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WASHINGTON: Russia is exerting its authority and presence in the greater Middle East region and the United States believes that Moscow is playing a great power game, says a senior US general.

Pakistan and Russia signed an agreement earlier this week, which enables Pakistani military officers to receive training in Russian military institutes.

The deal underscores Pakistan’s efforts to seek new allies as its relations with the United States strain. The United States has not only suspended its security assistance to the country but has also suspended training facilities for Pakistani military officers.

“Russia is trying to exert their authority and their presence, their influence across the region,” said Gen Joseph L. Votel, Commander of US Central Command (CENTCOM), when asked to comment on growing military ties between Pakistan and Russia.

“I think they’d look for areas where they can do that. And so, we see them in different places across the region,” Gen Votel told journalists at a Pentagon news briefing earlier this week.

Describing these as “destabilising activities,” Gen Votel said that such developments concerned him directly because as the CENTCOM chief, he was responsible for the greater Middle East region, which includes both Pakistan and Afghanistan.

“So, it’s an aspect of CENTCOM. And frankly, as many of you know and you’ve all looked at the National Defence Strategy, it’s an aspect of great power competition that plays out right here in the CENTCOM area of responsibility,” he said.

The US media noted that the agreement to train Pakistani military officers in Russia was reached during Russian Deputy Defence Minister Aleksandr Fomin’s two-day visit to Pakistan this week, and was also discussed during a meeting of Russia’s and Pakistan’s top military brass in Moscow on August 9.

Reports in the US media also pointed out that Pakistan followed a Western military doctrine, received its equipment from the West and depended on resupplies from it to keep its major weapons, such as F-16 aircraft, running. So, it will not be easy for Pakistan to completely break up from the West and follow the Russian model.

But the Montreal-based Centre for Research on Globalisation argued in a recent report that Russia and Pakistan were “on the right track” and were “moving closer to clinching a long-awaited strategic partnership”.

In a recent statement emailed to Reuters news agency, the Russian Foreign Ministry said Moscow and Islamabad had been developing cooperation for years, but that the relationship was entering a new qualitative phase.

“One of the key areas of cooperation is the fight against terrorism. Russia will continue its practical assistance in bolstering Pakistan’s counter-terrorism capabilities, including by supplying military equipment,” the ministry said.

Published in Dawn, August 13th, 2018