In August last year, US President Trump unveiled his much-awaited strategy for Afghanistan and the wider South Asian region. Trump singled out Pakistan for not doing enough to curb terrorism and threatened to halt security assistance if it continued to play a “double game.” The diatribe and visibly more hostile approach by the Trump administration created ripples in Pakistan. Authorities were concerned about the possible fallout of shift in the US approach towards Islamabad. At the time it looked as if Pakistan was isolated.
One of the first things Pakistan did after Trump announced a new policy was to reach out to China. And Beijing did not take long to lend support to Pakistan. What was significant though was the prompt statement issued by Russia, acknowledging Pakistan’s pivotal role in fighting terrorism and for regional peace and stability. Coming from Russia, a country with whom Pakistan has had antagonistic relationship for almost 6 decades — thanks to the Cold War — was not an ordinary development. And it isn’t that just happened. Within hours after Trump announced a new Afghan strategy, a top Pakistani Foreign Office official was on the phone with Putin’s aide. Both sides discussed possible implications of the US new plan. The Pakistani official then requested his Russian counterpart that Moscow must come in support of Islamabad at this testing time. The move was to relay a message that Pakistan could not be bullied or made scapegoat. Russia agreed. Next day, Russian presidential envoy to Afghanistan Zamir Kabulov came up with a statement terming Pakistan “a key regional player”. “Putting pressure on Pakistan may seriously destabilise the region-wide security situation and result in negative consequences for Afghanistan,” Kabulov had said.
That statement was not the result of just a phone call but a consequence of years of painstaking and covert efforts by the two sides, seeking a new beginning. Although Pakistan began to reach out to Russia during Musharraf regime, 2011 was the turning point. It was the same year when Pakistan’s fragile alliance with the US had gone haywire. The controversy surrounding CIA contractor Raymond Davis, killing of Osama bin Laden and murder of 24 Pakistani soldiers in the US air strikes at Salala check post compelled Pakistan to look beyond Washington. The joint sitting of Parliament had recommended a raft of foreign policy measures. One of the key proposals was to further deepen strategic partnership with China and to expand cooperation with Russia. In Pakistan, it is rare to achieve consensus on key issues. But on Russia, there has been unanimity of views among all the stakeholders. That was the reason, relations between Pakistan and Russia have continued to go upwards irrespective of who has been in the government since 2011. In 2016, Russian and Pakistani troops for the first time ever conducted joint military exercises. Just days before the planned drills in Pakistan, at least 21 Indian soldiers were killed when the Indian army base was stormed by militants in Uri in the disputed Kashmir region. New Delhi pushed Russia to cancel its military exercises with Pakistan. Moscow, despite being an old strategic ally of New Delhi, turned down the demand and went ahead with war games with Pakistan. That was the perfect manifestation of an often-quoted maxim in diplomacy: “In international relations there are no permanent friends and no permanent enemies.”
The paradigm shift in Pak-Russia ties reflects the new strategic realities that necessitate adjustments and realignments. The key for Pakistan, though, is to maintain a delicate balance. Pakistan committed a blunder when it joined the Western camp after independence while completely ignoring Russia. That folly had cost Pakistan dearly. Therefore, increased cooperation with Russia and China doesn’t necessarily require Pakistan to shut the doors to the US and its Western allies.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 7th, 2018.