Pakistan’s Moscow option

17 Aug 2014


The writer is a former Pakistan ambassador to the UN.
The writer is a former Pakistan ambassador to the UN.

SINCE independence, Pakistan’s relations with Moscow have been mostly adversarial. Pakistan was America’s “most allied ally”. India aligned with the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Moscow’s veto in the UN Security Council to block Kashmiri self-determination, the U2 flight from Peshawar, Soviet support in 1971 for India’s war to dismember Pakistan and Islamabad’s collaboration with the US in the anti-Soviet war in Afghanistan punctuated the hostile relationship.

Although the hostility slowly dissipated after the collapse of the Soviet Union, friendship eluded Moscow and Islamabad, for several reasons: Russia’s continuing defence relationship with India, Pakistan’s support for the Afghan Taliban — and by extension their Chechen and Uzbek associates —Moscow’s alignment with the Northern Alliance and Pakistan’s post 9/11 alliance with the US.

However, the new ‘Cold War’ in Europe, ignited by the Ukraine crisis, has profound strategic implications not only for Europe but also for other ‘theatres’ where Russia’s interests and objectives intersect with those of the US and Europe. Sino-Russian relations have become dramatically closer. Moscow is reasserting its role in the Middle East. It is also likely to do so in East and South Asia.

Pakistan-Russia relations have been evolving in positive directions during recent months. Pakistan is acting against Central Asian terrorists. As India has moved closer to the US, Russia has warmed to Pakistan. The closer Sino-Russian relationship has reinforced this trend. There are clear recent signs that Moscow is now open to substantive security collaboration with Pakistan. Russia’s aims are: to secure Pakistan’s cooperation to stabilise Afghanistan, combat Chechen and Central Asian terrorist groups present in the region, compensate for India’s tilt towards America and thereby retain leverage in New Delhi.

There are many areas where mutually beneficial cooperation can be promoted between Islamabad and Moscow.

There are a number of areas where mutually beneficial cooperation can be promoted between Islamabad and Moscow.

Afghanistan: Over the past year, quiet talks between Pakistan, China and Russia have been under way to consider ways to stabilise Afghanistan. Russia’s old relationship with the Northern Alliance and influence with Iran; Pakistan’s influence with the Pakhtuns and the Afghan Taliban; and China’s financial and economic capacity can be a powerful combination to promote reconciliation and peace in Afghanistan as the US disengages from that country.

Indo-Pakistan: As India’s major defence partner and a member of BRICS, Moscow continues to enjoy considerable, if reduced, influence in India despite New Delhi’s tilt towards the US. Russia desires Indo-Pakistan normalisation to prevent a disastrous conflict, limit American influence and develop new avenues for energy, trade and industrial cooperation with the South Asian region. Given the new global political alignments, Moscow’s mediation between India and Pakistan could be more even-handed and effective than the skewed policies presently pursued by Washington.

Defence: Russia’s defence industry is still among the best in the world. Moscow may now be willing to lift its self-imposed embargo on defence supplies to Pakistan. The dimensions of such cooperation will depend considerably on Pakistan’s ability to pay for defence equipment and, to a lesser extent, on the vigour of New Delhi’s anticipated objections.

Oil and gas: Russia is the world’s largest producer of oil and gas. The expertise of Russia’s Rosneft and Gazprom can contribute significantly to developing Pakistan’s oil and gas potential, onshore and offshore. Western sanctions have enhanced the incentive of these giant Russian companies to find new frontiers of cooperation.

Gas supplies: In the wake of the Western embargoes, Russia is looking for alternate markets for its abundant gas production. Its $400 billion gas deal with China has been the most prominent response. Moscow is also interested in building gas supply routes to India and Pakistan. Russian gas could be added to supplies from the proposed TAPI pipeline. New pipelines can be built to Pakistan and India through China. Russia’s Gazprom could also help in executing the projected Iranian gas pipeline to Pakistan (and India).

Nuclear reactors: So far, Russia has refused to supply nuclear power reactors to Pakistan due to the restrictions imposed by the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group on non-members of the NPT — with the significant exception of India. It is possible that in the new strategic circumstances, and in exchange for appropriate safeguards, Russia, like China, may consider the sale of nuclear power plants to Pakistan, especially if India acquires its new plants from the US.

Trade: If Afghanistan can be stabilised, it would open the way for expanded trade between Pakistan, Central Asia and Russia. While Pakistan requires Russian oil, gas and industrial products, Pakistan can be a competitive source of agricultural and textile goods to Russia. Pakistan could also offer Russia trade access to India in exchange for its help in normalising Pakistan-India ties.

Industrialisation: Russia retains some of the industrial prowess of the Soviet Union. It can modernise the Soviet-supplied Pakistan Steel Mills. Similar cooperation can be pursued in a number of ‘high-tech’ sectors, such as biotechnology, aviation and space, where Russia possesses competitive capabilities.

In some areas — such as Afghanistan, Indo-Pakistan normalisation and counterterrorism — the objectives of the US and its allies are convergent with Russia’s. In other areas — energy, defence, nuclear generation — opposition can be expected from the West to Pakistan-Russian cooperation. India may also object, although its opposition may not be decisive.

While Pakistan no longer requires, nor is likely to receive, US arms supplies or nuclear power plants, its ability to resist Western objections to cooperation with Moscow could be constrained by its financial and trade dependence on the West. Pakistan’s financial stress may also restrict its ability to pay for Russian supplies of defence and other equipment.

Pakistan needs to identify realistic goals for its new relationship with Russia, evolve sustainable ways to minimise its financial vulnerability (including greater financial integration with China) and deploy adroit diplomacy to capitalise on the emerging global and regional strategic realities. Of course, while its politicians squabble on the streets, adding to the country’s turbulence, it is difficult for Pakistan to devise well-considered policies to exploit the Moscow option or other strategic opportunities.

The writer is a former Pakistan ambassador to the UN.

Published in Dawn, August 17th, 2014