urgent energy needs, and a troubled political transition can hardly be seen as new No. 1 geopolitical foe of the US.
According to this analysis, China’s military is still decades away from having any kind of ability to project force over meaningful distances. The 100-mile width of the Taiwan Strait could just as easily be a thousand miles, given China’s lack of force-projection capability. Even the quite large People’s Liberation Army is full of question marks, with few substantive changes evident since it got such a bloody nose during the 1979 war with Vietnam. To be sure, the Chinese navy is very innovative, with its emerging swarms of small, short-ranging missile boats. And Chinese hackers are among the best in the world. But these capabilities hardly form the leading edge of a global military power. This, by implication, suggests that with Russia’s greater capabilities, and intentions so clearly and so often inimical to American interests, the smart geopolitical move now would be for Washington to embrace Beijing more closely, giving Moscow a lot more to think about on its eastern flank. This was a strategic shift that worked well for President Richard Nixon 40 years ago, when he first played “the China card”; it might do nicely again today. The present US-China relations do not suggest any potential conflict given the fact that U.S. trade with China amounts to more than half a trillion dollars annually — more than ten times the level of Russo-American economic interaction. And Beijing also serves as a major creditor. It simply makes little sense to provoke China, as Obama’s announced Pacific shift already has. If Romney is right about the return of post-Soviet Russia as the world’s bête noire, then any American Pacific shift should be more about alliance with, rather than alienation of, Beijing.
The Russian stance on the issues of US intervention in Syria for regime-change clearly suggest the divergence of interests of both the countries. With re-installation of president Putin in Moscow, hopes that Russia will support any American initiative are fading away. According to a report by Brookings, the US has a list of demands which Russia may not accept. These include further reductions of nuclear arms, including non-strategic nuclear weapons; a cooperative NATO-Russia missile defense arrangement; joint efforts to deal with the proliferation challenges posed by North Korea and Iran; and consultation on steps to bolster security and stability in Central Asia as the NATO coalition prepares to withdraw its military forces from Afghanistan. The United States is trying to explore ways to increase trade and investment relations with Russia, which could help build a foundation for a more sustainable relationship.
President Putin’s re-election is considered a major challenge to smooth-sailing from the American point of view. Mr. Putin spent his formative years in the 1980s as a KGB officer. As his rhetoric during the election campaign made clear, he holds a wary skepticism about U.S. goals and policies. For example, his comments suggest he does not see the upheavals that swept countries such as Georgia, Ukraine, Tunisia or Egypt as manifestations of popular discontent but instead believes they were inspired, funded and directed by Washington. This may seem like a paranoiac view, but Mr. Putin has made so many allusions to it that it is hard to conclude that he does not believe it. That is a complicating factor for the bilateral relationship. According to Brookings, Mr. Putin’s experience as president dealing with the Bush administration was not a happy one. In 2001-02, he supported U.S. military action against the Taliban, including overruling his advisers to support the deployment of U.S. military units into Central Asia; shut down the Russian signals intelligence facility in Lourdes, Cuba; agreed to deepen relations with NATO; calmly accepted the administration’s decision to withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty; and agreed to a minimalist arms control agreement that fell far short of Moscow’s desires. In his view, he received little in return. His perception is that Washington made no effort to accommodate Moscow’s concerns on issues such as the future of strategic arms limits, missile defense deployments in Europe, NATO enlargement, relations with Russia’s neighbors in the post-Soviet space or graduating Russia from the Jackson-Vanik amendment.
As against yesterday, Mr. Putin faces a tougher opposition at home. Soviet and Russian leaders in the past resorted to the image of a foreign adversary—all too often the United States—to rally domestic support, and one can see aspects of that in Mr. Putin’s campaign rhetoric. But the constituency to whom that appeals is already largely on Mr. Putin’s side. He may conclude that he can focus better on his domestic challenges if his foreign policy results in more positive relations with countries such as the United States.
The upshot is that Mr. Putin’s return can and probably will mean more bumpiness in the U.S.-Russia relationship. He will pursue his view of Russian interests. On certain issues, those will conflict with U.S. interests, and Washington and Moscow will disagree, perhaps heatedly. In this state of US-Russia relationship, Pakistan sees its opportunity in warming up to Russia after 2014. Despite postponement of much-awaited visit of president Putin to Pakistan, the two significant visits of Pakistan’s army and air chiefs to Russia give some indications of the future Pakistan-Russia relations. According to an assessment of warming up Pakistan-Russia relations carried out by Reuters, bilateral visits alone don’t transform ties, and especially ones with a troubled history behind them. And then there is India to be factored in, both for Russia and Pakistan. Moscow has long stood in India’s corner from the days of the Cold War to its role as a top weapons supplier to the Indian military, still ahead of the Israelis fast clawing their way into one of the world’s most lucrative arms markets.
A nuclear-powered submarine has just sailed from Russia to be inducted into the Indian navy – a force-multiplier in the military with the sub’s ability to stay beneath waters long and deep and far from home. But the stepped up Russia-Pakistan diplomacy suggests a thawing of ties at the very least. And at another level, by raising the quality and quantity of these exchanges, is Russia signaling it will pursue a multi-vectored policy in a fast changing South Asia? Tanvir Ahmad Khan, a former Pakistani foreign secretary who was also once the country’s ambassador to Moscow, says the two countries are on the verge of ending a “long history of estrangement” and that two factors have led to this landmark development. One is that there is now a national consensus in Pakistan to engage Russia earnestly, and two, “Vladimir Putin’s Russia has read the regional and global scene afresh and recognized Pakistan’s role as a factor of peace and stability.”
Pakistan’s compulsion to diversify its foreign partners lies in its present ties with the United States which have soured so much that Pakistan can no longer be considered as an ally, ready to do its bidding as in the proxy war against the Red Army in Afghanistan. And India’s ties with the United States, on the other hand, have been transformed, with Washington virtually legitimizing it as the world’s sixth nuclear weapon state, something that even Russia never went as far to support during all the years as close allies. And if India and the United States are holding ever so advanced joint military exercises (there is one going on now in the Rajasthan desert which has a border with Pakistan) and considering multi-billion dollar defense deals as part of a new booming strategic relationship, Russia and Pakistan are also looking at launching military exchanges.
A couple of years ago, the commander of the Russian ground forces, Col-Gen Alexander Postinov, was in Pakistan and according to Pakistani newspapers discussed with former Army Chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani the possibility of expanding defense ties by holding joint military exercises, exchanging trainees and trainers and selling and buying weapons, although it seems these were to be confined to counter-terrorism equipment. It may be interesting to know that the 50 JF-17 Thunder fighter planes that China is supplying to Pakistan use a Russian engine, and it’s likely that Russia gave the green signal for China to go ahead. New Delhi was probably not impressed, but it has kept its silence. Russia is also reported to have indicated its willingness to get involved in the 1,640 km TAPI project bringing piped gas from Turkmenistan through Afghanistan and into energy-starved Pakistan and India, a project that has been hanging fire for years. Russian investors were also interested in the Thar coal project which involves developing a large energy complex in Sindh province to produce 6,000 MW of coal-based power and introduce to the country the concept of gasification and production of liquid fuel from coal.