EVEN though it had the grandiose title of strategic dialogue, the two-day talks between Pakistan and Russia in Moscow broke no new ground. As the statement issued by the Foreign Office in Islamabad on Friday shows, the only point on which the two governments agree is not to ignore each other and seek cooperation in political, economic and defence matters. Theoretically, this opens up a new vista of cooperation. But the unsatisfactory record of their bilateral relationship since Russia shed its ‘empire’ baggage leaves little room for optimism. The statement, issued following the foreign secretary’s talks with Russian diplomats, emphasises the need for “more high-level contacts”. Actually, there have been no high-level parleys since President Asif Ali Zardari and President Vladimir Putin cancelled their visits last year, the former for domestic reasons, the latter because of lack of progress on the Iran pipeline to which Moscow had made a financial commitment.
The history of Pakistan-Russia ties is mired in hostility, stemming from this country’s membership of the US-led military alliances during the Cold War. Pakistan was then considered America’s most ‘allied ally’, and it was from an American air base in Pakistan that the U-2 spy plane piloted by Gary Powers flew over Russia and was shot down. Their relationship worsened when the USSR invaded Afghanistan, and Pakistan became a willing conduit for the CIA’s overt and covert aid to anti-Soviet guerillas fighting the America-led ‘jihad’. Unfortunately, in spite of the Soviet Union’s breakup, Islamabad and Moscow have not been able to forge a closer relationship, even though they have common concerns in the region, especially in what Russia calls its ‘near abroad’. Like Islamabad, Moscow will carefully watch the post-2014 scenario in Afghanistan, and it is in the two countries’ interest to exchange notes on militant networks in the region. Pakistan must also seek to diversify its political and economic relations. Post-communism Russia may be facing challenges but let us not underestimate its potential as a major global player in the future.