Russia’s Search for New Ground in Pakistan

26 Dec, 2016    ·   5210

Adarsh Vijay analyses Russia's possible motivations for its increasing engagement with Pakistan

Russia is all set to rebuild its relations with Pakistan, a move that could be a game-changer for both Pakistan and South Asia. Given the dynamic strategic parameters in South Asia and a policy transition that might overcome the long drawn US-Russia Cold War rivalry that had also disconnected Russia from Pakistan, Moscow is now busy resetting the balance of power in South Asia. What induces this new attitude? Does the move lead to derail the Russian proximity with India? Is Moscow making a wrong choice?
Pakistan: Russia’s Emerging Imperative
The Russian experiment with Pakistan is purely a product of Moscow’s emerging strategic calculus. Moscow's move could also be read as a sign of proscribing the growing rapprochement between Washington and New Delhi. Through this move, Kremlin seems to be signaling to India to reconsider its increasing camaraderie with the US and to re-tilt relations in Russia's favour.
Moscow's refusal to call off its first-ever bilateral military exercise with Pakistan on India’s request, following the terrorist attack on the military base in Uri in September 2016, revealed the change in Moscow’s psyche. In another instance of this change, at the Heart of Asia conference held in Amritsar, India, on 3 and 4 December 2016, the Russian Envoy disapproved of branding Pakistan as a “terrorism-sponsoring state.” Similarly at the October 2016 BRICS Summit in Goa, India, Russian President Vladimir Putin made no mention of Pakistan’s sponsorship of terrorism which India had specifically emphasised upon at the meeting.

However, Moscow’s policy is also indicative of the vitality it associates to Islamabad’s cooperation in the efforts to stabilise Afghanistan. Kabul’s stability is an add-on to peace in Central Asia. Russia’s hunt for sprawling markets in the region to sell Russian-manufactured goods is threatened by the political instability and the dangerous security situation in Afghanistan. While Pakistan will play an indispensable role in the Afghan peace process, Russia can also take Pakistan’s help to leverage its commercial linkages in the region in the long run.

Is Moscow at Cross-purposes with New Delhi?
Russia is wise enough not to keep India in abeyance. Yet, the rapprochement between Moscow and Islamabad will create apprehensions for New Delhi. However, Russia remains India’s largest arms supplier and so long as this relationship thrives, Russo-Indian ties might still remain strong. The recently concluded Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) between Washington and New Delhi has been a wake-up call for Moscow. The agreement gives the US access to some of India’s military facilities, including air and sea port establishments, for refueling and replenishment to meet logistical needs. It similarly gives the Indian military access to some US military facilities for the same purpose. To Kremlin, the LEMOA with India reflects the US’ intentions for containing both Russia and China in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR).
In a hypothetical scenario in which India moves into the American sphere of influence and distances itself from Russia, it would be critical for Moscow to ensure a strong foothold in the IOR. The new template has invoked a sense of caution for New Delhi. Moscow is clear about the fact that the Russian proximity with Pakistan would serve an alarm for India. This new strategic layout might synergise the traditional amity between India and Russia, which obviously realigns US-India relations.
Pakistan: The Emerging Balancer?
Pakistan’s leverage in South Asia grows through its "all-weather friendship" with China and ties with the US, and now with the Russian rapprochement. The China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) has offered Pakistan a strong economic and political fall-back in the event of deteriorating relations with the US.
Russia is likely to empower Pakistan with a higher degree of strategic autonomy in its relations than the US does. Apart from the recent joint military exercises, Islamabad had also been working on finalising the procurement of Su-35 aircrafts from Moscow. Interestingly, a Russian Federal Service for Military-Technical Cooperation statement denied any negotiations in this direction. In spite of this setback, Islamabad managed to clinch the deal for the delivery of four Mi-35 attack helicopters from Moscow. Although Russia has dismissed claims of secret negotiations with Pakistan for joining the CPEC, Russia would still be interested in accessing the warm waters of the Indian Ocean, given that Russia is mostly surrounded by cold waters. Kremlin’s interest in linking the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) project with the Chinese Silk Road was misinterpreted as Russia’s claim to be part of the CPEC. It is to be seen whether the ‘rumours’ about the Russian interest and stakes in the economic corridor would indeed materialise.
The complex setting in which South Asia operates makes this evolving Russia-Pakistan relationship an unpredictable one. The US President-elect, Donald Trump, has already hinted at a pro-Russian attitude and the new US administration might even soften Moscow’s perception of the US-India relations. Nonetheless, it is perhaps premature to analyse the exact nature of the emerging Russian endeavours in Pakistan and their repercussions. Even then, it would only be a relief for New Delhi if Islamabad does not indeed substitute it as Moscow's South Asian friend.