THE endgame in Afghanistan appears to be trending towards a happy ending and Pak-Afghan-US relational harmony has never been better. At the same time we have seen an anxious Russia reach out to Pakistan in ways unprecedented.
How can we interpret the recent visit of the Russian Defence Minister, Sergei Shoigu and the sudden warming up in military ties?
Last month Shoigu led a 41-member delegation to Islamabad, at a time when the Pakistani army chief was himself visiting Washington. A defence cooperation agreement was also signed. A broader view of events seems to suggest that the Russians’ visit was not about supplying 20 helicopters nor indeed about discussing the post US withdrawal situation in Afghanistan. It was about more immediate Russian concerns.
A week earlier Vladimir Putin had been at the G20 summit in Brisbane. Here he had been confronted and rebuked by Western leaders over actions in Ukraine. The strongest one had come from the Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper telling Putin: “I guess I’ll shake your hand but I have only one thing to say to you, you need to get out of Ukraine.”
For Pakistan, Russian arms would be attractive offerings.
On its part Russia feels boxed in by three factors. One is its sense of ‘Western intrusion’ into the former Soviet territories; the Baltic states are now snugly in Nato’s embrace as also are two former Warsaw Pact countries. From Moscow’s perspective its ‘strategic depth’ is rapidly shrinking, which may have prompted desperate actions in Crimea.
Secondly, the pivot of world power is also shifting from Europe (which the USSR as a land power once dominated) to Asia — with a locus in the South China Sea. And while Russia is striving for an important Asian role to maintain great power status it is limited by access to the southern Eurasian rimland that stretches from the Gulf of Aden to the Taiwan straits. Unlike the US it does not have a navy that can project power over such a vast distance.
The third factor is the collapse of oil prices which has struck a deathly blow to the Russian economy and currency. Together the three have made for a perfect storm.
China — rattled by pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong — had to face similar admonitions from Obama at the G20 summit. These were over its naval posturing against other states around the South China Sea as well as accusations of manipulating its currency which, the US believes, slows down its own economic recovery.
Immediately after the G20 summit Shoigu arrived in Beijing. Russia and China are keen to keep the US out of Asia and the Pacific and have evolved common interests directed against the US and its Nato allies. China for instance is dependent on Russia’s aerospace technology which has developed high-speed and long-range aircraft needed to patrol Russia’s vast airspace that spans 11 time zones. China, which lacks aircraft carriers, could make use of latest generation aircraft because they can operate from land bases, to protect its territorial claims in the South China Sea.
Yet, even as it has sold weapons to China, Russia has hedged against China militarily by arming India and Vietnam with even more sophisticated weapons, intended for use against China. Now, a major shift may be in the making, with China urging Russia to resolve this paradox. At any rate, India has recently been turning to the US for its arms requirements. Strategically, it would make sense for China to form a common front with Russia to counter Western naval presence in the Indian Ocean and the Western Pacific. Russia’s news agency Tass quoted Shoigu in Beijing as saying that “strengthening and expanding ties with China remains Russia’s overriding priority”.
Two days after leaving Beijing, Shoigu and his delegation arrived in Islamabad. The visit was only announced a day before his arrival. It is likely that the Chinese may have helped facilitate the visit. Ideally Russia would like its warships to be able to draw logistic support from Pakistani ports. Russian warships have visited Karachi this year, something not seen in recent decades.
So where are we to go with all this? Russia is looking to sell arms. For Pakistan, new-generation Russian aircraft and submarines would be attractive offerings, if money can be found. Warships of friendly navies drawing logistic support at our ports during peacetime may also not be problematic.
Nevertheless, a major foreign policy shift — from our traditional orientation towards the West and Saudi Arabia — is neither possible nor desirable any time soon. While Russia can have ambitions of great power status, the Cold War is long over and in the globalised world of today it is economic interests rather than military rivalries that ought to shape our foreign policy.
The writer is a strategist and entrepreneur.
Published in Dawn, December 15th, 2014