When US President Obama was attracting Islamabad’s criticism for his remarks on terror, predicting ‘decades of instability’ in its longtime ally, Russian Army Chief General Oleg Salyukov approved holding military exercises with Pakistan codenamed Indestructible Brotherhood.
The first ever Russian-Pakistani special war-games in mountainous terrain are one of the seven international exercises planned by the Kremlin for 2016. A Russian military-technical cooperation team has just concluded its visit to Pakistan.
Strengthening military-to-military relations
After overruling Indian objections against sale of four Mi-Hind gunship helicopters to Pakistan last year, Russia will now directly export Klimov RD-93 engines. Besides enhancing the capability of JF-17 Thunder jets, the engine’s direct import will earn the fighter jet greater confidence from foreign costumers.
Meanwhile, the order for the Russian gunship is likely to be jacketed up to 20 helicopters. The next test case for Moscow will be Pakistan’s desire to buy Su-35 fighter jets, which it’s delivering to China this year.
For Pakistan, Russia is an alternate source of sophisticated military weaponry. It hopes that Russian military transactions won’t come with political strings, Putin’s ambition for global leadership notwithstanding.
Though Pakistan is not Russia’s strategic partner, the relationship has improved after a decade of diplomatic efforts. In recent years, Washington has taken over Moscow to become Delhi’s top defense supplier. Partly for the same reason, Prime Minister Modi could not win Russian nod over purchase of fifth generation fighter jet, T-50 Pak-FA, during his tour in December. Amid heightened tensions with the west, Moscow wants to be sole operator of the latest stealth fighter. Alternatively, India might be buying F-35 lightning II.
Exposing hidden agendas
The Kremlin has neither forgotten Afghanistan nor the role Pakistan played in frustrating its ambitions. While it occupies east Ukraine and brutally bombs anti-Assad Syrians, armed or civilians alike, it is pursuing a more Machiavellian approach to Pakistan and Afghanistan. For now, Moscow seeks stability in both the countries. It has lauded Pakistani effort to curb extremism and to end insurgency in Afghanistan.
In pursuit of renewed quest for geopolitical dominance, Russia is bidding to win newer allies and markets. Faced with lower-than-expected oil prices and Western economic sanctions, the Russian ruble has nosedived to 78 against the US dollar. Countries like Pakistan, Iran, Egypt and Algeria have a multi-pronged approach for the Kremlin.
Besides selling high-tech defense hardware, Moscow is exploiting its advances in the energy sector too. For starters, Russia will be laying a $2-$2.5 billion gas pipeline from Karachi to Lahore. Rostekh Corporation will start building the pipeline next year.
Islamabad is also currently working to finalise a free trade agreement (FTA) with Russia. The success of China-Pakistan Economic Corridor may lead to a long envisaged transit trade agreement with Eurasian states. Pakistan has been aiming for a FTA with the Eurasian Economic Union. Russia and Pakistan have yet to sign an FTA, which was agreed earlier.
For all the right reasons, there is a lesser degree of warmth amongst members of the Pakistani business community. Recent economic sanctions against Turkey for opposing Putin’s policy towards Syria hint at Russia’s brinkmanship.
Setting the stage for continuing relations
Pakistan has so far treaded a fine line in its advances towards Russia. It has avoided commenting on the Russian annexation of Crimea. Islamabad has also exercised caution on Russian military intervention in Syria and resulting tensions with Turkey.
Russia and Pakistan neither share strategic partners, with the exception of China, nor have convergence of foreign policy interests. Due to a lack of business ties and absence of people-to-people contacts, the military-to-military dealings will remain an exception. For now, Moscow is not an easy capital to work with.
Learning from past experiences, Islamabad is least likely to choose sides between Moscow and Washington. Kremlin is in no hurry either. As Washington gradually disengages itself from Islamabad, Moscow has chosen to cautiously cozy up with Pakistan.
Naveed Ahmad is a Pakistani investigative journalist and academic with extensive reporting experience in the Middle East and North Africa. He is based in Doha and Istanbul. He tweets @naveed360