THE timing may be incidental — or perhaps fortuitous for Pakistan — but the arrival of a 70-man Russian squad, led by the chief of the general staff of the Russian armed forces, for joint drills with elements of Pakistan’s counterterrorism units has more to it than mere symbolism. That Moscow ignored Indian pique at the very thought of the Russian — read former Soviet — military hobnobbing with its Pakistani counterpart shows Moscow’s wish to reciprocate Islamabad’s quest for a better relationship with a country with which it has had a long, egregious association. For Moscow, there are bitter memories — Pakistan was a member of the US-led military alliances; the U-2 incident occurred at the height of the Cold War when the spy plane shot down over the USSR had taken off from a US base in this country; and, finally, Pakistan played the most crucial part in the Soviet retreat from Afghanistan by serving as the conduit for America’s overt and covert aid to its pampered anti-Soviet mujahideen.
The end of the Cold War has provided Islamabad with an opportunity to forge a new level of ties with Moscow, though the process has been painfully slow. Let’s not forget that, even though President Vladimir Putin postponed his visit to Pakistan in October 2012, he had the vision to reaffirm his desire to improve relations with Pakistan and told the then president Asif Ali Zardari in a letter that the two countries should “jointly enhance our efforts” to have “mutually beneficial trade and economic projects”. Moscow now seems to have overcome the trauma of Soviet dismemberment and feels strong enough to assert its Great Power status. It is watching the situation in Southwest and South Asia carefully and, for exactly these reasons, needs Islamabad’s attention. While Pakistan must indeed diversify its defence purchase sources, it must not ignore the limitless opportunities which a closer economic and technological partnership with Moscow offers. Russia is one of the world’s most scientifically developed nations and has a vast reservoir of skilled manpower. It has immense natural resources, oil and gas being only two of them. The monument to our economic cooperation with Russia is the — unfortunately, now rotting — Pakistan Steel. Reviving it with Russian help is one of the many benefits this country could reap from a renewed and robust friendship.
The Foreign Office may not feel happy about this reminder, but the bitter truth is that Pakistan is haunted by diplomatic isolation. The world’s silence on the slaughter going on in India-held Kashmir is a pointer to this reality. With the focus of global economic and geopolitical power moving east, Russia — a large Eurasian landmass with nine time zones — must form an integral part of Pakistan’s development strategy without this country’s ties with its traditional sources of economic and military cooperation being compromised.
Published in Dawn September 25th, 2016